Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ancient Malawi's Bark Cloth: Nyanda (Mlombwa), Thewera (Mombo)

Uganda bark cloth photo not connected to this blog taken from
Uganda bark cloth (nyanda) photo not connected to this blog taken from

The lone Sapitwa priestess in Malawi wears a reddish brown looking “robe” in a forbidden place of a mountain where she goes to make her nsembe offering of mapira (sorghum), mpunga (rice), ndalama (money) and many other things at an unknown “shrine”.

She is one of the less than five asing’anga (healers) in Malawi who still dress like their ancestors.
According to information sourced from the elderly priestess, thousands of years ago the women used to wear a mkanjo (robe) made from the Mlombwa tree which was locally known as Nyanda.
They would tie the right hand-side to be near the chest in a knot which resembles the secret Knot of Isis of ancient Egypt.
This symbolized power (mphamvu) and it was there were they kept their secret (chinsinsi) just like the mythical winged spirit Chinsinsi with her famous knot.
Now the famous Nyanda clothing was made from the bark of the Mlombwa tree which online is defined as “Bloodwood” and its red sap was used for ancient writings and drawings on rocks.

"Bloodwood" tree taken from
“Bloodwood” tree photo not connected to the contents of this blog taken from

“A slashed trunk or a harmed limb of the tree begins trickling profound red liquid, very nearly like a disjoined appendage of a creature. The sticky, rosy tan sap seals the injury to advertise recuperating.
“The red sap is utilized customarily as a color and in a few regions blended with creature fat to make a nonessential for appearances and bodies.
“It is likewise accepted to have supernatural properties for the curing of issues concerning blood, evidently in view of its nearby likeness to blood.

"The tree is likewise utilized for treating numerous therapeutic conditions, for example, ringworm, wounding agonies, eye issues, intestinal sickness, blackwater fever, stomach issues and to build the supply of bosom milk,” reads
Other names are African Teak, Wild Teak and Pterocarpus angolensis. And local names for the tree in other languages shared online include “Bemba (mulombwa); English (sealing-wax tre, Rhodesian teak,Transval teak, blodwod, wild teak, African teak): Lozi (mukwa, mulombe); Lunda (mukla); Ndeble (umvagzi); Nyanja(mlombwa,mlombe); Shona (kiat,mubvamropa,mukwa); Swahili (mniga); Tonga (mukla);Trade name (kiat,mukwa,muniga); Tswana (mokwa,mortomadi) and Zulu (inGozina, inDlandlovu, mBilo, umVangazi)” according to this link
While the Thewera loin cloth for men was made from Mombo but this blog is not sure if that includes what is defined online as Miombo trees.

Illustration from the "Ulendo Series, Mtunda 8, Chichewa for Standard 8" book.
Illustration from the “Ulendo Series, Mtunda 8, Chichewa for Standard 8″ book.

Mombo online is defined as Julbernardia paniculata and it’s “fibrous bark is used for making bark cloth.”
The word Thewera also means a nappy or diaper and this tree is connected to the ancient winged spirit of Kabadula whose nickname is Kaba and his name is taken from Kabudula (shorts).
Kabadula known as Kaba was one of the 7 winged spirits of ABOVE which included Mikolo Njinjinji (African Sacred Ibis) responsible for battles and security issues in the Universe and Saka, the Hunter like in “saka chirombo cha nyanga” (hunt the beast with horns) or something that sounds like that.
Thewera was also the nickname for the Mombo tree used to make the loin cloth that looked like a triangular diaper for ancient Africa’s priests like in those responsible for nsembe.
Others talk of Tsamba which might be similar to the well known indigenous tree called Tsamba Namwali which is one of the trees on ancient Malawi’s M’manga Mudzi termite mound.
According to the unofficial Wikipedia, Julbernardia paniculata is a medium to large tropical tree, also known as muchesa and it is “very common over its range and is the dominant woodland tree in Miombo woodland over much of central Zambia and northern Malawi.”

Barkcloth, Uganda, early C20th postcards: left - Stripping the bark from a tree. Right- women in barkcloth wrappers taken from
Barkcloth, Uganda, early C20th postcards: left – Stripping the bark from a tree. Right- women in barkcloth wrappers taken from

“The bark is used to extract tannin for tanning leather, while the leaves are highly prized for feeding to cattle due to their high nutritional content.

They are also the source of favourite local delicacy – some kinds of fat caterpillars that feed on the leaves and are collected and roasted as a snack.
“Perhaps the greatest value attached to the tree is its use as a source of nectar. The small blossoms may appear on the tree from late March (the end of the growing season) until June or even later and contain copious quantities of nectar at a time when few other trees are in bloom so beekeepers rely on it to maintain their production throughout the year”, further reads

Another "Bloodwood" tree locally known as Mlombwa taken from
Another “Bloodwood” tree locally known as Mlombwa taken  as a sample from

According to the World Agro-foresty website, the tree is also used as medicine: When heated in water and mixed with figs it is massaged on the breast to stimulate lactation; a cold infusion from the bark alone provides a remedy for nettle rash while a decoction of the bark is also taken orally for piles and a cold infusion made from the bark is taken to relieve stomach disorders, headaches, blood in the urine, earache and mouth ulcers.

The website source also says that barks or roots boiled with fresh meat is used as a preliminary accelerator in the treatment gonorrhea.
“A decoction of the root is believed to be a cure for malaria and blackwater fever. An infusion made from the roots is taken orally for the treatment of diarrhoea, bilharzia and abdominal pains.
“Roots are burnt and the ashes drunk in water to treat asthma and tuberculosis. Corneal ulcers are bathed in an eyewash obtained when roots of the tree are 1st cleaned and then left to soak in water for 6 hours.
In the follow-up treatment of this ailment, flowers are placed in boiling water over which the patient holds the face, allowing the steam to fill the eyes; dropping sap into the eyes treats cataracts and sore eyes. The bark is boiled and the resulting red fluid is used in treating skin lesions and ringworm. Ripe seeds are burnt and the ashes applied to inflamed areas of the skin and to bleeding gums.
“The sap is reputed to heal sores, including ringworm sores and stab wounds, and to treat various other ailments.

Photo of Mombo taken from
Photo of Mombo taken from

Although Nyanda and Thewera clothing is a thing of the past in Malawi and fashion designers seem to shun it, online information shows that bark cloth is still valued in the Buganda kingdom in southern Uganda where it is also an ancient craft.
Traditionally, craftsmen of the Ngonge clan, headed by a kaboggoza, the hereditary chief craftsman have been manufacturing bark cloth for the Baganda royal family and the rest of the community according to
The Unesco website also states that its preparation involves one of humankind’s oldest savoir-faire, a prehistoric technique that predates the invention of weaving.
“The inner bark of the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis) is harvested during the wet season and then, in a long and strenuous process, beaten with different types of wooden mallets to give it a soft and fine texture and an even terracotta colour.
“Craftsmen work in an open shed to protect the bark from drying out too quickly. Barkcloth is worn like a toga by both sexes, but women place a sash around the waist. While common barkcloth is terracotta in colour, barkcloth of kings and chiefs is dyed white or black and worn in a different style to underline their status.
“The cloth is mainly worn at coronation and healing ceremonies, funerals and cultural gatherings but is also used for curtains, mosquito screens, bedding and storage… barkcloth is still recognized among the Baganda community as a marker of specific social and cultural traditions.”
In Malawi the Mutuba tree (ficus natalensis) is known as a Wild Fig and most likely Kachere in the vernacular as defined in this link

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Took this picture of children in Milange, Mozambique admiring visiting Malawian children

Tracing footsteps to lead me home

Greetings from the Warm Heart Africa, Malawi.

I'm a Malawian journalist who grew up in many countries including South Africa, Belgium, then West Germany, UK, Washington DC and New York in the US and I love New York.

Trying to come up with the production of my life and by compiling some of my 1000 poems into a book called ‘Tracing Footsteps’ to lead me Home with excellent photography.

I also plan to film award winning documentaries based on the history of this ancient land called Malawi and the mysteries of Sapitwa and the Sirius star. this space.