Bark cloth making is an ancient craft performed by the Baganda people who live in the Buganda kingdom in south Uganda. For over 600 years, craftsmen of the Ngonge clan have been manufacturing bark cloth for the Baganda royal family and the rest of the community, headed by a kaboggoza, the hereditary chief craftsman, who lives in the Nsangwa village in Mawokota, situated in Mpigi District.
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 make its texture soft and fine and give it an even terracotta colour. Craftsmen work in an open shed to protect the bark from drying out too quickly.
Bark cloth is worn both by men and women like a toga, with a sash around the waist for women. While common bark cloth is terracotta in colour, bark cloth of the 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 bark cloth prospered 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, reducing the wearing of bark cloth to particular cultural and spiritual functions. Nevertheless, bark cloth is still highly recognized among the Baganda community as a marker of their specific political and cultural traditions. In recent years, the production of bark cloth has been particularly encouraged and promoted in the Buganda kingdom.
In the past decades, traditional cultural practices, such as the production of bark cloth, were banned in Uganda and only revived since the mid-1990s. As a result of this decades-long discrimination, the number of bark cloth makers declined and they became marginalized in society. Today, they have difficulties making a living from their craft. Due to decreasing incomes and industrially produced cotton cloth imports, people are less inclined to buy bark cloth, with the result that craftsmen are forced to seek jobs in other occupations.