Missionaries said barkcloth was demonic and diabolical. Now it could remake the future of fabrics.
Digital Collage Artist:
Thais Cedrolla
The textile sourced from fig trees survived colonialism and civil war to emerge as a sustainable material fit for the challenges of our age
Mwende Mutuli Musau

Ugandan folklore states that, “man came to take possession of the earth through the Mutuba tree.”

People from the tropics have long known how to harness natural resources such as the Mutuba in their day-to-day lives. From this tree, ancient African civilizations converted fig tree bark into fabric called Mutuba barkcloth. Today, this symbol of Ugandan national pride is emerging as a sustainable material for manufacturing fabric for furniture, interior design, clothing, shoes, bags, and much more. And as a radically changing climate requires industries to find new, sustainable resources, the Mutuba tree could play its own role in helping humanity take possession of the earth’s future.

Missionaries believed that barkcloth was a demonic fabric. Anything foreign to missionaries at the time was deemed to be satanic and diabolical.

Historians trace the precolonial origins of barkcloth, known locally as Olubugo, back to 1374 and the Buganda Kingdom of Uganda, during the reign of the Kimera, who ruled the Baganda people of southern Uganda. The artform is so old that it predates the practice of weaving. At the time, barkcloth was exclusively worn by royalty but demand, and therefore its price, quickly increased as interest in the fabric grew, and trade in barkcloth became very common. People wore it as a daily piece of clothing wrapped in toga-style, and it was also worn during special occasions like weddings and funerals. The Baganda community recognized the high value of barkcloth, to the extent that it could be used for paying taxes. 

When Uganda became a British colony in 1894, the colonizers had no use for barkcloth and favoured cotton instead. Missionaries believed that barkcloth was a demonic fabric. Anything foreign to missionaries at the time was deemed to be satanic and diabolical. To make things worse, barkcloth was associated with customary practices of the traditional religion in the Buganda Kingdom, which had been outlawed. Favouring a more “civilized” textile, missionaries replaced barkcloth where possible with imported textiles to limit the use of barkcloth in wider society. 

During World War I and World War II, Mutuba trees were cut down in large numbers to make supplies for soldiers. Eventually, barkcloth production ceased, as the British conscripted all men under the age of 45 to serve in the army during both world wars — men who would have otherwise worked in the barkcloth industry. But this suited the British, who preferred to grow cotton in their colonies.  

Given this background, it is easy to see how barkcloth would also become a symbol of protest. When King Edward Mutesa II was deposed and exiled to England by the British colonial administrators, people were outraged and started to wear barkcloth as a symbol of defiance against the administration, and the protests eventually forced the British to end his exile. Upon his return, people carried barkcloth banners and posters celebrating the return of the king. After Uganda gained its independence in 1963, the barkcloth industry struggled due to political instability, dictatorship, civil war and the end of the Buganda Kingdom. In 1993, when the Buganda Kingdom was restored, King Ronald Mutebi II wore barkcloth to his inauguration ceremony.

In 2008, barkcloth was included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But a little under a decade before UNESCO listed barkcloth, German-Ugandan couple Oliver Heintz and Mary Barongo-Heintz had recognized barkcloth’s worth and importance. They set up Barktex in 1999, a Barkcloth textile company. The company uses traditional barkcloth practices in taking the fabric to a global marketplace. As with many natural, sustainable materials, the couple recognized that refined, traditional practices are the innovations we need for a cleaner, greener future.

The process of transforming fig tree bark into barkcloth is quite complex, but — importantly — no trees have to be cut down.

The species of Mutuba tree (fig tree) used for making barkcloth is called Ficus Natalensis, and it originates from Sub-Saharan Africa. Fig trees grow on hills because of the high levels of soil nutrition at high altitudes. Mutuba trees play a vital part in their ecosystem: they help regulate water levels and soil fertility, while figs provide food to humans and animals alike.

The process of transforming fig tree bark into barkcloth is quite complex, but — importantly — no trees have to be cut down. Once Mutuba trees are at least five years old, their inner bark can be harvested during the wet seasons (March to May and September to November).

This ancient art is practised by members of the Ngonge Clan, led by a Kabbogoza (chief craftsman). These artisans have been carving and creating barkcloth for the Buganda kingdom’s royal family and the community since time immemorial. They cut the Mutuba tree and extract its bark. The bark that’s collected is then beaten with hammers in order to make it malleable. Craftsmen work in an open space to prevent the bark from drying out.

Commercially, the process of converting Mutuba trees into barkcloth is lengthy and labour intensive, but begins in much the same way as traditional methods. The tree is excoriated and the internal part of the tree is severed, leaving just the trunk, which is then covered with banana leaves to protect and restore the tree’s root system. The bark grows back after nine months, and this way of preserving the tree can elongate the Mutuba’s lifespan by 40 years. In this state, the extracted Mutuba bark is beaten with wooden mallets, creating a soft and tender texture and a terracotta colour. The material is then boiled in solar stoves to make it malleable, before being beaten again to smooth its edges.

While Barktex respects the traditional approach to barkcloth, they have challenged one key aspect of it. They exclusively hire women, who have long been excluded from what’s been viewed as a male craft.

Traditionally, barkcloth is a unisex fabric that is worn like a toga. Women complement the cloth by adding a sash around the waist. Barkcloth is brown, however, significant figures in the Baganda society like kings and chiefs dye their fabric white or black. This fabric is worn during a coronation, healing ceremonies, funerals and cultural gatherings. Because it is so hard to wash, it is often reserved for such special occasions, in which it can be worn as a costume or a mask. In homesteads, it is used for beddings, curtains, storage, and mosquito nets. In fact, it is a common myth among Baganda people that if you wear a piece of barkcloth, you will not get malaria.

While Barktex is not relying on this myth, it is certainly making the most of the fabric’s versatility. In 2015, the leaders of developed countries met for the 41st G7 summit. They convened in a room decorated with barkcloth provided by Barktex.

“African designs are not strictly traditional and European designs are not only modern. These two cultures intertwine.”

Today, barkcloth fabric has evolved to incorporate a variety of styles and designs. Modified fabric is bleached and dyed. There are different types of surface techniques to make the fabric water repellent, abrasion resistant and to prevent it from staining.  

One of the most popular styles of barkcloth today is cubistic — cubism is the early 20th century movement pioneered by Pablo Picasso — and it is often confused with traditional African designs. However, Barongo-Heintz describes this type of stitching as “African and European techniques which are traditional and modern.” Barongo-Heintz says that, “African designs are not strictly traditional and European designs are not only modern. These two cultures intertwine.” Their markets are mostly in Europe and North America but they also sell their fabric in Africa.

Barktex has a variety of customers who use barkcloth to create and build a variety of items, such as in interior design to make wood coverings, lamp shades, curtains and wallpapers, or to outfit kitchens. Barktex has also developed an innovative leather-substitute from barkcloth, which is used to make footwear and bags, but the main use for barkcloth is in interior design. Heintz says that, “Interiors make [up] 80% to 90% of our sales turnover.”

But, at a time when industries need to use sustainable, traditional materials like barkcloth more than ever, the practice of barkcloth production is under threat. Uganda has lost almost 8 million acres of Mutuba trees to deforestation since 1990. Fig trees are in such high demand that craftsmen have to source trees from privately owned land, and pay a fee to ensure that the trees are reserved for them. If more Ugandans plant Mutuba trees, this could prolong the ancient art and preserve cultural tradition.

Barkcloth production provides economic, environmental and ecological benefits to the community. This ancient art has prevailed despite external trials and tribulations, and now it offers a viable, sustainable material for diverse industries in need of such a fabric. If barkcloth can carve out this kind of space for itself, it can improve the quality of life for many Baganda people and promote Ugandan culture on the international stage. It’s not too late for the Mutuba to play a small role in helping us retake possession of the earth.

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