Barkcloth making in Uganda

Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2005)

Country(ies): Uganda



Barkcloth making in Uganda

Barkcloth making is an ancient craft of the Baganda people who live in the Buganda kingdom in southern Uganda. Traditionally, craftsmen of the Ngonge clan, headed by a kaboggoza, the hereditary chief craftsman have been manufacturing bark cloth for the Baganda royal family and the rest of the community. Its preparation involves one of humankind’s oldest savoir-faire, a prehistoric technique that predates the invention of weaving.

The inner bark of the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis) is harvested during the wet season and then, in a long and strenuous process, beaten with different types of wooden mallets to give it a soft and fine texture and an even terracotta colour. Craftsmen work in an open shed to protect the bark from drying out too quickly. Barkcloth is worn like a toga by both sexes, but women place a sash around the waist. While common barkcloth is terracotta in colour, barkcloth of kings and chiefs is dyed white or black and worn in a different style to underline their status. The cloth is mainly worn at coronation and healing ceremonies, funerals and cultural gatherings but is also used for curtains, mosquito screens, bedding and storage.

The production of barkcloth, which was widely spread with workshops in almost every village in the Buganda kingdom. With the introduction of cotton cloth by Arab caravan traders in the nineteenth century, production slowed and eventually faded out, limiting the use of barkcloth to cultural and spiritual functions. Nevertheless, barkcloth is still recognized among the Baganda community as a marker of specific social and cultural traditions. In recent years, the production of barkcloth has been greatly encouraged and promoted in the Buganda kingdom.



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Safeguarding project (10-2006/08-2009)

The Mutaba tree provides the raw material for the delicate manufacture of bark-cloth. Produced for the royal family and other Buganda community members and highly recognized as a marker of cultural traditions, this precious cloth is worn at coronations and healing ceremonies, funerals and social gatherings.

The objectives of the safeguarding project are to:

  • train craftspersons, especially young artisans, in making bark cloth; establish sustainable practices of using the Mituba trees;
  • popularize the making and use of bark cloth; ensure legal protection and income generating activities; and
  • promote recognition of and respect for the cultural value of bark cloth.

Training activities, to be widely publicized in the mass media and through public gatherings and events, are carried out to sensitize and train youth and communities generally in appreciating the cultural values in the techniques of planting and propagating the Mituba trees from which bark cloth is produced. A selected number of youth are to receive training on skills of bark cloth production.