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Al-Gadah; Bowl of Plenty

Above, a wooden gadah from western Sudan (Ethnographic Museum, Khartoum), definition from Sudanese Arabic-English, A Concise Dictionary by Rianne Tamis and Janet Persson.

In Osman Salih’s warm evocation of matriarchal wisdom in My Grandmother’s Coffee Rituals, his beloved habooba skewers age-old rivalries between those who remain loyal to village life and its traditions, and those seduced by the bright lights of the city and beyond.

Osman tells us:

“Knowing that some of the guests were returning to the village from Khartoum or from overseas and the others were villagers, she, in her own poems, compared the two groups. Masterfully, she presented the comparison in the words of two wives: one whose husband is a farmer in the village and the other’s husband migrated to the city.”

“….Who is better; the one who left chasing Riyals, or the one who is growing palm trees in the village?” The farmer’s wife continued, proudly siding with her husband. “He stays in the village and practices its traditions, attends funerals, takes ‘gadah albaleela’ (wooden bowl of beans) to the mourners, attends weddings, and dances in front of girls.”

Illustration above, sketch based on a photo by Enikō Nagy (Sand in My Eyes); the sharing of a dish of baleela; a mixture of boiled adzuki beans or chickpeas, with seeds, and grains. More on baleela next month.

The “gadah al-baleela” Osman’s grandmother mentions is much more than just a plate of beans and the gadah, one version of which is featured above, is much more than just a wooden bowl.

This week’s brief post explores the folk history and use of this emblematic vessel.

Above, one of two proverbs in this post referencing the gadah. For many Sudanese, the offering of food served in the gadah is a powerful symbol of treasured values of generosity to the stranger and sharing of resources.

My thanks to Muna Zaki for kindly providing the proverbs included here.

Al-Gadah; Bowl of Plenty

Al-Gadah; Symbol of Regional Pride and Solidarity

From Sand in My Eyes, Enikõ Nagy.

I am the wooden gadah bowl crowded by many / I am the mahlab spice that blesses the head / I am the acacia tree that needs a sharpened axe / I am the rot that can ruin the strongest foundation.

Al-Gadah; Bowl of Plenty – Practical and Propitious

The gadah, whether hollowed out from a single thick wooden bough, or made of iron, enamel or aluminum (pictured right), is, at its humblest, a receptacle for transporting heavy or bulky items such as mortar and other building materials. However, it is most typically associated with carrying generous supplies of communal food, especially traditional Sudanese bread, kisra, and asiida stews. Its wooden version with richly patterned broad rim is often too big to be carried by just one person; it becomes a communal artifact, whose weight and contents are shared among the extended family, guests and wider society. For many, the gadah is a symbol of “manly virtues”; the ability to provide generously for all those under a patriarch’s care. With its use declining in recent times, it is increasingly nostalgically associated with a time when noble families and local dignitaries would offer hospitality to their communities on a grand scale and when village Quran schools would feed their many pupils in the form of kisra and traditional stews, brought in on massive gudaaha. As a result, the term “gadah” is also used to refer to the custom – and solemn duty – of contributing what one can to family events celebrating life milestones and acts of thanksgiving, known as karamaat. Contributing to karamaat in turn brings blessings.

Photo above right, from TV Sudania 24 What is this Traditional Sudanese Vessel?

Recounting the mourning customs of the Rubatab tribe in 1926, H.C. Jackson (SNR Volume 9, 1926. A Trek in Abu Hamed District) tells us:

“The people collect to sympathize with the bereaved, their sympathy taking the practical form of supplying gifts of money, dates, grain, etc. throughout the period of mourning. Everyone brings what he can afford, and ….. gifts often take the form of a platter (gadah) of food, the ceremony is called the passing round of the gadah.

The gadah also plays a role in psycho-spiritual rituals of the zãr. Susan Kenyon (Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan, The Red Wind of Sennar) observes, commenting on the spiritual significance of the colour white, that white foods “are regarded as pure and healthy; some, like mulah rob or rice porridge, are found in thanksgiving meals (karamat), including zār, and are called gadah bayad (white gadah).” G.P.Makris, writing on Tumburi zār rites in Changing Masters; Spirit Possession and Identity Construction among Slave Descendants and Other Subordinates in the Sudan, provides striking and detailed accounts of the offering of asiida and slaughtering of pigeons; rituals also known as gadah bayad, as well as the offering of other sacrificial animals in gadah bowls as part of the”Opening of the Head” phase of tumburi ceremonies.

Below, sharing food served in the gadah.

Below, Bentley and Crowfoot, in their 1924 SNR article, Nuba Pots in the Gordon College, describe the gadah and its elegant carrying basket and rest, the mandola, pictured below left, and still widely used today.

Nuba Pots in the Gordon College

“In Kordofan these wooden bowls, made of hemeid wood, are used with a bucket-shaped basket, the mandōla and a peaked basketry lid, the ṭabag: the broad brim of the wooden gadah rests on the top of the mandōla which takes the place of a table, and the bottom of the bowl is rounded so that it will not, like our example, stand upright. Except at Tagale the mandōla, which may come from Darfur, is said to be unknown among the Nuba, and the flat brim of the earthenware dishes may be explained like the similar brim to our soup plates as a substitute for a handle to prevent the server’s thumb from getting into the dish. It may be noticed in this connection that several Nuba think that poison emanates from the finger nails and refuse to drink from a gourd if anyone’s finger has touched the contents. The flat brim recurs on other pots also and it may be further noted that in the Eastern Sudan, where wooden food dishes are made of ḥaraz and ṭarfa wood, there are no such brims.”

The Gadah as a Symbol of Regional Pride and Solidarity

In Darfur, the ceremonial serving of communal regional dishes in gudaaha within their beaded and cowrie-encrusted mandola baskets is a source of pride and community spirit for women there who spend hours preparing the dishes served. This custom, known as gadah mir(a)m, is not only an expression of generous hospitality. The visual impact – its elegance and vibrancy – and symbolism of women gathered to offer food in this way, reflects the proactive role Darfuri women have played in recent regional peace negotiations and moves towards tribal and social reconciliation. The custom has also been seen as a powerful act of solidarity and strength in events surrounding the 2019 revolution. Muhammad al-Mahdi Bushra, Khartoum Professor of Folklore, interviewed by Sky News Arabic, reminds us that the gadah mir(a)m endures, despite Sudan’s present economic and social woes, as a public act of “love peace and solidarity.” طبق طعام غير وجه السودان.. “قدح الميرم”Sky News Arabic Gadah mirm

You can see stunning photos of the tradition in the article, linked below.

قدح-الميرم- Sudan Journal

Learn more about Darfuri cuisine in:

Two Ramadan Dishes – Darfuri Favourites

I close this post with another proverb, this time extolling the virtue of supporting and providing for one’s immediate family.

One comment on “Al-Gadah

  1. Another post from a seemingly inexhaustible store of fascination lore and folk knowledge.


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