Two of my greatest obsessions are textiles and death. For several years I’ve divided my time equally between hunting down rare indigenous fabrics and documenting funerary rites and rituals. I never imagined the two would come together so fashionably. A few years ago I met a tailor named Mario, who specializes in one-of-a-kind designs for bespoke men’s clothing. Creating a truly exquisite item of clothing goes beyond the cut or the style; it must begin with the fabric itself. The raw materials should have a legacy before ever touching the tailor’s hands. Throughout history the pelts of animals have often been worn to represent luxury, status, or spiritual connection. I wanted to find a botanical-based textile that exuded that same power and mystique while leaving our animal friends to keep their own coats. Enter the bark cloth of the Baganda people.
The Baganda of southern Uganda are the country’s largest ethnic group. Since ancient times they’ve been making a venerated fabric by pounding the inner bark of the mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis). This laborious process produces a stunning cognac-brown material held in such high spiritual regard that seven sheets of it are wrapped around a deceased Baganda’s body before burial. It is believed that this material alone has the power to transport the soul to the land of the Baganda’s ancestors.
Bark cloth’s association with death and the afterlife explains why it’s primarily worn day to day by Baganda witches and spiritual mediums, who consider it a magnet for ghosts. Some mediums will even make special headbands with pieces of bark cloth covering their eyes. These arboreal veils work as a window into the world of the dead.
My quest was to get to Masaka, a bastion of bark cloth production, and obtain this botanical fabric of supernatural constitution, the perfect medium from which the tailor Mario could construct a haunted tuxedo. More important, I hoped the Baganda craftspeople would give me permission to wear it.
I fly to Kampala, Uganda’s capital, where I stop by the central open-air market to stock up on snacks for the road trip to Masaka. As it’s still early in the morning, I order a bag of rolex sandwiches from a vendor—“rolex” being slang for “rolled eggs,” the nationally beloved street food usually consisting of scrambled eggs, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, and spicy pepper sauce rolled up in chapati bread. I also purchase sautéed termites, stuffed slices of cow esophagus, smoked Nile perch roe, and a fat bag of khat. With road snacks properly in order, I start the 80-mile drive to Masaka. Getting out of Kampala is a traffic nightmare, and the drive takes about three hours.
Although certainly urban, Masaka, with its dusty streets, feels more like a big village when compared with the sprawling chaos of Kampala. I make my way to the central market, which is filled with ramshackle wooden stalls capped with corrugated sheet metal roofs. As I get deeper into the market, an entire sector dedicated to ritualistic needs reveals itself. This open-air botanical has a delightful cedar aroma, which I realize is coming from the floor-to-ceiling piles of bark cloth stacked in the recesses of each booth. In addition to the classic cognac-hued cloth I’m familiar with, there are pale cream and charcoal-hued varieties, both of which have been treated with dyes.
I strike up a conversation with Kafto “Tony” Raymond, owner of Bazzukuli Ba Kisoro, a corner booth packed tight with all manner of curios, including the ornately beaded bark cloth headbands witches wear to speak with the dead. Tony shows me his selection of bark cloth sheets, each made from a single piece of mutuba bark. While the finest sheets of bark cloth are thick and without holes, the lower quality pieces are paper-thin with visible sutures. I ask Tony if there’s a place where I might witness the production process.
“If you want to see the finest bark cloth being made, you will have to travel to Buyoga. There a family is making it fresh from the tree. It has been raining, so they can do it for you now.”
In the morning I drive in search of Buyoga. Not far outside Masaka, the road turns into a muddy trail hell-bent on swallowing my 4x4. Every few miles I reach another crossroads. Small, dusty structures stand precariously in the middle of each muddy intersection, looking more like the set for a Wild West film than a town center. Every intersection is equipped with a selection of old-timers sitting in lawn chairs who promise me that Buyoga is at the next intersection. Eventually it is.
I pull up to the customary crossroads cronies.
“Is this Buyoga?” I ask.
“Yes. What do you need?” one in the trio replies.
“I’m here for bark cloth.”
Before I can blink, the man climbs into the front seat of the car, promising to show me where to find it. After a series of turns, we come upon a compound hidden amid a forest of mutuba trees. Here I meet Pauline Nayiga, 23, and her brother Luemba, 19. The two are third-generation bark cloth makers. Their father, Bukemya Paur, is considered a Musai Kabaka (chief) among the Baganda people. The young pair inform me that the chief is traveling through Uganda teaching other villages how to make the sacred textile. In his absence, they will show me the process.
First, Luemba takes a sharp knife and carves a makeshift chisel out of the core of a banana tree. The banana-pith shiv is wet and dripping with a gelatinous resin. Luemba says this is the secret to not hurting the mutuba tree. He approaches a skinny sapling and scrapes off the dark outer bark. He then slices into the inner layer of bark with his steel knife and gently pries off the square of cambium using the banana chisel. Luemba carefully coats the bare trunk with more of the resin and wraps it up with a banana leaf.
“The tree is not harmed,” he says. “That bark will grow back in one year.”
After boiling the eight-inch-square piece of bark to extract any sap and make it more pliable, Luemba presses it onto a smooth work log. He begins to pound it in a crisscross pattern using his okwaaka, a wooden mallet with deep, sharp grooves. The bark visibly expands. Pauline nods in approval as she hands her brother the okufungiro, a second mallet with smoother grooves and a flat edge. Luemba folds the bark in half, pounds, then folds it again. Once it’s folded up to the size of a love note, he finishes the bark cloth off with a mallet that has no grooves at all.
Pauline nods again. “When you hear the echo of the mallet hitting the workbench, then the bark cloth is finished. Now we will leave it in the sun, and it will turn from white to the ocher color.“
The now 16-inch piece of fabric is perfect for a pocket square, but I let the siblings know I have come in search of the big cloth. Pauline and Luemba begin to whisper. They run off, then reappear with a heavy, massive bundle.
We unfold a single piece of bark cloth that the family made from an entire adult tree. By the time we finish opening it, the cloth is the size of a pool cover and the entire yard smells like a walk-in cedar humidor. Unlike the thin cloth in the market, this weighty monstrosity feels like a piece of buckskin. We all stand in silence staring at the masterpiece laid out at our feet.
Sensing my amazement, Luemba swells with pride: “If you like it, I will sell it to you.” Luemba quotes me a price, after which his sister screams out his name and drags him back into the house. The duo reappear moments later with an agreed price (which is still far beyond reasonable). I smile and raise a finger: “Sold!”
With the three of us in a state of symbiotic euphoria, Pauline suggests we visit their neighbor, a local brewer, to celebrate. After a short walk through the woods, we’re sitting in a small courtyard drinking homemade banana beer out of calabash gourds. After a few gourds, I ask Luemba how he feels about my making a suit out of his fabric. His eyes light up.
“Bark cloth is not just for witches and funerals. We wear it for all important occasions. This shows our elders that we are proud of our culture. A lot of what we make is getting used by Ugandan designers for high-end fashion.”
Pauline leans in, pointing to Luemba’s polo shirt. “These cloths are European. Before these cloths were brought in from the outside, the Baganda only wore bark cloth. When you wear your suit, people will know that you are a friend of the Baganda people.”
“I hope someday people around the world are wearing our fabric,” Luemba says, smiling. “Maybe they can start selling our bark cloth at the airport.”
This article originally published in the October/Nobember 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.