Ugandan barkcloth is designated a masterpiece of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO (2008). Barkcloth is a non-woven, fibrous textile that has been produced from the wild fig tree (ficus natalensis) by the Baganda of southern Uganda, since at least the thirteenth century. Barkcloth is deeply tied to Baganda identity and tradition, as a signifier of status, culture and beliefs; originally it was worn only by the royal family and important chiefs.
The making of barkcloth is a highly skilled, gendered craft, passed down through generations of men. It requires the careful harvesting of the bark by splitting its outer layer down the length of the tree before gently peeling it off. This activity is performed during the rainy season, when the trees have more sap, the bark is suppler and the tree is less likely to be damaged by the process. The naked trunk is then wrapped in banana leaves for a few days to protect the tree as it recovers; the bark may be sustainably harvested every year.
The most common way to treat the stripped bark involves the steaming or soaking to soften it, before being pounded over a long, smooth, wooden base by a series of wooden mallets in a sheltered workshop. Through this process, over a period of three to five hours, the bark fibre felts, becomes finer, softer and more pliant, and grows in size significantly. It is then spread out in the sun, for the natural, rich red-brown colour to develop that is favoured in the region. Finishing includes the darning of any small tears in the cloth with raffia and the patching of any larger irregularities, before a final beating.
Freshly stripped wild fig tree, top left, and bark cloth sheets being prepared and shown by Bukomansimbi barkcloth makers. Photos taken in Uganda between 2007 and 2014.
Traditionally used in clothing, barkcloth has historic associations with royalty and status; it is still worn for ceremonial occasions by the Kabaka of Buganda. Historically, the wearing of barkcloth at the royal palace was a sign of position or favour – with subtle variations of style or the addition of skins to denote rank. Barkcloth’s significance as the national fabric of the Baganda was established firmly by the late eighteenth century, when it became compulsory for Muganda men to produce barkcloth for their families. It was also used to pay taxes and as dowry payment.
Barkcloth has had multiple other practical uses, including in interiors, as wall coverings, storage, bedding, mats, partitions and as a wrapping for bodies – in religious rituals, death and at birth. A curtain of barkcloth symbolically and physically still separates the living from the dead in the royal tombs. In fact, barkcloth has become increasingly associated with death and burial, with up to fifty cloths being wrapped around people of higher social status to ensure that they travel with dignity to the next world. In clans, the heir of the deceased is dressed in barkcloth in a ceremony to mark their transition. Thus, barkcloth has become tied to the collective identity of the Baganda, as an important element of their material culture.
For centuries, barkcloth was an item of local and regional economic importance, being traded across central and east Africa. However the introduction of woven textiles, by Swahili-Arab traders in the mid 1800s and later by the British, undermined barkcloth’s importance and production. Successive political and economic issues have impacted on the viability of barkcloth production - which was even prohibited in the 1970s and 1980s; as a result, the number of expert makers has diminished.
Nakazibwe, V. (2005) Barkcloth of the Baganda People of Southern Uganda: A Record of Continuity and Change from the late 20th Century to the early 21st Century, Doctoral Thesis, Middlesex University, available from: http://ethos.bl.uk/SearchResults.do [accessed 19/02/17)
Rwawiire, S. and Tomkova, B. (2013) ‘Thermo-physiological and comfort properties of Ugandan barkcloth from Ficus natalensis’, in The journal of the Textile Institute, 105:6, 2014, pp 648-653
Trowell, M. and Waschmann, K.P. (1953) Tribal Crafts of Uganda, London: Oxford University Press
UNESCO, Barkcloth Making in Uganda, available from https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/barkcloth-making-in-uganda-00139 [accessed on 03/06/17]