In Uganda, designers are trying to revive interest in a cloth people there have been wearing for the past 600 or more years. “Bark cloth” is made from just that, the inner bark of the mutuba tree — a kind of ficus. According to UNESCO, the process for making it predates the invention of weaving. The United Nations body proclaimed Ugandan bark cloth manufacturing part of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage” back in 2005.
Bagandans traditionally wrap their dead in bark cloth before burial.
Bark cloth is traditionally worn by members of the Baganda tribe, especially on formal occasions featuring the king of Buganda, the kabaka. Bagandans also traditionally bury their dead wrapped in the cloth, and that’s why 52-year-old Rabina Navoli sells it alongside coffins and crosses at her narrow roadside stall in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Navoli says she buys her bark cloth from the rural village of Masaka, which earlier this year held a bark cloth festival to mark the conclusion of a U.S. Department of State-funded program. That program provided $35,000 for the “Revitalization of the Ancient Craft of Bark Cloth Making.” Locals in the village demonstrated how the same cloth used for funerals can also be used for purses, shoes and souvenirs.
“Some people come here for bark cloth to put in the coffin,” she says, demonstrating the various textures and qualities of the cloth. “Some come here for bark cloth to put in the grave itself, and some come here to buy bark cloth to put on during the ceremony.”
One of the participants was Bukenya Katamiira. His family has been producing bark cloth for generations.
His bark cloth isn’t the coarse, reddish cloth used to wrap the deceased. It has a more felt-like texture and is in high demand from designers trying to use the material in clothes.
He demonstrates how it’s made, first carefully scraping the outer layer of thin, white bark from the mutuba tree.
Next, he cuts out a piece of the inner bark, lifting it out with the sharpened end of a banana leaf stem, so as not to contaminate the tree with any disease or rust from a metal instrument. Katamiira wraps the wound with a banana leaf for extra protection.
The bark is boiled to release the sap, then pounded using special mallets to stretch the fibers.
With proper care, the same trees can be harvested for decades, yielding huge pieces of cloth after processing.
But even though the fabric is versatile, many people’s perceptions of it are mired in the past, according to journalist Eunice Rukundo.
“There’s a scary element to it because we associate it with … tradition and mystery,” she says. She points out it’s not exactly comfortable to wear or easy to clean either. “Maybe eventually, they will find a way of making it softer and more friendly. But, right now, I don’t know.”
Rukundo, editor of Kampala’s Full Woman magazine, says even though she likes seeing bark cloth designs on the runway, she can’t really imagine people wearing something so culturally associated with death on the street as casual wear.
Ugandan designers like Gloria Wavamunno are trying to make bark cloth more socially acceptable and easier to wear. Wavamuno says the roughness of the cloth gives it character.
“I am a lover of texture of clothing,” she says. “I like to see that fabric has lines, and roughness, and textures that are [the] stories of a fabric … just like lines and wrinkles on people.”
Wavamunno says she plans to do a clothing line featuring bark cloth sometime in the next year. In the meantime, other designers have already launched clothing lines using the sustainable cloth.
This story was reported with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation African “Great Lakes” Reporting Initiative.
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