A Time before Plastics

"Mu kre kee nga chiin? O lelԑԑlԑ naa sro nyininyini pini mbe yi tԑԑ mbe yia kla, a rͻba nu ma pie yi le."

"Did you know? Our grandmothers knew how to prepare and serve food without plastics."

Today our world is filled with things made from plastics and it can be hard to imagine how people did everyday things before plastics were widely available in the second half of the 20th century. We use plastic containers to prepare and serve foods and for other household uses. Plastic bags are used to transport drinkable water, store prepared foods, and carry goods. Plastic straws are used to drink beverages and plastics are used to make shoes, toys and many other things.

Many plastics are not reusable and, when discarded, plastics do not decompose and therefore contribute to pollution. In urban areas, plastics wash into street gutters, blocking the flow of water and contributing to flooding. Discarded plastics wash out to sea where they make their way to remote ocean areas and into the stomachs of sea birds and other animals. Plastics are both a convenience and a problem, and we find it hard to imagine living without them.

But plastics are a historically recent invention and the grandmothers and grandfathers had ways of doing things that did not rely on them. They used local fibers to make useful tools like fish traps and baskets. They had ways of safely preparing, storing and serving food that did not rely on plastics, often using materials that decomposed after being thrown away.

One of the most versatile sources for containers and other utensils is the calabash or bottle gourd vine which is known to scientists by its Latin name, Lagenaria siceraria. Calabash is an ancient plant in Africa. When mature, calabash fruit can be hollowed out and dried to form a woody container. Depending on their shape, calabash can be used as bowls, as ladles, to make musical instruments, among other possibilities. During the later 20th century, calabash was an important crop grown for household use and for sale locally and regionally by Banda area farmers.