Art, Culture, Books and Travel

Arts and crafts of the Pearl of Africa

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Uganda has an amazingly good array of crafts for sale to tourists although they are still not well promoted. A few well-exposed Ugandan artists who have lived abroad have mixed with marketing cartels and some of them now know how to market their works overseas. Among them is Nuwa Wamala Nyanzi a largely self-taught artist now of world renown. Nuwa has not only sold his work to many individuals both abroad and locally but has also made good contacts to a point that some of his work can be purchased by email from a warehouse in the United States. He is well known in the art fraternity and diplomatic and expatriate community a number of who buy his work.
One of the best sources of good fine art is the Margaret Trowel School of Fine Art, Industrial Art and Design at Makerere University where both talented students and their lecturers paint or sculpt good quality stuff in equal measure. There are a number of art galleries in town, the oldest being Nommo Gallery which is near the Presidential Lodge in Kampala. It holds exhibitions both for talented, well-known and amateur artists. The gallery is home to the Uganda Artists Association a body that brings together both young and old artists. You will encounter good crafts and art in small kiosks on Buganda Road after the Chief Magistrate’s Court.

Another gallery to visit is Tulifanya, right behind the Crested Towers building near Radio Uganda. Here German lady commissions and counsels local artists to paint some themes styled on some imaginative European motifs which she has marketed for them successfully. The gallery also offers excellent framing services and runs a small pleasant cafe on its small compound.
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 worn on the legs of dancers. Do not forget the traditional gomesi dress for women, an elaborate bodice which women in Uganda get dressed in to impress at weddings and prayer sessions. Men wear kanzus, which 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 in the 19th century. Bodingi or gomesi were first introduced at Gayaza, the first women’s high school in Uganda where it was part of the uniform. There is a story about an Asian tailor called Gomes after whom the women’s dress was named.

Bark cloth
One of the finest materials from which Ugandan artists make work is bark cloth, a fibrous if coarse, material scrapped from 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 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 kingdoms bark cloth has regained its prestige with many Baganda making all manner of wear out of it including very attractive hats that bear the Buganda insignia, coats and long flowing robes.

They have many uses some of which include being the traditional containers for beer. When halved into two gourds they make good beer drinking bowls. Some long-necked gourds are used for collecting or drinking water while others are for keeping salt or cow butter. Many artists in Uganda etch and write on them or embroider them with tiny beads before sale. Huge gourds are used to carry banana wine for 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
There are several types of baskets made in Uganda, some mats made from grasses and palm leaves. Most of these items are coloured with dye solutions to create intricate patterns which skilled craftsmen and women learn by doing. Probably the best if not overly done baskets and mats are those made by Nubian women.

They can be pricey and too big but they are worth the price, if for their finery and fanciful colours and intricate patterns and designs. The Batooro and Bahima of western Uganda (Ankole, Toro) make fine, little cylindrical baskets (endiiro) in which millet bread is served and kept hot. Their size is handy for tourists without the space to keep big basketry. The prices can be a little bit high but negotiations will often bring the prices down. In Buganda, the baskets are bigger and saucer like. Coffee beans, fruits and even bottle beer are often served in these utensils. In modern Kiganda marriages, showy parades of 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.

There are arrays of traditional weapons in Uganda which should be of interest to tourists. Long an short spears, hooks, sticks bow and arrows all come to mind. Various tribes make various types of weapons and depending on the availability of materials. However, for kings and chiefs, the spear blades used to look wider and more prestigious. Catapults are common in the north while sticks are used by herdsmen.
Musical instruments
Most musical instruments in Uganda are played in what we call an ensemble. Three to four men squatting on the ground play rhythmical beats, with breaks of beats sprinkling in from tom tom drums. Other instruments include the xylophone, lyres, thumb piano and mouth pipes.

Promote Uganda: Raja Chambers, Parliament Avenue, 2nd Floor, Room 39. P.O.Box 26759, Kampala, Uganda
+256(0) 312 276 488, +256 772425668

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