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Why the Africans Live in Huts
Whenever a person sees a picture of a hut, he thinks of Africa. Indeed, huts were the main architectural signature of Africa, and were the preferred building style across the continent.
Huts are a form of living space. The huts are usually round, with a pointed roof. They are usually made of mud or clay, with a wooden frame to support the building and a single wooden post in the middle to support the thatched roof.
Many critics of Africa argue that Africa cannot boast of great cultures south of Egypt. By this they often mean that there is no architectural evidence of greatness south of the pyramids. Indeed, architecture or architectural remains are the accepted calling card of the so-called ‘great cultures’.
While most of Africa cannot boast such fossil evidence, there is reason to believe that the architectural choices Africans have made so far are neither random nor as simple as they may appear.
First, most of Africa is warm to hot year-round, with no extended winter period. The most unpleasant climatic period is the prolonged rains, during which it rains heavily, mostly every day. However, in most of Africa it showers rather than rains. This means a quick and abundant period of precipitation, unlike, for example, rain in Europe, which can be slight but continuous precipitation. In addition, most of Africa, which lies on the equator, has almost equal periods of twelve hours for night and day. This is in contrast to, for example, Europe, where darkness can last up to eighteen hours in winter.
As such, most of life in Africa is lived outside. Shelter is needed only at night, against the cold and as shelter from wild animals. There was never a need to invest in shelters as was done in Europe, for example. Strictly speaking, there has rarely been a situation in Africa where a lack of shelter would be life-threatening. In many African cultures, nomads, hunters, warriors, and messengers were often away from home for long periods without shelter.
The huts are often small and made of readily available mud or river clay, plastered over a skeleton of branches. They were completely cheap both in terms of materials and labor. In many cultures, women plastered and men thatched the roof. Among the Maasai in East Africa, the woman builds the entire structure, which is called a manyatta.
Because of this relaxed shelter philosophy, Africans were not enslaved by shelter acquisition as is often the case in the modern world. In today’s globalized world, buying your own home is a lifetime commitment that forces us to live mortgage-bound, under the sword of Damocles of foreclosure. Capitalizing on that fear in the US contributed to the current global financial crisis.
It is also worth mentioning that almost all known architectural monuments of great cultures were built using slave, forced and semi-forced labor. This was never necessary in Africa south of the pyramids. In fact, shelter was so cheap that nomads could leave their huts at a moment’s notice and go to the savannah – the epitome of freedom.
It also meant that no family was ever homeless because shelter was unaffordable, unlike today’s world where many families become homeless if they experience financial disruption in the middle of a mortgage.
In many parts of Africa, huts are renovated and rebuilt once a year, after the harvest season and before the next rain. It was the period with the least amount of work and it was like a holiday. The harvest was underway, and the next agricultural season had not yet begun. Women restored the walls of the huts by applying a new layer of mud or clay. White or ocher colored river clay was used as a cosmetic finish inside and outside the hut, as well as on the floor. Communities that did not have access to river clay used a mixture of cow dung and mud or ash.
A good African housewife took this duty as seriously as taking care of her own body. A capable wife could be recognized by impeccably maintained huts. Regular renewal also had an important hygienic function: river clay is a very clean and healthy material that prevents the reproduction of insects and other pests. Both clay and dried cow dung are similar to ash in this respect. Cooking ash from non-toxic burnt wood is clean enough to be used as an alternative to toothpaste.
The renovation also gave the woman a creative outlet: she could paint the motifs she wanted on the walls. The men rethatched the huts using grass, such as elephant grass, which was mostly cut by the women. Among the Maasai, women did the restoration work because the men were often occupied full-time protecting the tribe from lions and other dangers lurking in the savannah.
A very satisfying effect of this annual renewal was the psychological effect. Every year there was an atmosphere of renewal; of a new life, a new beginning, cleansing the soul and breaking with the past. Every year. This is a very healthy psychological perspective. Festivals with dancing and feasting also accompanied this period.
In today’s world, acquiring a home has such a finality. The feeling of being rooted and trapped by one building for life.
Because they were cheap, the huts were also very flexible. One could build an estate of huts: one for cooking, another for sleeping, a third for receiving visitors, and so on. Every time a new hut was needed, it was simply built. Adolescents were given a piece of land where they could build their own huts, away from the rest of the family. Their privacy was assured and their activities inside their huts were of no one’s concern. Many teenagers today would appreciate the idea of having their own cabin.
The huts are very comfortable and suitable for many parts of Africa. This is mainly due to the construction materials used. Both clay and grass are good insulators, but they are porous, so they allow air to flow freely. In Africa it is often very hot during the afternoon. The cabin stays cool and is a welcome resting place. At night, when temperatures drop, the hut maintains the daytime temperature, keeping the residents warm.
The cabins are also very low maintenance. A well-restored hut only needs to be swept once a day with a straw broom. There was no need to wipe, polish or dust. Liquid accidents were not dramatic because the liquid was simply absorbed into the ground. The only real danger was fire, as thatched roofs could burn very quickly, trapping people inside.
Recently, an architectural team in Switzerland ‘discovered’ the virtues of clay as a building material. Clay is a strong, durable material that is easy to work with. If properly applied, it can be used to build structures that are stable, durable and aesthetic without the need to use paint or cement. Most importantly, clay is healthy. Clay has now been proven to filter toxins from the environment. Modern building materials such as cement, paints, fillers and metals release toxins that threaten human health and well-being. A clay or mud building is completely environmentally friendly, provided the source was safe.
Africans knew this long ago. The huts, made of natural ‘earthly’ materials, fit into their basic philosophy of relying on nature for all needs and only in the quantities that are needed. For example, calabash and gourds were used as containers for milk, water, local beer, porridge, honey or any other liquid. The cooking pots were made of clay, as were the water containers. The chopsticks were made of wood.
Water stored in a clay pot has a pleasant, natural coolness and an earthy smell. It is drunk from a calabash, it has an additional woody aroma. Food cooked in a clay pot over a wood fire retains a unique earthy aroma, especially fresh beans or meat dishes.
Mats for sleeping or sitting were woven from rushes or from animal skins, as well as clothes. Some people made a raised clay platform covered with animal skins or rush mats to serve as a seat or bed. The chairs were wooden or woven from rushes. Women wore jewelry made of bone, horn, wood, stone, clay, beads, or woven rushes. Food was carried or stored in wicker baskets made of reeds or clay pots.
This philosophy of living in harmony with the benefits of nature has led to zero amount of garbage, because everything is biodegradable. Indeed, until the advent of modernity and urbanization, Africa was a continent of natural beauty preserved in its entirety.
Unfortunately, today’s Africans are jumping wholesale into expensive homes built with derivative materials, which require a lifetime to pay for and a fortune to repair and maintain. The materials used in modern buildings retain heat, odors and moisture and are often obtained through processes that harm the environment. Houses lack the wellness effect of sitting in a cabin built entirely of earth. They are in line with modern trends of bloated consumerism, self-definition through possessions and careless neglect of the planet.
Fortunately, some are rediscovering the charms of the cabin. In some cases, they were redesigned to be much larger, with large windows, or combined into interconnected structures. A famous hotel in Nairobi, Kenya was built according to this concept, with treated straw used to cover thatch.
Indeed, more and more people are rediscovering why Africans lived in huts.
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