Last of the Bemba Bark Cloth Makers, Zambia

By Lawrence Barham, Perrice Nkombwe, Peter Chitungu, and Stephen Mwila | 10 November 2020

Bark fibre was, until the early 20th century, the traditional material for making clothing and containers among communities in northern Zambia. The introduction of commercial textiles and plastics containers led to the dramatic decline in bark-cloth production to the extent that only three individuals are currently known to still retain the knowledge of this craft. These three men produce small quantities of coarse and fine bark-cloth, the former for daily use and the latter for ceremonial use. No detailed studies have been made of this endangered craft tradition. The aim of this project is to record the working methods of these craftsmen and elicit information on how they learned their craft, as well as their perceptions of the social value of this traditional material.

 

 

Our primary objective is to generate an audio-visual archive of the techniques and raw materials used to make coarse and fine barkcloth. We follow the finished products to their places of use and using structured and unstructured interviews, document values associated with this material to assess how the tradition survives in an age of industrialisation and globalisation. A secondary objective is to assess the antiquity of this tradition by comparing modern tools used in bark-cloth making with archaeological parallels. Existing records highlight two distinctive tools for stripping bark (a blunt axe) and pounding it to break apart the fibres (a mallet with a roughened head). Similar tools exist in the Later Stone Age archaeological record of northern Zambia, and we will compare the morphologies of the modern and prehistoric tools.

 

PI:
Dr Lawrence Barham, Professor, Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, University of Liverpool

Collaborators:
Perrice Nkombwe,
Director, Moto Moto Museum
Peter Chitungu,
Assistant Conservator, Moto Moto Museum
Stephen Mwila,
Assistant Education Officer, Moto Moto Museum

Location of Research:
Northern Zambia: Mbala, Mpika, Kasama, Mungwi