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In what ways are the Cultural Items linked to a Buganda past?


Barkcloth is a type of fabric made from the bark of a fig tree that is hammered out and stretched eventually forming a fabric that was used throughout the interlacustrine region prior to the arrival of cloth which came with the first Islamic traders to reach the region and later via European traders.

Barkcloth is at the very centre of traditional Buganda life. It was present in every single shrine I visited, where it is worn by the doctors, adorns the walls and forms a cordoned area at the far end of shrines into which only the senior doctors can enter. One informant, Henry Ssalongo (Black 2003: 18) spoke of bark cloth being used by doctors during the process of cowrie shell divination. According to Ssalongo, the healer throws the cowrie shells onto barkcloth before interpreting their patterns. In cultural stores in markets barkcloth is used as a mat to rest other items. At school the traditional production of barkcloth used wooden hammers is acted out by primary school children.

A school child performing the story of the coming of Kintu
A school child performing the story of the coming of Kintu.
Next to his left hand is a wooden hammer used to make bark cloth

One of the strongest reactions to a cultural item came from a Kymbogo University student working as part of our team in 2003. Whilst interviewing some local doctors I was given a barkcloth robe.

The student spotted my barkcloth that was almost totally hidden by a plastic bag and asked me not to let it be seen in public. When I questioned her about her reaction she told me that she was very scared of the power of the barkcloth. This is probably due to its association with my interviewees; the doctors, who are associated with the world of the spirits and the Lubaale. When a single item prompts such immediate fear and distress its significance cannot be overstated.

Two doctors inside a shrine wearing barkcloth robes.
Two doctors inside a shrine wearing barkcloth robes.


Cowry shells are a ubiquitous form of decoration both in Uganda and in the greater East African region. They are found in every single cultural store and in every shrine, they dominate the Uganda Museum ’s ethnographic exhibit; adorning clothing, head bands, gourds and musical instruments. They are notably recoded by early ethnographers adorning the Buganda Royal Drums. In addition to being a decorative item, they are widely recognised as being ‘traditional money’ (Field Notes 2003: 30), that is a currency that existed before the coming of foreign (notably British and Islamic) traders.

Within the context of the Buganda Cultural items, cowries play several key roles. Firstly they adorn the robes worn by doctors within shrines. As a decorative element, cowries are sown onto barkcloth robes and are often spoken of as indicating the prestige of a particular doctor. They feature prominently on the headbands that must be worn by the doctor and the patient during a divination. For example, on a headband that I was given, two upright shells represent Musoke and should be worn at the front of the head. (Field Notes 2003: 29).

A senior doctor in Masaka wearing a robe decorated with cowry shells
A senior doctor in Masaka wearing a robe decorated with cowry shells

As a tool of divination I have seen cowrie shells are used in Buganda by doctors who will shake them, either in their hand or from a wooden container, and throw them onto barkcloth. The pattern of the shells can then be read and the patient’s disease can be cured.

Jembe and traditional forms

Many Cultural Items are designed to mimic the form of tools or other items that are perceived to have played a central role in the Buganda past. The Jembe for example is commonly found at most cultural stores. Agriculture has played a seminal role in the life of the inhabitants of the interlacustrine region since the emergence of the first Urewe Ware using populations some 1000 years ago.

The Baganda founding myth tells the story of Kintu, the first Muganda and the founder of the kingdom, who arrived in Buganda from a foreign land (some versions say from the north, some say from the sky) with a wife, Nnambi and cows, sheep, goats, chickens, bananas and millet. (Ray, 1991: 55-56). After establishing a household Kintu left Buganda forever, leaving the kingdom to his son Cwa, the second Kabaka of Buganda, who in turn gave forth an entire line of Kabakas. (Wrigley, 1996: 20-21).

A modern jembe being used during an excavation in 2002
A modern jembe being used during an excavation in 2002

A traditional Ganda Jembe.
A traditional Ganda Jembe.

The story of Kintu illustrates the importance of agriculture to the Baganda. Before Kintu there was no agriculture and before agriculture there were no Baganda. Similarly before the first metal hoes there was no agriculture. The Ganda Jembe as a Cultural Item therefore, symbolises a root facet of Baganda identity. What makes this symbolism even more pertinent is the simultaneous acceptance of a Baganda past with the rejection of a Colonial one. A Ganda Jembe is a Ganda Jembe in direct opposition to the modern Jembe’s that are perceived to be of Western and modern origin.

Reflections of Past Occupations

The Ganda jembe is not alone in its evocation of a Baganda past. Items such as knives, axes and hammers that are said to mimic the tools of the Baganda past are sold at Cultural Stores. Other items invoke the occupations and subsistance strategies of the past in less direct ways. One example of this is the model boat found in most cultural stores.

A model boat
A model boat

Made from wood the boat is around 40 cm long and is accompanied by a paddle. Anyone who has ever spend any time near Lake Vicotria will immediately recognize the boat as a representation of the fishing and trading boats that surround the Lake shore. As the Jembe represents the importance of agriculture to the Baganda, the boat represents the importance of fishing as a subsistence strategy and on a metaphysical level the significance of the Lake as a home to Mukasa, the ‘chief God of the Lake’ (Ray, 1991: 132).

At this point it is worth elaborating briefly upon the cosmology of the Baganda. The world of Cultural Items is inextricably linked to the world of the spirits and gods. The subject of numerous studies, the spirits and gods of the Baganda are variously described within early 20 th century ethnography as a ‘Pantheon’ of Gods by Roscoe (1911), or ‘spirits of purely supernatural origin’ by Gorju (1906: 172). Many of these interpretations reflect the trends and thinking of the day and consequently their conclusions must be checked when studying the modern Baganda.




© 2007 Editor, Sada Mire, and the individual authors of these African Heritage and Archaeology webpages

This page last modified 5 May, 2009 by Institute Webmaster

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