Mon | Jun 1, 2020

'Bowl go, packy come!'

Published:Friday | December 21, 2018 | 12:00 AM

"Bowl go, packy come!" is an old Jamaican proverb which when translated means that one good turn deserves another. This saying came about as it was a very common occurrence in traditional Jamaican life to see covered dishes filled with some delicious meal being carried by a child and bound for a neighbour's home.

It was also customary, although certainly not mandatory, for the bearer to return with something for the sender, perhaps in a packy (National Library of Jamaica).

Although the Jamaican Tainos called the fruit of the calabash tree 'gyira', today, both the tree and the fruit are referred to calabash, packy, or gourdy, with many variations of spelling of each word being accepted. The word 'packy' comes from the Twi Language of the Akan (Ghana), with the original term being 'apakyi', (pronounced apachi). Rashford explains that the word 'apakyi' which became packy, is the specific name of a broad calabash, and it is also used to identify the tree and the fruit.


Unusual flowers


According to zoologist Elizabeth Morrison, "the calabash tree (Crescentic cujete) belongs to the Bignoniaceae family. It is found throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America. C.D. Adams in his book Flowering Plants of Jamaica states that the trees grow to between 6-10 metres high. The tree also has leaves that are elliptically shaped and range between 20 centimetres long and 16 inches wide.

Adams adds that these trees were typically found along roadsides, old pastures, thickets, and woodland margins. Morrison adds that the calabash tree has unusual flowers that grow on the main trunk of the tree and its limbs. These flowers open at night and are pollinated by small fruit bats. After pollination, the hard-skinned spherical calabash fruits, or gourds, begin to develop at the site of the flowers.

These fruits may remain on the tree for up to several months before turning yellow-green. They can grow up to a quarter of a metre when mature. When Africans were brought to the Caribbean, they readily adopted the tree calabash (Crescentic cujete) because it had similar properties and could be used in comparable ways as the gourd or Vine Calabash (Lagenaria siceraria) found throughout Africa.

Cheryl Ryman explains that in Jamaica, the calabash is found in three common sizes and that the sizes that they come in determines the names that are given to them. Ryman explains that the term 'packy' refers to the smallest size of fruit and are used to make cups, bowls and shakers.

The goady (gourdy) is defined as a large, round calabash that was used to collect and store large quantities of water, of up to thirty to forty quarts, and the 'took- took' refers to the in-between size and is often used as a dish for eating or preparing soft foods. It would also appear that the name took-took is also applied to any calabash that was used for the purpose of storing and carrying water like the calabash pictured. Both Cassidy (1971) and Senior (2003) explain that the took-took may have got its name from the sound it makes when water is poured from it.

Senior goes on to explain that took-tooks were used by country folk to carry water to their fields. It was usually slung over the shoulder by a cord. When used for this purpose, a small hole was bored and a stopper was usually made from dry corn cob.

The packy has had a long and fulfilling life in traditional Jamaican culture so much so that it has become the subject of many proverbs. The calabash has been used to make a variety of everyday objects. These include personal effects such as handbags, earrings, and pendants for necklaces and musical instruments such as shakers and banjos. The calabash is also a very important component of the Benta, which is a musical instrument believed to have origins in the Congo.


Glissed instrument


It is made of bamboo with a calabash resonator. It is the principal instrument at a Dinki Mini death observance in the parish of St Mary. According to musician Marjorie Whylie, the benta is a glissed instrument (an instrument that can be played from one pitch to another) and is related to other instruments in the region such as the berimbao of Brazil. The benta's noter, referred to as a slider, is prepared from a round dry gourd (calabash) whose contents have been emptied through a small hole bored in one end. This hole also serves as a finger-hold, the player inserting one or more digits inside it to facilitate greater control during performance.

Other than personal effects and musical instruments, the calabash has also been used for medicine, as food, to make beverages, as well as for spiritual uses. However due to the introduction of household objects made from enamel ware, glass, and plastics calabash is no longer widely sought after and used. Nonetheless, Rashford makes the point that the Rastafari communities are still large supporters of the use of calabash as it is a natural material. The craft and trade markets also keep the use of calabash alive as many craft objects are made and sold to tourist as ornaments.

Sources: Adams, C.D. (1972). Flowering Plants of Jamaica. University of the West Indies Mona Jamaica. Robert MacLehose and Company Limited, the University Press Glasgow.

Cassidy, F.G. (1971). Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica. London: Macmillan.

Morrison. E. (2008). The Calabash Tree (Crescentia cujete). Jamaica Journal, Vol 31 Nos 1-2, June.

National Library Jamaica. Jamaican Proverbs.​Rashford, J. (1988). Packy Tree, Spirits and Duppy Birds. Jamaica Journal. Vol (21). No (3). Institute of Jamaica, Kingston Jamaica.

Rhyman, C. (1980). Calabash Packy or Gourd. African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica Newsletter.

Senior, O. (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. Kingston, Jamaica: Twin Gunip Publishers. Pg 91.

Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica.