Friday, February 06, 2009

Uganda: Traditional burial cloth makes trendy come back

By: Wambi Michael IPS
Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

(IPS) - Bark cloth, a fabric historically used by the Buganda in central Uganda to wrap their dead before burial, is making a comeback in the form of trendy crafts, clothing and household goods.

The cloth, made from ficus natalensis trees and known locally as olubugo, was supplanted with the introduction of cotton by Arab caravan traders in the 19th century. Now bark cloth crafts such as table mats, bedcovers, jackets, purses and wide-brimmed hats are finding their way to the international market.

Bark cloth - also called back cloth - is exported to Germany, Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Canada where significant populations of Ugandans live in the Diaspora. There is also huge demand from neighbouring Kenya. Kenyan traders blend the cloth and export the products to Europe and the U.S..

Vincent Musubire, chairperson of Mwangwe Rural Development Association, told IPS that, ‘‘when we look at it critically, bark cloth has a big future but not in the traditional sense of burying people. It has value and can generate income, which is where I am putting the emphasis.’’

The Mwangwe Rural Development Association works to raise consciousness among artisans about value addition to improve the quality of bark cloth products.

He said the prospects for the bark cloth market were promising, especially internationally. ‘‘Tourists who come here always admire and purchase crafts made from bark cloth. So we want to ensure that the crafts from bark cloth produced by women and men meet the quality requirements of the local and international craft market.’’

‘‘That is why we are not leaving it to the local community to produce. I’m linking up with skilled young graduates of industrial art and design to work with local craftspeople to produce quality products,’’ Musubire added.

Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is supporting the export of bark cloth to Japan. The agency has sent volunteers to assist with the quality requirements.

Bark cloth can also be useful in the international packing industry. Said Musubire, ‘‘backcloth is unique because it is biodegradable. This is not the case for polythene bags. Now that there is a growing national and global consciousness against the use of polythene, bark cloth can be an alternative.’’

Kenyan exporters are buying bark cloth for packing products destined for the European Union where consumers are increasingly concerned about protecting the environment.

Nuwa Wamala Nyanzi, an artist and owner of a crafts business at the National Theatre in the Ugandan capital of Kampala confirmed that the demand for backcloth among tourists is high. But it is not being marketed widely enough at international craft expos, he complained.

He told IPS that, ‘‘if leaders such as President (Yoweri) Museveni were to promote the wide brimmed bark cloth hats, we would have increased international demand. But the marketing has been left to individuals who may not have the same influence.’’

Nyanzi also told IPS that bark cloth production is suffering because fewer craftspeople remain who have the skill to make quality bark cloth. Traditionally, craftspeople of the Ngonge clan have manufactured bark cloth for the Baganda royal family and the rest of the community.

Many of these craftspeople have died without passing on their skill.

Maliza Nantambi, a craftsperson selling crafts to shops in Kampala, described bark cloth an expensive raw materials because it is scarce when compared to other craft materials.

Bark cloth is recognised as part of the world's collective heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Head of the Uganda national commission for UNESCO, Augustine Omare Okurut, told IPS that ‘‘research is being conducted on the making of bark cloth, how to preserve it and how it can be exploited for the benefit of the local and international community’’.

The Ugandan government in 2004 drew up an export development strategy for the hand crafts sector.

Bark cloth crafts were among those targeted in an effort to exploit the European Union’s preferential trade deal called the Everything but Arms agreement and the U.S.’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which also allows preferential access to some products from African states.

But the government did not set funding aside for the strategy.

Uganda’s handicrafts trade is largely informal, hampered by inconsistent and ad hoc market access, entry and penetration approaches and inadequate market distribution networks. The official handicraft export statistics for 2002 and 2003 reveal a total export value of 49,841 dollars and 63,535 dollars, respectively.

Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
Putting principles before profits