Clay Culture: Burnt Trunks

Eness Ngulube continues her family tradition of making utilitarian vessels, and sees the potential to reassert the importance of pottery in her village by sharing her skills and partnering with regional businesses.

When was the last time you had to worry about elephants kicking over your pots? Or, when have you used insects to process your clay? Such is the life of Zambian potter Eness Ngulube. Eness is an 80-year-old potter living in the village of Nyamununga, Zambia. My wife, Carol, and I visited her several years ago while using the incentive money I received retiring from teaching to travel in Africa.

When we arrived unannounced at Eness’s thatched-roof hut/studio, she was constructing two large coil-formed pots. While most of the younger people in Zambia speak English, we talked through an interpreter who knew Eness and had brought us to her home after I had inquired who had made the pots that decorated Flatdogs, slang for crocodile and the name of the safari camp we were staying at in Zambia, on the border of South Luangwa National Park.

1 Eness’s hut in the village in Zambia.

2 Termite mounds, larger than the huts, are the source of the clay Eness uses in constructing her pots.

Eness worked on the floor of her hut, barefoot, wearing a flowered shirt, lace skirt, and jewelry. She graciously demonstrated her working methods and answered our questions.

Her hospitality didn’t surprise us, all the villagers we met were very warm and open. This left an impression on me. The whole village was clothed in the items from metal donation boxes that dot street corners across the US. They don’t have running water, getting their water instead from communal wells. They appear to have so little in terms of material goods, infrastructure, or amenities, and endure many hardships, yet despite this, their optimism is evident.

Techniques and Forms

As it was difficult to travel around the region due to transportation challenges when she was young, Eness learned to work with clay from her family rather than by studying elsewhere. As she explains, “I lived with my aunty (my mother’s elder sister) who used to make clay pots and other different items, and I learned from her by assisting. It was a family tradition when I was growing up; however, not many family members are involved now.” While most of her family members play with clay for fun, her third-born daughter has taken it on as her full-time occupation.

3 Eness working in her thatched-roof studio.

Eness sources her clay outside her hut from a termite mound. I doubt she ever runs out of clay, the mounds can get taller than the houses. As she worked on the large pot she was building, she tied a cloth around its mid-section to retain the shape until the clay firmed up. Aside from her hands and the cloth used for support, her clay tools consisted of a mussel shell from the nearby Luangwa River used as a scraper and a corn cob used for texture and decoration.

Eness explains that she makes pots in three different sizes. “I make big ones called nongo, which families fill with water and put in the shade to keep it cool. Some will even store their mielie meel (coarse maize meal), in the larger pots. The same is true of the medium-sized pots. The small ones are called chinkombe (or vinkombe plural) and are used as pots to cook relish. These are not used for cooking nsima (a staple Zambian food made from corn meal).” She added that she also makes special things like teapots and mugs; however, those are not popular in terms of sales. In her experience, the large pots are the most popular overall, and the small ones are preferred by locals.

Eness shares that, on average, she makes about 60 vessels per month and she splits her time between making pots and farming. When describing the pieces she can complete in a single day, she says, “I could make two big pots per day, three medium pots per day, or maybe six small ones. On a good month,” she adds, “I earned about 900 Zambian kwacha ($70 to $80) from selling pots.”

4 Four large coil-formed pots sitting in the ashes from a recent firing. Eness leaves the pots in the ashes to discourage curious elephants from stomping on them.

5 Sadly, many of the old clay pots have been converted into stills, simmering over a low fire and producing moonshine from a corn-based mash.

Firing the Pots

In the short time Carol and I were visiting Eness, we caused quite a commotion. Villagers young and old had crowded her hut to see us, probably the first tourists ever to visit her. As we went outside to see where she fires her pots, a young boy was bumped and fell onto one of the two pots she had been constructing and then backed into the second pot as he righted himself.

She fires the pots outside by placing them on the ground and building sticks around them. When the firing is over, she leaves the pots sitting in the cooled gray ashes. Otherwise, curious elephants put their trunks in the pots and stomp on them. Seeing the ashes, even though now cool, the elephants evidently think they are still hot, and avoid that area. Apparently they have burnt their trunks one too many times.

Before returning to Flatdogs Camp, I asked to purchase one of Eness’ small pots, which I could more easily carry in my suitcase. A small pot was retrieved from another hut, which Eness priced at $0.50. Before heading back to Flatdogs I gave Eness $15, telling her it was for the small pot as well as the two that were damaged due to the commotion our visit has caused.

6 Eness Ngulube’s small pot, 6 in. (15 cm) in diameter, coil formed, scraped (likely with a mussel shell), etched (likely with a sharpened twig), pit fired.

Eness seemed overcome with my generosity. Harold Shumbwamuntu, our interpreter, later told us Eness was raising her five granddaughters. Their parents—her daughter and son-in-law—had died of AIDS-related complications.

Closing Thoughts

Although we saw numerous clay pots in the villages, Eness shared with us that pottery has lost the importance it once held. Plastic containers are lighter and less fragile to use for tasks like carrying water home from the communal wells. Metal pots and pans clean easier than clay. Many of the old clay pots are still used, but now have a less honorable function. They have been converted into stills, simmering over a low fire and drip by drip producing moonshine from a corn-based mash.

There has not been any support so far from NGOs or other organizations in the area to preserve the traditional styles or pottery as a livelihood. Eness’ income comes from selling to some of the lodges and camps, and from customers in her local community. She states that there were times when she had no market for her work, and had to sell things for very low prices, which had a major impact on her income.

Eness shared that she is very interested in mentoring others who are interested in learning to make pots, and though in the past making pottery was primarily seen as a job that women did, she would be happy to teach these skills to men and boys as well as to women and girls.

7 Author Craig Hinshaw with Eness Ngulube.

Eness believes that there is very big potential for pottery to make a comeback in terms of use and as a viable occupation. She explains that if there was a team of women that had support and a market, with the increase in tourism activities, they could produce and sell a lot of pieces. She adds that with support from tourism and local businesses catering to visitors, they would also be able to make work for the various lodges, just as she does for Flatdogs Camp. She envisions that they would make anything from flower pots to dishes for use in the lodges, and any decorative pots in a variety of designs.

Thank you to Harold Shumbwamuntu of Flatdogs Camp for helping to make this article possible with generous assistance in translation, and for working with Eness Ngulube to source added information once we had returned to the US. 

the author Craig Hinshaw is an artist and instructor living in Davison, Michigan. He is the author of Clay Connections, a ceramics book based on the articles he wrote for Pottery Making Illustrated. Learn more at


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