The Zulu people of South Africa traditionally crafted large earthenware vessels used for brewing, storing and serving beer. Sorghum beer, made from maize, holds particular importance in Zulu culture because it is believed to be the favorite drink of the ancestors. Despite the spread of Christianity during European colonization, ancestor worship remained a prominent aspect of Zulu tribal life in the 20th century. A ritual vessel called Ukhamba (pl. Izinkamba) was used for important ceremonial events such as births, marriages, deaths and annual festivals in which ancestral spirits were believed to participate. The Izinkamba were fired twice and burnished with river pebbles to achieve a glossy, black surface, ideal for the ancestors who were thought to be drawn to dark and quiet places.
Traditional Zulu pottery did not make use to either the potter's wheel or a kiln. Women coiled soft clay taken from riverbanks, shaped them into large vessel forms and smoothed the walls to uniform thickness. Then when the clay was half-dry they decorated the outer surfaces, most commonly by carving, impressing, raising shallow bumps from the inside or applying small nodules of clay called Amasumpa in elaborate patterns. They served both functional and artistic purposes – as hand-grips when holding the vessels and aesthetic decorations in striking contrast to the otherwise burnished surface. Each of the designs held cultural significance, often emulating sculptural carvings, beadwork and scarification marks.
The term Ukhamba consists of two words: "Ukukhama" and "Bamba." The first means to squeeze out and compress; the latter to hold in space or receive. It is said to be a metaphor of the human mind capable of extensive thought and memory. The Ukhamba vessel, therefore, symbolizes a reservoir of all things valuable for the nourishment of humankind's physical and spiritual worlds. This philosophy is reflected in the rituals that take place on the floor with all members kneeling in respect around the Ukhamba. Depending on the size of the vessel, participants drink directly from the rim or use a gourd to sample a taste of the beer. Large gulps are frowned upon, as are loud and disrespectful behavior during the rites. Through repeated use in ceremonies over the years, the dark glossy surface develops a warm brown patina.