This afternoon we took a tour of Kasubi Tombs, the top historical site of Kampala. Kasubi Tombs is situated on the top of a hill and houses the bodies of the previous four kings of Buganda. We were excited to see the main Royal Tomb, the largest thatch-roofed building in the world.
When we arrived at the tombs, we walked in past the guard house (where two guards-for-life still live) and the man at reception asked if we knew about the fire and still wanted a tour. Turns out that three months ago, this Unesco World Heritage site was the subject of a tragic arson attack. The site was closed for about two months for investigations, and had just been re-opened to the public, though with the Royal Tombs still a burnt out husk and off-limits to tourists. We did wish to continue, and were assigned a knowledgeable guide, Franklin, who gave us the history of Buganda kingdom and showed us around the grounds. The smaller buildings, including the royal drum house and those for the widows of the kings, remain intact, though they can only give a small taste of the former grandeur of the Royal Tomb. Franklin did describe the layout of the Royal Tomb, showed us the (now visible) inner scaffolding, and explained its architecture and current plans for rebuilding the structure.
It turns out that Franklin is not just a guide, but also an artist; he ended our tour with some background on a type of traditional African art: bark-cloth painting. The canvas for a bark-cloth painting is made from the fig tree. The first pull of the bark is too firm to use, but later pulls are more supple. After the outer bark is removed from the tree, they cover the tree with banana leaves, which protects it and allow the bark to regenerate. The bark is then cut, and ironed to straighten it out.
With the canvas in place, he sketches the design in pencil, and then makes powder for the colors using flowers from Kenya. Then powder is mixed with wood glue to make the paints, and when he is done painting it hardens enough to resist scratches and future ironing to re-flatten a rolled painting. It was a very interesting lesson, and I wound up purchasing one of Franklin’s paintings that he made after the fire – a panorama of Kasubi Tombs, with details drawn from memory.