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Craft in Uganda: A trajectory of tribal artifacts to modem day crafts


Artifacts mirror the rich and diverse cultural heritage of different communities in Uganda

Kampala, Uganda | DOMINIC MUWANGUZI | The art of craft making has always been part of the Africans way of living. In the prehistoric times, many communities across the continent produced tribal artifacts as a means of expression of their respective tribal norms and practices. Within homesteads, it was typical for specific groups of women and men to create objects that not only served domestic purposes, but also symbolized the identity of the respective community. On other occasions, such traditional objects expressed the power and authority of the ruling monarch. Yet again, these objects offered reverence to the religious deities as representation to the community’s belief in the super natural world. Within the Ugandan situation, many ethnic groups across the country created crafts as a representation of the social and cultural wellbeing of the people.

Among the Baganda of central Uganda, traditional potters produced pots that were used for different functions within the household setting. The pot as a functional object in a home was symbolic to the norm of proper hygiene that was highly synonymous in a typical traditional Buganda household. There were different types of pots used for different purposes as a gesture to keeping safe from diseases. The pots were also often used in ritual purposes like making sacrifices to the gods or for keeping the umbilical cord of a new born child. Therefore such objects assumed different design and shapes to distinguish them from other utensils that were used for general functions like cooking food and fetching water from the water holes.

Similarly, the drum which was produced from a specific tree trunk served a variety of purposes in the community. Although the drum was exclusively owned and kept in the home of chiefs because of its symbolic representation of power and authority, it benefited a wider society. On several occasions, depending on its size and sound, it was used as a medium of communication. There was a drum beaten to summon the Kabaka’s subject to communal labour- Bulungi Bwansi or pronounce the death of the King. The drums that were used for festivities save for those the Kabaka participated in, were the regular type and could be found anywhere. Nonetheless, it was culturally a taboo among the Baganda for women to play the drum.

For the Banyankole, the EKyanzi, was traditionally a very common artifact around the household used to collect, serve and keep milk. The traditional milk pot with a slender neck and belly, but with a wider bottom was not only a symbol of good hygiene in a home, but was also a sign of hospitality and ethnic identity. A Hima household was easily identified by the EKyanzi. More so, finely decorated Ebyanzi were used to serve milk to a host of guests, especially during the traditional wedding ceremonies. On such occasions, the pots were carried on Omugamba; a horizontal stick that was held on both ends by youthful men; and offered to the in-laws of the bride’s compound.

The trend today is that many of these artifacts have left the traditional private spaces like homes, shrines and palaces were they were kept. They have instead now acquired a new identity as craft and are showcased in public spaces like art galleries, museums and craft shops. There has also been a transition in the production of these objects, particularly in form of stylistic approach, as means to respond to the varying trends of contemporary society. Therefore, it is common today to observe slight differences in the design of particular objects which sets them apart from the traditional artifacts.

The bark cloth which was a traditional fabric in many communities across the country, has today adopted a new form where it is used to design hand bags, purses and hats. The traditional Buganda pot, Ensuwa, has also acquired new forms and designs. It is common to encounter the object with its surface embellished with artistic imagery therefore giving it a complete new identity. These pots, often towering in size, are often visible in hotels or residential apartments as a form of decorative objects

The craft business in Uganda has been growing exponentially since the early 1990s, yet before that period craftsmen had always assumed high status in society. Many communities traditionally would assign specific roles to particular groups of craftsmen. In Buganda, potters were given special status in the Kingdom because of the significant role they played in creating pots that were used for different functions across the country. In fact, the Kabaka had his own potters who would create for him exclusive objects he used in the palace. Such exclusivity mirrored the cultural and social significance of craftsmen even before the modern era. Later during this period, many visitors from Europe relied on these tribal artifacts to appreciate the cultural diversity of respective communities in the country.

This era was perhaps the genesis of a passionate relationship between tribal objects and the outside world community. These objects revealed the cultural norms and practices of people the visitors had least knowledge about. They exposed the fact that the different communities in Uganda had a unique cultural heritage that set them apart from other communities elsewhere on the continent. Today, with an apparent evolution of traditional culture because of modernization, such rich cultural heritage can still be felt in the crafts on showcase in the crafts villages and galleries across town.

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Images courtesy of the Web

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