The History of Bugandan Bark Cloth

For a video explanation, please see this UNESCO video on Youtube:

Barkcloth Making in Uganda

     Ugandan Bark Cloth is a traditional cloth made by the Buganda Tribe using the bark of the Mutuba Tree and is listed as an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Bark cloth has traditionally been used to make clothing, particularly for coronation and funeral ceremonies. It is also used to create items like handbags and beautiful works of art. The bark is peeled, treated in boiling water, pounded down with a mallet, and then stretched and dried. The tree is then wrapped for its’ protection, so that it can be harvested again the following year.

     The origin of Bark Cloth is traced back to the Ruler of the Buganda Kingdom, Kimera, who ruled from 1374 to 1404. At that time, the use of Bark Cloth was limited to the royal family. In the 18th century, the Buganda King Ssemakookiro decreed that all his subjects would begin to produce the cloth, which lead to the kingdom becoming wealthy. The kingdom become part of Great Britain’s Uganda colony after Europe’s scramble for Africa began. Bark Cloth production saw a significant decrease during this period as the English government encouraged the growth of cotton in its place for trade. Missionaries called the cloth “satanic” and handed out imported textiles to encourage their use.

     During World War One, the British government took down more than 115,000 of the bark cloth producing trees during an effort to protect the border with German East Africa. Fortunately after the war, many bark cloth trees were planted to enhance the coffee crops as they grew best in the shade provided by the tree. Bark Cloth returned to prominence when the British arrested the Buganda King Mutessa II in 1953 as wearing cloth bark became a way to signal solidarity with the King. The King was retuned in 1955 and Bark Cloth was used to decorate the arches along the parade route for the King’s return.

     Today Bark cloth is seeing an increase in interest as Bugandans are seeing it as a way to celebrate their culture, new uses for the material continue to be found, and people from around the world are just learning about this eco-friendly and beautiful material. According to an industry expert, it is estimated that the industry could grow to a size that would support at least 500,000 bark farmers, with their income benefiting an estimated 4,000,000 people. In addition to the economic benefits, Mutuba trees store carbon. The leaves provide fodder to livestock and the figs dropped by the trees are eaten by the wildlife. The trees even require limited water. If you are interested in learning more or seeing the process, please view the video’s and articles below.

I asked one of Uganda's most prominent traditional painters to explain the cultural significance of cloth bark:

     

"Barkcloth was traditionally popular for clothing but today, barkcloth is rather used for craft products such as hats, book covers during conferences, along with paintings and handbags. Because it lasts a very long time, it is used to wrap the dead during funerals as it will mummify the remains for over 100 years. This is especially important in the burying of Kings and Queens. It is for this reason than bark cloth is so respected within the Bugandan Culture. 

     Baganda must attend various ceremonies wearing the barkcloth. Currently, barkcloth is also used to decorate historical sites which were once King's palaces. The current king will also be dressed in bark cloth if he is dressing traditionally. 

     Barkcloth is one of the surviving cultural materials that has been stayed alive within current societies, despite the fact that most of Africa's authentic materials, cultures, and other regalia have been lost."

Selected Publications for Further Reading:

Full UNESCO article: Barkcloth Making in Uganda

A mans' journey to Uganda to have a traditional Barkcloth suit made (National Geographic): The Ancient Craft of Bark Cloth Finds New Uses

Atlas Obscura article explaining the production process of the barkcloth, its' history, and economic benefit of this ancient art:

What is Barkcloth?

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