Wild date palm
Ugandan mekeka are normally plaited from the leaves of the wild date palm (phoenix reclinata). Palm is normally available throughout the year from markets and from vendors, or self-harvested, but is traditionally, particularly abundant in September.
However, for reasons described below, the wild date palm is becoming increasingly scarce and urgent action is needed to ensure its future in Uganda.
Palm leaf harvesting for mat making is a sustainable process. Leaves are carefully cut from the trees, to prevent damage to the plant. The leaflets are separated from a central stalk, laid out in the sun to dry and to lighten in colour for several days, before gathering into bundles ready for use. Younger leaves are paler, having had less time to form chlorophyll, and are therefore used in their natural colour or dyed lighter shades.
However, in the last few years mat makers have been reporting a shortage of palm leaves available for them to use. In the Masaka region, some palm trees whose leaves have been sustainably harvested for many decades have been cut down so that their trunks may be used as fence posts – often illegally, but little enforced. As a result, women in that region have been told that they may no longer harvest palm leaves from trees on ‘public’ land, even though doing so need not harm the remaining trees.
The impact of poverty – where the short-term gain of a few shillings for a palm tree trunk overrides the long term benefits to a whole community - has begun to effect previously sustainable leaf-harvesting for mat making. It is conceivable that the practice of plaited mat making in Uganda will disappear in the next fifty years.
Another threat to Ugandan wild date palms is the clearance of the swamps they grow in for agriculture, to feed the growing population. The price of palm leaves is therefore higher in the markets and there are fewer opportunities to self-harvest.
Other materials used for mat-making include Raphia palm leaves – strips of which are used as thread to join the plaited braids – and a tough curling fibre they call ‘dis’ used by Nubian groups in their plaits, which appears to be some sort of pandanus that is apparently harvested from the marshes.