The Kuba people of the Congo, also called Bakuba, are sub-divided into sixteen Bantu-speaking groups and are mainly in south eastern Congo, around Kinshasa, the capital city and also the largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The raffia tree plays a very important part of the culture of the Kuba people. The leaves of the tree are hand cut by the men of the tribe and made into strips of fibre. Mud, berries and sap from other trees are used to color the fibres. The fibres are softened by rubbing them between the hands. This makes the fibres more manageable. The men then weave the base cloth on looms and have to pound on it to make it soft enough for the woman to start the embroidery. They pull a few threads from the raffia leaves and thread them into a needle. The needle is run through the cloth until the fibres show up on the opposite end. The hundreds of designs that evolve are seldom planned, which gives each piece a naÔve authenticity.
The cloths vary in thickness, length and density of patchwork and texture. Originally there were no patches on the cloth, but the fabric was brittle. It is believed that the patches were used to repair and strengthen the cloth. Each patch thus developed its own meaning and told its own story.
The process of making Kuba cloth is very time consuming. It could take many days to make one item and yet the Kuba people are resistant to change. They have rejected modern cloth and the use of machinery. Today each piece of fabric, each pattern and each design in traditional Kuba fabrics still have great meaning and these aspects of the cloth are used to reveal much about the wearer. The style and symbols in each piece of cloth express a personís marital status, social status and character amongst others.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the raffia cloth is that the patterns are unique. They do not follow the tradition repetitive patterns we confine ourselves to outside of Africa. The patterns are partly repetitive and partly suspended. The Kuba people and their artistic expression is complex. Their weaving and embroidery skills are firmly ingrained in their past, their present and hopefully will remain so in their future.