LUBUGO - UGANDAN BARK CLOTH
In 2005, I felt a material in my hands that I had never experienced before. I first saw bark cloth folded on a shelf in a road side stand in a small village called Wakiso. It was being sold beside various seeds, natural fibers, instruments, and other items that were a deep part of the local culture. When I asked the girls from the Rafiki school about it, they did not have the most positive reaction. Well, understandably so, their major experience with this material was when it was used to wrap dead bodies. This initial introduction soon led me to return to Uganda. In 2006, I linked with Uganda Crafts 2000 Ltd. to do some research and observation of the local cultural arts, bark cloth included. The short article below describes the material and my experience seeing the transformation of a piece of 18 inch wide bark into a cloth that stretched over 8 FEET wide.
I have made yearly trips since, and continue to be amazed at the process of creating this amazing work and the artists and makers who keep the tradition alive. For more information, visit www.barkcloth.blogspot.com.
BARK CLOTH, PAULINO LUKYAMUZI and KALONGO PROPHINO, 2006
Within the districts of Mpigi, Masaka, and Rakai, is the soul of a century old process, a technique that strips stiff bark from trees and pounds it into wearable fabric. B ark cloth has the distinction of being named among the world’s collective heritage by UNESCO, recognizing its role as a strong cultural tradition for many Ugandans. This unique cloth of the Baganda (or Buganda) has readily found its way into the tourist markets; one only has to walk through a craft shop or observe roadside stalls to see the rich rust color of bark cloth stand out. What sets this material apart from others worldwide is the amazing transformation the bark makes as it is pounded into the finished cloth. With a material so unique, sadly so little is understood by the consumers about the process and history they hold in their hands.
In the small village of Kanabulemu I met Kalongo Prophino and Paulino Lukyamuzi, two bark cloth makers whose family have been practicing this craft for generations. This unique process of changing bark into cloth begins with the removal of the outer bark of the Mutuba tree, exposing an under layer of moist, fleshy trunk. Horizontal and vertical cuts are made the length of the tree allowing Kalongo to use an angled banana stalk to peel away the bark. What falls away from the tree is a narrow section of bark roughly 40 centimeters wide by 2.4 meters long. Banana leaves are cut and wrapped around the exposed trunk, keeping it moist and allowing the bark to grow back within a year. I was surprised by the next step– to deepen the rust color of the bark, dried banana leaves are placed on top of it and set on fire. Kalongo carefully brushes off the ash and wraps the bark in fresh banana leaves, keeping it moist to be worked on the next day.
The transformation of the prepared bark takes place in a thatched-roofed open structure, the ekomagiro. With the bark stretched out on a thin log, Kalongo begins okukomaga, the creation of bark cloth. Okukomaga has three stages, each using a different grooved mallet (nsaamu) for pounding. Throughout each stage, he continuously pounds every surface of the bark, repeating the careful orchestration of turning and folding that was shown to him by his grandfather. Each carefully placed hit leaves its grooved impression on the surface of the bark, with time slowly widening the bark, softening it into cloth.
After five hours of constant arduous pounding, Kalongo finishes the cloth. Just outside the ekomagiro, he lays it fully in the sun, pulling it tight while laying rocks around the edges. The finished piece is a staggering 2.3 x 2.5 meters, over 4 times the original width.
Since its beginning, bark cloth has distinguished generations of Kabakas, buried countrymen, functioned as ritual objects, and been used for any basic need that cloth would meet - clothing, room partitions, curtains, bedding, etc. Its use for an estimated 600 years has firmly planted this material as a prominent Bagandan (or Bugandan) symbol of history and culture. It is not simply a relic for tourists; it is actively used by officials, traditional healers, and contemporary designers. Becoming aware of its continued use throughout Uganda allows our appreciation of the material and its cultural importance to grow.
For now, it is my hope that when consumers purchase goods made from and with bark cloth, they will not only support local artists or take with them a mere object, but an awareness of the laborious process, unique culture and history present in that piece of bark cloth.
bark cloth maker for close to 50
years, he is shown in the first image.