Borana Milk Jug

Borana milk jug/container from Ethiopia. Stunningly decorated with cowrie shells.
Tribe: Borana/Oromo/Gabra/Somali

Origin: Ethiopia

Approx Age: Mid 20th Century

Materials: Gourd/Cowrie shells/Raffia

Dimensions cm: 29 (Tall) x 16 (Wide)

Ref. Number: 0723


Borana milk jug used not only by Borana people but also Oromo, Somali and Gabra. This waterproof container is made from vegetal fibres and decorated with cowrie shells. Stunningly intricate basketry is present at the top of the milk jug/container but sadly the lid is missing. Inside this jug, there is an old black encrusted patina which may be from a combination of materials used in order to make this milk jug waterproof. The carrying strap is still intact but shows many creases from usage.


Ethiopian pastoral peoples have a variety of containers made in various materials (gourd, wood, animal horn, plant fibres, and leather) and using different kind of designs and decoration. Most of them are made from a combination of media and richly decorated. This type of containers is a hand woven watertight basket in the form of a jug. Leather straps help to carry the Jug. As the pastoral people have to move constantly from place to place, most of the jugs have leather handles which allow the owner to carry his or her jug everywhere he or she goes. These straps are decorated with cowrie shells, which are said to symbolize fertility, femininity, wealth, and protection. These jugs were woven by women using fibre from the roots of various vegetable species available in the area. It takes months to finish a jug, especially for the large container. The women use a coil technique from the base. Strands of fibres are bunched together and wrapped at regular intervals with either one or two other fibres. In addition to the Borana and Gabra, similar vessels are found among Somali, Rendille, and several Oromo groups. These milk jugs were a part of everyday life, used to carry and preserve milk from their cows. Milk is an essential part of pastoral people’s diet. Milk was also used in rituals of fertility where it is compared to the semen according to scholars. Thus, similar Jugs, especially the ones call Chicho, or wedding jugs, have an important role to play in marriage rites as symbol of a womb. The family of the groom will present a jug to the new couple. This jug means the marriage itself. Destroying or loosing this jug could cause misfortune for the couple. Milk jugs are present in every household and used daily.  The most decorated ones were reserved for the head of the household or for visitors. For more information: Read Raymond A. Silverman comments on the Baltimore Museum of Art Borana milk container, in Frederick John Lamp (ed.) 2004, SEE THE MUSIC. HEAR THE DANCE. RETHINKING AFRICAN ART AT THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART  pp. 250-253

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