Barkcloth: Buganda's Vintage Dress
The wrapper for the dead?
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First published: March 2, 2007
Olubugo (bark cloth) often invokes fear of death in many circles of Uganda's society. Yet in many others it represents original Africa and symbolizes the continent's granary of creativity and resourcefulness. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2005 recognized Olubugo (bark cloth) as part of the world's collective heritage with strong ritual importance among the Baganda.
Why some people associate bark cloth with death? Before modernity set in, it was the wrapper for the dead. According to Kassim Male Mabiirizi the bark cloth worked well because of its hard surface before the introduction of coffins and mourners often refer to it as a suite for the dead. Despite the fear attached to it and competition from linen and cotton fabric, the Olubugo or bark cloth is still useful and is used to perform many folk functions.
"In Buganda we never walked naked neither did we ever wear skins. A lot of African culture and heritage is dotted with creativity and a lot of improvisation. So we improvised so that our kings, women and men would not move naked," reveals Male sounding proud. Male is the Katikiro of Kkobe Clan in Buganda.
Another member of Kkobe clan, Augustine Mutumba says the process of making bark cloth is locally called Okukomagga. The Kkobe clan is traditionally responsible for preparing the King's coronation bark cloth dress.
Male claims that Olubugo was discovered during the generation of Kabaka Kintu, the first king of Buganda who reigned around the second generation of Stone Age period. "Before the hoe was discovered, our ancestors discovered how to make attire for dressing," says Male. He adds, "That partly explains why before modern technology, Buganda as a society lived in relative comfort and dignity," he adds.
How Olubugo is made
According the UNESCO website bark cloth making is an ancient craft performed by the Baganda people who live in the Buganda kingdom in south Uganda. "For over 600 years, craftsmen of the Ngonge clan have been manufacturing bark cloth for the Baganda royal family and the rest of the community, headed by a kaboggoza, the hereditary chief craftsman, who lives in the Nsangwa village in Mawokota, situated in Mpigi District," reads part of the information on UNESCO website.
The inner bark of the Mutuba tree (ficus natalensis) or backcloth is harvested during the wet season and then, in a long and strenuous process, beaten with different types of wooden mallets to make its texture soft and fine and give it an even terracotta colour. Craftsmen work in an open shed to protect the bark from drying out too quickly.
According to Male, the person who conducts the exercise is called omukomazi and is expected to be very skillful and patient. "The craftsman has to wake up very early and start on his job. But sometimes he works late in the evening," says Omutaka Augustine Mutumba, a hereditary head of Kkobbe Clan.
Significance & use
Mutumba says that bark cloth was traditionally popular for clothing, beddings and as a wrapper for the dead. "Ow'essiga Kakinda manufactures and sews the barkcloth which the king-to-be adorns for the coronation ceremony," reads a message on Kkobe clan website outlining one the clan's responsibilities to the Kabaka.
As a matter of fact, the bark cloth is a respected item in the burial and other cultural ceremonies of quite a number of communities in Uganda. Engabo (Kings Guards) in Tooro kingdom are identified from common people by bark cloth uniforms. Likewise in Bunyoro kingdom, bark cloth has a place in their cultural settings.
The Olubugo can be used as an alternative to canvas by painters due to its varying textures and unique lasting capabilities when well handled. Bark cloth is worn both by men and women like a toga, with a sash around the waist for women. While common bark cloth is terracotta in colour, bark cloth of the kings and chiefs is dyed white or black and worn in a different style to underline their status.
The cloth is mainly worn at coronations and healing ceremonies, funerals and cultural gatherings but is also used for curtains, mosquito screens, beddings and storage. The production of bark cloth prospered with workshops in almost every village in the Buganda kingdom until the abolition of cultural Institutions in Uganda.
Caps made out of backcloth.
End of era
With the introduction of cotton cloth by Arab caravan traders in the nineteenth century, production slowed and eventually faded out, reducing the wearing of bark cloth to particular cultural and spiritual functions.
Nevertheless, bark cloth is still highly recognized among the Baganda community as a marker of their specific political and cultural traditions. In recent years, the production of bark cloth has been particularly encouraged and promoted in the Buganda kingdom.
However, traditionalists argue that the collapse of bark cloth was never caused by the coming of cotton and linen but the abolition of Buganda's cultural institutions and practices. As if to prove them right, after the restoration of cultural institutions, there is a new wave swing that is particularly making old fashioned life styles like the production of bark cloth and their use more fashionable in today's Uganda. Today, bark cloth is used for craft products such as hats, mats, book covers or purses.
Male argues that the decline of bark cloth production was due to the 'blind' following of western religions that branded every thing African devilish and as a result of this decades-long discrimination, the number of bark cloth makers declined and they became marginalized in society.
Making a come back
If bark cloth use and importance are dying out as the only alternative for human dressing, It is emerging else where. According to Joshua Kamya, a traditional healer in Katwe, Bark cloth is doing well in the arena of traditional healing.
"The production of bark-cloth is alive and well today in some areas although disappearing in others. Even though the everyday use of bark-cloth is vanishing, its use as a cultural marker is thriving," says Kamya, a supplier of bark cloth.
Always an industry of self-expression, bark-cloth adornment is a living and breathing contemporary art practice that is closely connected to nature.
Worshipers in backcloth.
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First published: March 2, 2007
Enoch Mutabaazi is a media practitioner at Ultimate Media Consult with more than six years experience in the print and electronic media. Since he majored in Broadcast Journalism at his graduate studies Mutabaazi first worked as a reporter at Uganda Television (now Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV) before he discovered his multidimensional skills in writing and public relations at Ultimate Media Consult. He is currently the Production Executive at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and writes occasionally.