Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing worth having comes easy.” We saw this with the Bògòlanfini (Mud Cloth) from Mali and it’s ubiquitous with the barkcloth of Uganda. Locally known as Olubugo, the ancient craft comes from the Baganda people of the Buganda Kingdom. It’s mainly produced in central and southern Uganda, where the Mutuba tree grows.
According to UNESCO, the process of making barkcloth existed before weaving was invented. Making it one of the oldest textiles in history. Thus, UNESCO declared it a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2005 and added it to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008. What’s there to know about this marker of specific social and cultural traditions among the Baganda community?
Though the cloth’s production was widely spread throughout the Buganda Kingdom, with workshops in almost every village, The Ngonge clan was traditionally tasked to manufacture the barkcloth. Under the hereditary chief craftsman known as Kaboggoza, they would make the cloth for the Baganda royal family, as well as, the rest of the community. The process begins in the wet season, where they harvest the inner bark of the Mutuba tree that is at least eight years old.
The process of making barkcloth existed before weaving was invented. Making it one of the oldest textiles in history.
Working under an open shed, to prevent the bark from drying too quickly, they begin the extensive and strenuous phase. It’s first heated in smouldering fire and then softened through boiling. Using various types of wooden mallets, the wet bark is beaten until it’s an even terracotta colour with a smooth, fine texture. The royals received a different finish, with chiefs and kings receiving barkcloth dyed black or white. This will then be left to dry for about three days.
Of course, the finest of these cloths were reserved for the monarch. In fact, oral history suggests that in the 12th century, barkcloth was at first only meant for the king , known as Kabaka. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the Kabaka declared that all his subject should grow the Mutuba trees, as well as, wear the barkcloth. Both men and women wore the cloth like a toga, with the only difference being that women wore a sash around their waists.
To further distinguish themselves, the royals would wear the cloth in different styles to reflect their status. Barkcloth was a significant part of cultural gatherings such as funerals, healing ceremonies and coronations. However, they could also be incorporated in daily practices through items such as bedding, curtains and storage contraptions.
By the 19th Century, Arab caravan traders had introduced cotton cloth to the Kingdom. As the popularity of cotton grew, the production of the barkcloth began to decline as there were fewer uses for it. It further lost popularity during colonialist times with the missionaries’ efforts to shift cultural practices. Because the cloth features in most ritual activities, the missionaries saw it as a ‘symbol of opposition to the belief system they were attempting to inculcate’.
Hence, they required the locals to shun the material as proof that they had rejected their traditional ways. According to a report by Global Press Journal, ‘Some locals began to associate the ancient cloth with evil spirits because it was used in traditional burial ceremonies’. Nevertheless, the cloth persisted in spiritual and cultural ceremonies due to its significance.
It became a symbol of resistance in 1953, when the British arrested and sent King Muteesa II to England. Many wore the cloth to show their loyalty to the King, and express their anger towards the colonialists. Uganda gained its independence in 1962, but a mix of civil war, political crisis ad dictatorship saw the end of the Buganda monarchy, as well as the barkcloth. When the monarchy was restored in 1993, the coronation of the new Kabaka Mutebi II revived the interest throughout the Kingdom.
Does it add to deforestation?
No trees are cut in the production of the cloth. The ‘matured’ bark is harvested every five years, allowing the tree to regenerate. Although some sources suggest that the bark can be harvested after a year. Additionally, banana leaves are wrapped around the tree to ensure that it’s protected from insects and maintains adequate moisture as new bark grows.
No trees are cut in the production of barkcloth
On the contrary, the craft is impacted by deforestation. Uganda has lost close to eight million acres of its forest since 1990. Because the bark is in high demand, carvers must often seek out trees on privately owned land in rural areas. Even in the cases where they aren’t ready for harvesting, they often pay a fee to ensure that the trees are reserved for them.
Interestingly, the same technique that was used by ancient craftsmen is still used today. Additionally, barkcloth continues to be a focal element in ceremonies, funerals and cultural gatherings. That being said, the cloth has been incorporated into modern uses such as the manufacture of everyday apparel, interior décor and even motor vehicle detail. It also has the potential for artistic such as with the work by Sanaa Gateja. The founder of Kwetu Africa Art and Development Centre, based in Kampala, is passionate about using barkcloth in mixed media collages, interior design schemes and wearable art.
Fashion wise, designers such as Josephine Kyomuhendo have featured it in their runway collections. Under her brand, José Hendo, the Ugandan-born British fashion designer used the cloth in her Resonance collection that has showcased in Kampala, Berlin, Madrid, New York, London and Paris. She further began the ‘Bark to the Roots (B2TR)’ initiative that aims to promote the global use of barkcloth.
The Modern Take
In 1999, Ugandan-German couple – Mary Barongo-Heintz and Oliver Heintz – realised that so much more could be done with the cloth. According to as article published in the Atlas Obscura, they realised that it ‘can be dyed, rubberized, bleached, or hardened. By blending it with other materials, they could make it water repellent, fire retardant, or abrasion resistant—presenting a range of alternatives to leather or synthetic, petroleum-based materials.’ They started a company known as Barktex, which makes barkcloth by the same name through a low-energy, partly CO2-emission-free process.
Barktex works with 50 Ugandan locals and 600 small-scale Ugandan farmers to upgrade the barkcloth. Furthermore, they opted to employ more women in the craft. Traditionally, men were the ones who made the cloth and it was taboo for women to even plant the tree. By collaborating with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Association of Uganda Professional Women in Agriculture and the Environment (AUPWAE), they have succeeded in supporting 50 women to plant barkcloth trees. Barktex barkcloth has been used in everything from the automotive sector and exhibition architecture, to household appliances, interiors, fashion and footwear.
While the traditional cloth is still in production, artists and designers are experimenting and reinterpreting the material. No matter which route it takes, Barkcloth remains the historical embodiment and continuity of a community.