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Barkcloth: covering Buganda in life and death

By Vision Reporter

Added 13th December 2007 03:00 AM

IN many parts of Uganda, especially Buganda, the barkcloth has historical, traditional and spiritual values. To the Baganda, it is a major link to the spiritual world. Traditionalists also wear it when communicating with the Kabaka. Barkcloth is a must-have during ancestral worship because, as the B

IN many parts of Uganda, especially Buganda, the barkcloth has historical, traditional and spiritual values. To the Baganda, it is a major link to the spiritual world. Traditionalists also wear it when communicating with the Kabaka. Barkcloth is a must-have during ancestral worship because, as the B

IN many parts of Uganda, especially Buganda, the barkcloth has historical, traditional and spiritual values. To the Baganda, it is a major link to the spiritual world. Traditionalists also wear it when communicating with the Kabaka. Barkcloth is a must-have during ancestral worship because, as the Baganda believe, it appeases the gods to pour out their blessings.

In Buganda, It is also used when initiating twins into a family. John Kasozi brings you the origin of the barkcloth, how it is made and the value many people attach to it worldwide.

In Buganda, a dead person’s status was measured by the pieces of barkcloth he or she was wrapped in. Lately, the barkcloth has become expensive. A wealthy person is now buried in about five pieces of barkcloth. But many years ago, abaami (chiefs) would be buried in about 120 pieces of barkcloth, making the grave rise to almost six feet above the ground. “The situation has now changed,” says Wamala, an elderly Muganda.

He adds, “These days, the number of barkcloths one is buried in depends on the amount of money collected at the burial.” Bodies wrapped in a barkcloth can be embalmed for almost 50 years. This was especially true for the Baganda royals.

When Kabaka Muteesa I died in 1884, his corpse (enjole) was wrapped in 4,000 pieces of barkcloth. Some of the Buganda royal tombs can be seen at the Kasubi tombs where a long curtain made of barkcloth divides the place into two parts.

The section in which the Kabakas are buried is known as Kibira (sacred forest). Corresponding regalia of each Kabaka is also placed in front of the platforms.

Although almost 80% of the barkcloth made today in Buganda is used for burial, barkcloth has many other uses.

Tthe kingdoms in southern Uganda attach political value to the barkcloth. They use it at the coronation of princes. During these ceremonies, the new king wears a barkcloth at various proceedings to observe the tradition and ritual.

On July 31, 1993, Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II was crowned Kabaka of Buganda at Naggalabi, Buddo. He was wrapped in very high quality barkcloth, with several layers of leopard and hyena hides.

This is an outstanding example of cultural innovation and creativity.
In many kingdoms, heirs are also enthroned with ceremonial barkcloth. The barkcloth is worn as a suuka (worn up to the ankle, with a sash around the waist for women).

Traditionally, the Kabaka and his chiefs’ barkcloth were made specially in cream, white or black and worn in a different style to signify their status. The barkcloth for the royals, chiefs and wealthy people in Buganda, Bunyoro and Busoga, is fumigated with special incense to get rid of bugs. It is knotted at the shoulder and left to drape over up to the knee. Many barkcloths are decorated with different colour patterns.

In Malawi, the barkcloth is used to make the initiation dress of girls. While in Tahiti, traditionally, the upper class wore the ahutura (shoal) over the shoulder and the lower class wore a rectangular piece wrapped around the body and passed under the arm so that the shoulders were visible.

Meanwhile, in Fiji, the length of a man’s loin cloth symbolises his rank. The chiefs’ loin clothes touched the ground, while a poor man’s cloth only draped over his belt. In India, some sects used the barkcloth as a religious dress.

The difference in barkcloth lies in the material; the west African one is whitish or grey, whereas the Ugandan and Tanzanian one is brown. The common type in Uganda is the brown, although the white one also exists. In Uganda, the popular species is the Ficus natalensis fig tree (mutuba).

In Ghana, it is antiaris. The species determines the colour and flexibility of the finished product.
The Baganda are particularly careful when growing mutuuba due to the religious significance they attach to the barkcloth.

They do not cut the tree down like it is done in Ghana. They also ensure that the tree is protected and wrapped to heal faster.

But what makes the Ugandan barkcloth unique is the people’s ability to produce fine outfits of different sizes from it. A typical barkcloth in Uganda is light enough to be worn comfortably, yet thick enough to be durable. It is by far the finest quality in Africa.

Lawrence Katwere, the son of Omutaka Peter Ssemwezi Kaboggoza, says apart from the above uses, the mutuba tree is used to improve soil fertility in banana plantations.

He says a huge mutuba trunk can be crafted to make brewing vessel (elyatto) used for fermenting local brew (mwenge bigere).

“The leaves act as goat fodder. You can also get a lot of firewood from mutuba, since it bears many branches. The tree is also used for fencing and is a herbal treatment for sore throat. It grows in places with a cool temperature and supports climbing plants like passion fruits,” Kaboggoza adds.

Barkcloth: covering Buganda in life and death

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