Face Music - Traditional crafts of the Uganda people
    • Traditional crafts of the Uganda people

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

Text available in German
  • Below you can see great examples - click on an icon - Enjoy! © Albi - Face Music 2007

Native art was very popular; Africans have adopted from the immigrants only as much as seemed to be in accordance with their way of life. Many defended their tribal traditions against Islamic influences, later on also against the Christian religion. The figured-plastic art Black Africa has become renowned for has not achieved the same level of importance among all peoples. Some tribes regarded the decorative painting of their huts or pottery as being more important, others held the carving of masks in great esteem. Among the Bantu people, sculpture was highly developed, its destribution quite clearly demonstrating that women assumed social supremacy.

Uganda has a wide array of handicraft products, ranging from basketry, mats, ceramics, beads, pottery, hand textiles and woven products to toys, jewellery, bags, leather products, batik and wood craft, etc. These items are produced in all districts and regions, using local raw materials and with tribal ornaments in limited edition based on culture, history, and traditions.
Handicraft is a cultural tradition and predominantly a cottage industry, practised by the rural youth of both gender, but mainly by women in the country, in order to supplement their incomes. It has been tradition to hand over craftsmanship and skills from generation to generation. This tradition has been on the wane over time. There can even be found real masters of craftsmanship. The production of handicraft, however, has seen an upswing as a new industrial branch, and it is perceived as a potential business for a sustainable family income, thus making modern art more and more attractive for artists, traders, and at last for export.

Some of Uganda's arts and crafts are actually the musical instruments such as drums, thumb pianos, stopped clay and reed pipes, lyre fiddles, and rattles. Some cast-iron bells are carried on the dancer's legs.

Bantu house
The houses are made of a double layer of plaited bamboo filled with clay (framework with clay coating) and roofed with grass or banana thatch, although now more frequently with the ubiquitous African corrugated iron roof. The forms of the huts were like those of beehives, cupolas or squares, with the body construction being made from wood, palm leaf rips or bamboo. The walls were covered with clay, bark, or braided mats. Some tribes even painted ornaments onto the clay covering.

Bark cloth
Before Arab traders brought cotton into the country, there had been used fibres of the banana plant or the bark of the Mutuba fig-tree (Ficus natalensis). Bark cloth – it has its origin in Uganda and is a purely vegetable fibre. No cloth is like any other cloth – there definitely is a huge selection of the most diverse soft natural colours from brown to different colourings.

One of the finest materials from which Ugandan artists produce their handicraft is bark cloth, a fibrous if coarse material scraped off a fig tree. Lubugo as it is called in Luganda is made from the bark of a fig tree after being soaked in water for a few days before artisans hammer it out with a toothed mallet into a fabric. The fabric comes out in various browns, some of a very rich dark brown colour. Bark cloths hold a high place in many rituals in the kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro where princes and princesses were obliged to wear them. Yards of it, for example, are used to screen or drape the walls of shrines and god's homes. Kings wear them - particularly of a white colour - on the occasion of big commemorative ceremonies; chiefs swear by them while wearing yards of it knotted at the shoulder, with a spear in hand. And during burials, dead bodies are wrapped up in bark cloth. In the early days of kingdoms in Uganda, notable chiefs would be buried in wrappings of up to 200 pieces of mbugo. Today, since the revival of the kingdoms, bark cloth has regained its prestige with many Baganda making all different kinds of robes out of it, including very attractive hats that bear the Buganda insignia, coats, and long flowing robes.

Kanzus, which today are white cotton robes, are nowadays still worn by men (these are long white tunics with a collar-less neck and embroidered red thread that streams down the middle). Kanzus were modified after Arab dresses which first came to Uganda when slavers traded in ivory. The women wear wrappings made from patterned textiles (which usually are imported from Kenya or Tanzania), or a gomezi, a dress in Western style with tapered shoulders. (There is a story about an Asian tailor called Gomes after whom the women's dress was named.)

The blacksmith, whose handling the fire creates magic ideas, very often also assumes the role of a priest (medicine man) or the creator of ritual figures.

Normally, however, he was a craftsman who worked iron and who was responsible for the creation of daily articles, utensils, tools, and arms: spears, pastoral sticks, catapults (shotguns), arrowheads, knives, hoes, axes, bowls and so on.
Extraordinary masters of their craft had the honour to design and create articles for chiefs, clan chiefs and the king, with this articles made from iron being embellished with special ornaments and decorations. Catapults (shotguns) and pastoral sticks were produced by the nomad tribes in northern Uganda.

Pottery - Gourds
There are various types of pottery in Uganda with most of the pots and earthenware saucers being made of kaolin, clay, and dark soil. Skilled potters slurp the clay and roll it in their hands as they carve products out, without using a kick wheel. Many tribes use clay to make smoking pipes, pots for carrying water and cooking purposes.

They have many gourds, and some of these gourds are used as the traditional containers for beer. When halved into two, gourds make good beer drinking bowls. Some long-necked gourds are used for collecting drinking water, while others are used for keeping salt or cow butter. Many artists in Uganda write on the gourds, or embroider them with tiny beads before sale. Huge gourds are used to carry banana wine on the occasion of funerals and weddings. As a matter of protocol, such gourds have to be draped with yellow banana leaves and gently put on top of dry banana leaves.

Elephant grass and palm leaves provide for the raw material used for mats, baskets, and also woven bee baskets; they are also used to build traps for wild animals. Today also hand bags and wall hangings are made for decorative purposes.

There are several types of baskets made in Uganda, most of these items are finely and fancifully coloured with dye solutions to create intricate patterns and designs, which constitute the products of skilled craftsmen and women.

The Batooro (Toro) and Bahima from Ankole (Nkole) of western Uganda produce fine, little cylindrical baskets (endiiro) in which millet bread is served and kept hot. In Buganda, however, the baskets are bigger, and coffee beans, fruits and even bottle beer are often served in these. At modern ganda weddings, men and women dressed up in kanzu and boding line up with the baskets (bibbo) as they approach the bride's home on the introductory (courtship) occasions.

Beautifully hand-woven beer basket made from grass. These items are very scarce and absolutely unique. There is used a special type of grass. This only grows in certain areas high up in the mountains, and days are spent to harvest it. Secondly, the dyeing process is also a cumbersome one, since only certain natural plants are used for this. Once the grass is dyed, it is very, very tightly woven to form the most beautiful patterns. These beer pots are used by the men to take along their home-brewed beer or sour milk (Amasi) when going away from home for hunting. Because they are so tightly woven, they will never leak and keep the contents very cool, even on the hottest days. They are dipped into water from time to time and then hung in trees, where the slightest breeze will chill the contents. These unique items are unfortunately becoming very scarce, and there are only a handfull of people who still weave the pots.

Hand-woven sewing basket with lid. These items are woven from wild reeds, and certain strands are dyed with colours from natural sources like plants and fruit, and then woven into the basket to form lovely patterns. Absolutely beautiful hand-woven clutch bag. These items are woven from wild reeds, and certain strands are dyed with colours from natural sources like plants and fruit, and then woven into the basket to form lovely patterns.

Traditional basket of the Batooro and Bakanzo people - shop in Rubana - phone: 0782562640

Sculptures and masks
The Europeans, for a very long time, were not able to recognise the cubic and surrealist forms of the Black Africans, as they were rooted in the system of Greek ideas. It was hard for them to make out spiritual visions and formalistic solutions in art out of these "idols". In the centre of this system there was placed the human figure, but not, however, in its natural proportions; there was put stress on what had spiritual importance, hence this led to the creation of these abstract forms. Art was primarily a service offered to religion – abstract concepts like divine power, divine greatness, grandeur, stillness, and death had to be modelled artistically, but they were not to have great similiarity to human beings as these would have been considered presumptuous.

For peoples without script, art constituted a natural form of expression. It was language to be understood by all. It tells of tribal history, of myths and legends. It confers the dignity necessary to the sacral actions performed. Sculptures were expressions of invisible and supernatural powers. These articles were used in various cult performances. Sculptures, indeed, had a general symbolic value; altars and temples were built in their honour. Animal sculptures were erected for power and protections and as guardians.

Masks were expressions of supernatural powers, too. In the mask dances, divine power was mediated, the dancers were only medium tools. By means of mask performances, threats stipulated by the demons were eased, and the good spirits were asked for help. There were also dances for the time period before sowing, after successful harvesting, for rain and also for the fertility of the tribes. Dancers with face paintings in the form of circles, dots and stripes very often substituted masks; maybe this even was the original form of the mask.

Art and handicraft were especially practised by the whole community (the villagers) during the dry seasons when there was not so much work to be done. Especially skilled artists were promoted, and some of them were called to the royal court. Thereby, their standard of living was guaranteed, and they had a very high status. Initially, the sculptures corresponded to a social necessity, as they defined collective sense and order and regulated the relations with the supernatural powers. Later on, this led to prestige and decoration. Cotton trees, ebony and mahagony trees provide for the raw materials needed. This sort of handicraft was especially developed among the Bantu people, whereas the nomads (pastoral tribes) did not cultivate this type excessively.

These figures and masks, made (carved) from wood for ritual purposes, as well as other daily articles in ebony and mahagony wood have thus ceased to have great religious importance. Tobacco pipes have been developed into mass products and are intended for the sale to tourists.


The technique is thought to be more than a thousand years old, and historical evidence demonstrates that cloth decorated by means of this resist technique was in use in the early centuries AD in Africa, the Middle East, and in several places in Asia. Although there is no sure explanation as to where batik first was "invented", many observers believe that travellers brought it to Asia from the Indian subcontinent.
Melted wax is applied to cloth before this is being dipped into dye. Wherever the wax has seeped through the fabric, the dye will not penetrate. Sometimes several colors are used, with severl steps of dyeing, drying, and waxing. Thin wax lines are made with a tjanting (canting, pronounced chahn-ting) needle, a wooden-handled tool with a tiny metal cup with a tiny spout, out of which the wax seeps. Other methods of applying the wax to the fabric include pouring the liquid wax, painting the wax on with a brush, and applying the hot wax to a pre-carved wooden or metal wire block and stamping the fabric. One indication of the level of craftsmanship in a piece of batik cloth is whether the pattern is equally visible on both sides of the cloth. This indicates the application of wax on both sides, either with the canting or with mirror-image design blocks.
The finished fabric is hung up to dry. Then it is dipped into a solvent to dissolve the wax, or it is ironed between paper towels or newspapers to absorb the wax and reveal the deep rich colors and the fine crinkle lines that give batik its character.
The invention of the copper block or cap developed by the Javanese in the 20th century revolutionised batik production. It became possible to produce high-quality designs and intricate patterns much faster than one could possibly do by means of hand-painting.

Gemstones - Jewellery
Jewellery - Humans have adorned themselves with jewellery as far back as history can tell. In Uganda, people have used jewellery made from animal parts such as bone, horns, feathers, teeth, and from stone, seeds, wood, clay and precious metals, etc. to adorn themselves. There were also produced amulets, necklaces or beads, arm and leg rings with ornaments, bracelets, rings and needles for headdresses.

In the commercial crafts sector, however, jewellery is relatively new, with imported beads as necklaces, bangles, waist beads, etc. dominating the local market. Earrings and finger rings constitute the other items in this sub-group.

The Material – Processing and colours

- Wood was processed by means of an ax with a transverse scrabbard, a transverse ax. It was either polished with soot or fatty mixtures or treated with the juice from roots and leaves. Subsequently, it was put in a slurry bath.
- Clay was formed by hand, without the help of a potter's wheel. The clay sculptures from Luziva in Uganda are especially famous.
- Ivory, originally considered the symbol for power and sought-after as hunting trophy, was extremely skillfully processed into arm rings and masks, or it was simply carved. Many of these amulets acquired a warm, red-brownish colour through the contact with the skin or the rubbing of tukula (redwood powder) and oil into it.
- Iron was processed to spears, knives, tools etc. The processing of iron dates back to 1,500 before Christ.
- Bronze was casted together with zinc and lead and hence got its yellow colour, giving it the name "yellow cast".
- Gold and silver were also processed in earliest times. In the regions dominated by the Islam, silver was preferred.
- Wickerwork – Leaf fibres, the stems of banana plants as well as different grass types provided for the starting material. The processing was handwork in the literal sense of the word: hands, feet and teeth were included into the work process. Baskets, bowls, sieves, shields and mats (which were also used as decoration and wall hangings) were produced. Some time later, there followed the development of weaving by means of the loom.
- Leather was especially liked by the pastoral tribes and hunters and hence processed by them. The Masaai were particulary fond of this material and painted harmonically balanced abstract designs on their leather shields. Women wear leather decorated with fringes and a huge amount of pearls and Kauri-scrolls.
- Pumpkins (gourds) with patterns and motifs decorated with figures or geometrical designs.

- Colours were dominating, especially white, black, and red. These are colours of mineral, animal and vegetable origin.
- White (supernatural powers, danger and death) - Black (earth) - Red (energy)

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Revised by Hermelinde Steiner