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Figurative plaits

Ugandan plaiting from the south-western region - showing Swahili influence. The use of text and figurative symbols such as keys, crosses - even airplanes - is used more commonly here; often given as gifts for weddings and other special occasions.

Some Ugandan mat makers in the south-west of the country make mats from separate strips of braid in varying colours and patterns which sometimes incorporate text - often commissioned as gifts. These strips of braid are laid out in the order in which they should be joined, each stitched to the next to achieve the desired composition. This ‘rectangle’ is then bound around the outside edge with a folded strip of braid. 

Patterns in Ugandan mats frequently contain decorative elements that may be seen across the African continent. These designs often include bands, panels, triangles, circles or diamonds, separated by stripes - each section filled with repetitions of a motif. This may suggest an older African foundation for pattern development than the relatively recent Swahili influence, although some of these designs are also found in Swahili-Arab braids.


While many Swahili patterns consist of zigzagging stripes, with patterns within the stripes that create intricate checks when the braids are joined, Ugandan braids tend to contain zigzagging stripes of less complexity of pattern but perhaps with more colours introduced. The Kalanamye patterns are dictated by the arrangements of different coloured strands, with a relatively straightforward weave, rather than a complicated mathematical formula. 

Mats made by Baganda women in the Masaka region of south-western Ugandan are often finer in quality and more complex in pattern than those from other parts of the country. In this region text is incorporated by some mat makers to celebrate events such as weddings, as thank you gifts and to commemorate special occasions. The creation of text in plaits has been part of Swahili mat-making for centuries, but it appears to be a more recent development in Uganda, although it is unclear when it first started there. Proximity to the Tanzanian border may be a factor in its adoption in this region of the country. 


Collaborative projects with local and overseas academic institutions have enabled the mat makers of the Kalisizo Post Test Club near Masaka to develop their skills to a particularly high level – for example a project with Makerere University, Durban University and the University of Northumbria encouraged artisans to express ideas about HIV and AIDs through their making – by incorporating certain words and motifs in their basketry and plaited braids. As a result, this group has continued to use text in their mats and now work on both local and more distant commissions that effectively communicate religious belief as well as personal messages for the recipients.


A current trend in Ugandan plaited mat making is for smaller, decorative mats, to be hung on a wall rather than sat or slept upon. These are found in some craft shops in Uganda and are certainly easier for tourists to transport home than a full-sized mat. These mini-mats are also given within Uganda as gifts, made to commission. The same plaiting techniques also are being used to create bags and containers of various sorts. 

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