Bark cloth: A prestigious fabric under threat

Gonzaga Kalanda has been selling bark cloth for the last 20 years at Kabuusu stage commonly known as Kumbugo in Kampala. Photo | Bayan Nalubwama. 

What you need to know:

  • Being an official burial and ritual attire for the Baganda, the bark cloth has always been demonised by religious fanatics who link it to witchcraft and varying beliefs, writes Gabriel Buule & Bayan Nalubwama.

At his home in Busomba Village – Kyaali Parish in Mpigi District, Zaavuga has a grass-thatched structure adjacent to a Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis).

Before we sit to greet him, his attention goes to a group of stray goats that attempt to peck at the bark of the tree.

“Why are you chasing them, they are your animals and it is just a tree,” we affirmatively ask him.

He holds my hand and replies, “The problem that befell our society is that we assume that because we did not plant traditional trees, it is fine to put them to waste,” he remarks as he picks up a wooden vintage chair to settle down for our conversation.

Zaavuga mentions that unlike many trees that used to grow on their own, the Mutuba is among the trees that were domesticated and widely planted by the Baganda, especially in Mawokota, Buddu and Ssingo counties, where bark cloth-making was widely embraced.

He reveals that because of its purpose, the tree was protected from damage by human, animals and fire.

“The more you protect it, the more it serves its purpose and the quality of a [piece of] bark cloth made out of it,” he adds.

He notes that the most important part is the bark that is used to make Buganda’s most prestigious fabric, the bark cloth.

“Besides cutting a few leaves for goats and cows, the main purpose of the tree is the bark cloth,” he notes.

While the Mutuba tree and bark cloth are listed as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organisation (Unesco) intangible cultural heritage, Zavuga says the tree is threatened by charcoal burning business, brick layers who use it for firewood to bake their bricks, and farmers who use it on leaves to feed goats and cattle.

He adds that the endangered species is currently fading away, with most owners opting to sell it as firewood or make charcoal, which is easier to sell and more profitable than bark cloth.

Fashion designer and make-up artiste exhibits the lubugo fabric. Photos | Courtesy. 

Being an official burial and ritual attire for the Baganda, the bark cloth has always been demonised by religious fanatics who link it to witchcraft and varying beliefs.

Robert Musiitwa, the spokesperson of Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC), notes that much as it is a symbol of inheritance and succession among the Baganda, many people who convert to some Pentecostal sects end up submitting the fabric to pastors to burn them because they are opposed to the practice of performing last funeral rites.

Ssalongo Lamech Ssenono, a bark cloth entrepreneur and a proprietor of a bark cloth workshop in Bweyogerere, in Wakiso District, says there is need to preserve the tree if bark cloth production is to thrive in Uganda.

He notes that besides creating business opportunities for Ugandans, the bark cloth is a rich source for artisan materials for the demanding tourism sector.

Special effects artists and costume designer Esther Nakaziba, who has mastered the art of making outfits out of barkcloth, raises concern about the scarcity of the material, which her suppliers blame on the worrying extinction of the Mutuba tree.

Nakaziba, who buys a full yard at Shs30,000, explains that the prices keep increasing but sometimes even with money available, she can always be let down by the suppliers.

She adds that many suppliers claim they were frustrated by religious zealots who associate the fabric to sorcery, death and witchcraft.

She adds that deliberate efforts must be invested in promoting the use of the bark cloth and motivating suppliers to recognise that it is a normal fabric just like any other.

“There is nothing demonic about the bark cloth. It is just a normal fabric such as cotton,” she explains.

She warns that in the age of sweeping Christianity, breaking the bias on the fabric is going to be a process but the efforts will count.

“We are influencing young people because they can be easily swayed. Creatives should be at the forefront because young people look up to them,” she further explains.

Before a section of people started demonising the bark cloth, the fabric used to be publically worn, used as beddings and garment for Buganda Kingdom royals.

Religious leaders have for years been named as the key promoters of the propaganda on the fabric. Popular Muslim scholar Sheikh Ibrahim Bossa confirms that Islam doesn’t allow the use of bark cloth because of the fabric’s relation with culture.

He says the fabric is very popular among people who associate God with other spirits and emphasises that it’s one of the reasons Muslims don’t use the bark cloth in funeral arrangements.

He, however, explains that Islam is not against the use of items got from the fabric. He says people are free to use bags, wear shoes and also wear necklaces made from the bark cloth.

Contrary to Sheikh Bossa’s belief, Bishop David Kiganda of Christianity Focus Centre church says the fabric is like any other cloth and it’s the motive behind its use that makes it bad.

He explains that it is wrong to define the fabric by how other people use it because not every disbeliever uses bark cloth in pagan worship.

A model exhibits the lubugo fabric designed by artiste Xenson 

 “The fabric can only be bad when used in witchcraft and worshiping of other beings besides God because not all unbelievers use it in worshipping. For example, the faith of unity believers (owobushobozi) worship clad in white robes but still don’t believe in God and that doesn’t make the white robs satanic,” he said.

Conservation efforts

Artiste and fashion guru Samson Ssenkaaba, alias Xenson of Xenson Art Space,  says the most immediate effort to conserve the bark cloth is by growing more mutuba trees and then encouraging people who make bark cloth, training young people for continuity and also crafts people to use it in their creations.

Xenson believes there is potential to do more research on the fabric’s durability and its future and discovering its business potential to attract large scale investors.

Xenson says as an artist, he plans to plant Mutuba trees on a large scale since he is already involved in the business.

In a bid to promote and preserve the prestigious fabric, UNCC has persistently provided space for people dealing in bark cloth to exhibit their products whenever arts events and festivals are held at the centre.

“In the previous art and culture festival, we went ahead to display the process of harvesting to the final product. There is also a programme of adoption in which UNCC has adopted some bark cloth trees in Bukomansimbi as their own trees,” explains Musiitwa

Moving forward, he further reveals that UNCC is on a journey to work with other cultural institutions to make sure each institution adopts a Mutuba tree.

A man removes the bark off the mutuba tree

“We have held different workshops under the heritage unit to change the mindset of young people on the various aspects of what bark cloth can do,” he adds

He says they are working to erase the mentality that the bark cloth is only fit for burial ceremonies and that young people can also look at it from the economic perspective where they can earn some money using the bark cloth.

The Buganda kingdom has always encouraged the conservation of the Mutuba tree. The kingdom premier usually encourages coffee farmers to integrate the Mutuba since it can co-exist with other plants and it has economic benefits.

The Mutuba is among the trees given priority every year during the Bulungi bwansi (community service) ceremonies where the king’s subjects are encouraged to plant trees.

Bark to the Roots (B2TR), an organisation run by cultural enthusiast José Hendo, anchored in the ethos of the Sustainable Development Goals, reminding us to preserve both our heritage and the environment, has a campaign that intends to plant one-million Mutuba trees in a way of addressing climate change crisis while preserving the Mutuba tree.

In 2005, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organisation (Unesco) declared the bark cloth a masterpiece of oral and intangible cultural heritage and added it to the Unesco World Heritage list in 2008.

The history

Bark cloth-making in Buganda is a traditional duty of the otter (Ngonge) clan.

A group of youth producing bark cloth in a process known as okukomaga. 

Much as many assume the fabric is used by traditionalists to connect to the spiritual world, among the Baganda, the bark cloth once determined one’s financial status in society.

“A dead person’s status could be determined by the amount of bark cloth pieces he is buried in. Besides, the fabric was used as a preservation property, as an attire, partitions, and blanket, among others,” Zaavuga explains.

Its preparation involves one of mankind’s oldest techniques, a pre-historic one that predates the invention of weaving.

The tree, the product and the business

Gonzaga explains that the bark cloth is made up of four classes, including the Kimote, Kitentegere, Kirundu and Muserere and all these are got from the Mutuba tree. However, the process of making them defers. He explains that Kimote is best used for making earrings, bags, dresses.

The bark, engraved over the entire height of the trunk, along its circumference, is removed. Once removed, the inner layer of the bark is beaten gently using different types of wooden hammers (ensaamu in Luganda) for hours.

By beating, the fibres soften and become elastic and the sheet surface quadruples.

Gonzaga notes that the bark cloth is made out of the bark of the Mutuba tree. “A tree during its existence of around 40 years old, can produce up to 400 square metres of the bark cloth,” he adds.

The tree bark is flattened in a process known to the Baganda as okukomaga and then laid out flat to dry completely, and the end product (bark cloth) can survive for more than 30 years.

“It is exposed to sunlight to get the terracotta colour that makes it look for beautiful,” he adds.

He, however, explains that the bark cloth has different colours such as terracotta, white and black, although the former is more popular.

Ssalongo Ssenono has been operating in the bark cloth business for the past 15 years. He employs 20 people and together, they make suits, caps, bags, dresses, among others out of bark cloth.

He explains that his biggest customers are Buganda Kingdom officials and Whites, who, he says, buy bark cloth products in bulk.

“The demand is usually high when there is a cultural event in the diaspora,” he says.

The Mutuba tree

The Mutuba tree

The mutuba rarely grows on its own. It can be propagated by cutting straight branches that are directly half-planted in the soil.

Zaavuga reveals that there are various species of mutuba trees and the type of bark cloth that can be got from each of them.

These include the rare Ntaweebwa, Namweruka, Membe, Nserere and Butana, all differentiated by the shape of their leaves and the durability, fineness and shade of the bark cloth they yield.