Africa : Where Africa's Kings Ruled, Their Finery Grew on Trees

dustyelbow

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Africa. Truly original and unique. May it continue to shape our past, present,and future.


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Where Africa's Kings Ruled, Their Finery Grew on Trees

By MARC LACEY

NSANGWA, Uganda - The shirt that Peter S. Kaboggoza had on the other day was nice enough, a bit worn around the edges but with all the buttons in place and no visible rips or stains. Still, it was a cotton-polyester blend, and that made Mr. Kaboggoza a bit sheepish when asked why he was wearing it.

"Oh, this?" he said in Luganda, the local language.

Mr. Kaboggoza was wearing what Ugandans wear, second-hand clothes cast away by Westerners and scooped up on the cheap at local markets. But Mr. Kaboggoza is not the average Ugandan. He represents the country's proud past, when people here produced their own textiles, manufactured their own clothes and wore them with pride.



Those clothes were made not of cotton, polyester or anything else that can be bought off the rack. They were made from the bark of trees, and Mr. Kaboggoza is the latest and perhaps last in a long line of African artisans who have made a craft of pounding bark into cloth.

The material can chafe a bit. It does not absorb perspiration like cotton or insulate like wool. But bark cloth has other, more mystical qualities. It comes from the African soil, and represents the pride of the country and the continent.

It was long the cloth of choice for Uganda's royalty. Ages before Europeans came along, Uganda was divided into kingdoms that were known for much the same splendor, albeit on a smaller scale, that the ones associates nowadays with Britain or Saudi Arabia. The royals had crowns and capes, and in the largest of those kingdoms, Buganda, they wore clothing made of tree bark.

Mr. Kaboggoza's family, part of the Ngonge clan, has long been the royal bark cloth maker. When he was a child, his father would use a sharp knife to peel sheets of bark off the Mutuba tree, the local name for the Ficus natalensis.

Mr. Kaboggoza's grandfather did the same thing, pounding and pounding the bark with a special mallet until it turned into something resembling a tightly knit web of threads.

Mr. Kaboggoza's great-grandfather was a bark cloth maker, too. The practice, in fact, dates back 600 years or more in Uganda, experts say. It spread over generations to other parts of Africa, including Tanzania, Congo, Malawi and northern Mozambique.

But bark cloth making is a dying practice, as the shirt on Mr. Kaboggoza's back illustrates. The process began to fade when Arab traders introduced cotton into Uganda in the 19th century. Another blow came in the mid-1960's when President Milton Obote outlawed Uganda's traditional kingdoms. With the king of Buganda having fled to Britain and with his followers laying low, traditional practices weakened.

Even after the kingdoms were restored in 1993, bark cloth never regained its popularity. Once commonly worn by men and women, in the form of bark togas, it became something to wear on special occasions, like royal celebrations.

Now, bark cloth is used most often in burials, as a shroud to cover bodies before they are laid to rest. But even that use is declining, as many deceased Ugandans are buried in wooden coffins, wearing fancy Western clothing.

Mr. Kaboggoza laments the fact that his art is no longer an essential part of Ugandans' way of life. He also laments that most bark cloth makers are getting up in years, and that there are estimated to be only about 100 of them left in Uganda, most situated in the southern part of the country, near Mr. Kaboggoza's lush village.

In his family plot, near the gravestones of his ancestors, Mr. Kaboggoza still plants ficus trees alongside banana plants, a sign of respect in this country, whose people consume bananas at virtually every meal.

He also hopes to teach one or more of his 12 sons the craft, although that is looking less likely with every passing year. He is 78 now, and his adult sons have all moved to bigger towns and taken better-paying jobs.

But the craft of making bark cloth is not dead yet. It is still possible, deep in the villages around here, to find old men, younger men and even children banging on bark. And Unesco recently declared the art of bark cloth making one of the world's endangered cultural practices.

Augustine Omare-Okurut, who heads the Uganda National Commission for Unesco, acknowledged that he himself does not wear bark cloth when he goes out. But he said he uses it for wall hangings and place mats in his home, and wants future generations to appreciate the practice.

"This is a tradition worthy of preservation because it's truly a masterpiece of human creativity," he said.
 

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