Ukhamba & Amasumpa

Last week we wrote about utshwala and the order in which it is drunk. Today we’ll look at the significance of the decoration of ukhamba, the pots used for drinking traditional beer.

A traditional ukhamba by Zanele Nala
A traditional ukhamba by Zanele Nala

In recent years these beer pots have become sought after decor items. But while they may be very attractive, the decoration isn’t purely for aesthetic reasons. On a practical level the embellishment, which is often around the waist of the pot, means that it’s easier for the user to grip the bowl as he or she drinks. It is also believed that the placement of the decoration around the middle of the pot is significant, representing the female form and female fertility. The cutting into the pot to create the design has also been linked to ritual scarification, a practice carried out by some Zulu speakers when they reach adolescence.

Together with the decoration (amasumpa) of these pots, ukhamba are also almost always black in colour. This blackened exterior is a very difficult thing to achieve, and requires a second firing of the pot, as well as many hours of burnishing the pot with a small pebble to give it its sheen. It is believed that the black exterior of the pots acts as an invitation to the ancestors to drink beer with their relatives.

Interestingly the use of blackened ceramic pots for drinking beer only really started in the early nineteenth century, a time when people in what is now KZN experienced a series of natural disasters, along with the growing power of colonial authorities, resulting in the dispossession of large numbers of people. In his 2005 paper, The origins of the twentieth century Zulu beer vessel stylesFrank Jolles proposes that ceramic peer pots were created as a representation of security, a sort of psychological totem, with beer in ceramics more permanent than the beer baskets that were previously used.

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