Bark Cloth from Uganda

by Cathy Namagembe / Apr 09, 2011 /
Cathy Namagembe's picture

Bark cloth is more than just a native hand-made souvenir.  The making of bark cloth has been a part of Ugandan culture for centuries.  Bark cloth manufacturing is an ancient craft of the Baganda people of southern Uganda.  Its preparation involves one of mankind's oldest, prehistoric techniques that began before the invention of weaving. 

 

Bark cloth

 

It is a sacred fabric which defines the spirit of the Buganda kingdom.  Bark cloth remains a ceremonial dress code for royalty, chiefs, and heirs during coronations and funerals.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has named the process of making bark cloth among the world’s collective heritage.  Over the centuries, it has served as clothing, in the form of a toga, and has been used for curtains, bedding, mosquito screening, as a room divider and it was commonly worn by traditional healers and statesmen. 

 

 

This is an ancient art form of making decorative cloth from the inner bark of the Mutuba tree, a type of fig tree native to Uganda.  The process begins with cutting away and slowly removing the outer bark.  A small wedge is used to help the process without destroying the tree itself.  Banana leaves are wrapped around the trunk to protect it while new bark grows in its place.  This helps maintain adequate moisture in the tree trunk as well as protect the tree from insects.  The beginning piece usually measures about 18” and is 6 to 8 feet in length.

 

Bark cloth

 

The fibrous inner bark then begins the tedious transformation into the final rust colored hand made ceremonial cloth.  The process includes heating the inner bark directly in a smoldering fire and then boiling it to soften it for processing.  Any remaining soot or ashes are shaken off the bark.  Then it is hammered with a special, round wooden mallet.  The bark is pounded and stretched for hours.  It is also scraped to remove any irregularities before the final pounding and stretching is done.  The final cloth will be up to 10 times longer than the original piece of bark.  It is then sun dried for 3 days.  Bark cloth gets its deep terra cotta color from the burnt banana leaves that are used as part of the processing.

 

Bark cloth

 

Bark Cloth

 

Bark cloth

 

In earlier times, bark cloth was produced in almost every village in the Buganda kingdom, but the material was replaced in many areas by cotton cloth that was introduced by Arab traders in the 1800’s.  As cotton became more popular, there were fewer uses for bark cloth, with the exception of it being worn as a ceremonial cloth at various spiritual and cultural events.

 

Bark Cloth

 

While most bark cloth has a rich reddish-brown color, the material for a king or chief will often be dyed white or black depending upon the ceremony.  Bark cloth was used as a ceremonial cloth worn by most village leaders.  It was worn toga style by both men and women, though women used a sash tied around their waist.

 

Bark Cloth

 

 

While the use of bark cloth today is primarily ceremonial, the material is still manufactured using the same skills of the ancient craftsmen.  Modern day bark cloth is mainly worn at coronation and healing ceremonies, funerals and cultural gatherings.  Other modern uses of bark cloth include manufacturing purses, shoulder bags, table mats, brief cases and cushion covers as well as being sold as souvenirs.  Part of the goal of UNESCO is to help find additional decorative uses for bark cloth to help preserve this ancient manufacturing art.  Some ideas have been to incorporate the cloth into fashion accessories, house-hold items such as pot holders and as part of interior design / artistic products.

 

 

 

Cathy Namagembe and Ray Gutt are the Uganda Editors for Wandering Educators. You can learn more about travel in Uganda at
http://www.namagembeadventuretravel.com/


All photos courtesy and copyright Cathy Namagembe

 

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