Barkcloth in Africa

The main uses of barkcloth in Africa include everyday and ceremonial clothing, for bedding, as room decoration, as shroud material and most recently, as examples of craft items for tourists.

The major production centres are Uganda and the upper Congo Basin. It was also formerly produced in parts of west Africa; including Ivory Coast, Ghana, south east Nigeria and Cameroon.

Demonstrating the use of the beater; Kampala, Uganda, March 2003 Photo by Milli Stein.

Demonstrating the use of the beater; Kampala, Uganda, March 2003 Photo by Milli Stein.

 

The species used to make the cloth in the Eastern Region of Ghana was Antiaris. The tree was cut down, the bark removed and beaten using a grooved round section mallet. It was then washed thoroughly, wrung out and pegged on the ground in the sun to dry. The most common and most recent use was as bedding since it discouraged ticks and other bugs.

The best known cloth making centre in Africa is the kingdom of Buganda in central Uganda. The work was undertaken by men. The best Natal fig trees are grown about 150 kilometres south-west of Kampala, close to the Tanzanian border. A strip about an inch wide and 16inches long is cut, beaten with a wooden mallet until it becomes much wider and three times as long. Patches may appear which are carefully sewn with raffia thread, using pieces of cloth taken from the edge. The large cloth in the exhibition has been decorated using wooden stamps dipped in muddy water mixed with the bark from the kaboga tree.

One of the main uses of barkcloth in Buganda was formerly for shrouds for the recently dead, particularly for members of the nobility. Barkcloth is also used in souvenirs, but survives as costume, particularly worn by people encouraging the persistence of Baganda traditions. Plain pieces of cloth from the eastern Congo and further north-east in the southern Sudan areas suggest this as an additional centre of barkcloth manufacture.