Whenever you see the image of a hut, you think of Africa. Indeed, huts have been the architectural hallmark of Africa and have been the preferred style of construction across the continent.
Huts are a form of living space. The huts are generally round, with a pointed roof. They are usually made of mud or clay, with a wooden frame supporting the building, and a single wooden post in the center, supporting the grass thatch roof.
Many critics of Africa argue that Africa cannot boast of great cultures south of Egypt. By that, they often mean that there is no architectural evidence of grandeur south of the Pyramids. Indeed, architecture or architectural remains are the accepted visiting card of the so-called ‘great cultures’.
Although most of Africa cannot boast such fossil evidence, there is reason to believe that the architectural choices made so far by Africans are neither as haphazard nor as simplistic as they might seem.
For one, most of Africa is warm to warm all year round, without a long winter period. The most uncomfortable climatic period are the long rains, during which it rains a lot, mostly every day. However, in most of Africa it rains instead of raining. This means a rapid and voluminous period of precipitation, unlike for example rain in Europe, which can be light but continuous precipitation. In addition, most of Africa, which is located at the equator, has periods of nearly equal twelve hours each for night and day. This is in contrast, for example, with Europe, where darkness can last up to eighteen hours in winter.
As such, most of life in Africa is lived outside. A shelter is only necessary for the night, against the cold and as a shelter from wild animals. There has never been a need to invest as heavily in shelters as has been done in Europe, for example. Strictly speaking, there was rarely a situation in Africa where 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 river mud or clay, plastered onto a skeleton of branches. They were completely cheap in both materials and labor. In many cultures, women did the plastering, while men did the thatched roof. Among the Maasai of East Africa, the woman builds the entire structure, which is called a manyatta.
Because of this relaxed philosophy of shelter, Africans were not enslaved by the acquisition of shelter as is often the case in the modern world. In today’s globalized world, buying your home is a lifetime responsibility that forces you to live chained to a mortgage, under the sword of Damocles of foreclosure. The exploitation of this fear in the US has contributed to the current global financial crisis.
It is also noteworthy that almost all the famous architectural monuments of the great cultures were built employing slave labor, forced and semi-forced labor. This has never been necessary in Africa south of the pyramids. In fact, shelter was so inexpensive that nomads could get away from their huts in an instant and head out onto the savannah, the epitome of freedom.
It also meant that no family was ever without shelter because shelter was inaccessible, unlike today’s world where many families become homeless if they suffer a financial problem halfway through their mortgage.
In many parts of Africa, huts were renovated and refurbished once a year, after the harvest season and before the subsequent rains. This was the time with the least work and it was like a vacation. The harvest had begun and the next agricultural season had not yet begun. The women renovated the walls of the huts by plastering them with a new layer of mud or clay. White or ocher river clay was used as a cosmetic finish on the inside and outside of 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 she took care of her body. A capable wife could be identified by her impeccably maintained huts. The regular renovation has also played an important hygienic function: river clay is a very clean and healthy material that discourages the breeding of insects and other pests. Both clay and dried cow dung are similar to ash in this respect. Fire ash from non-poisonous burnt wood is pure enough to be used as an alternative to toothpaste.
The remodel also gave the woman a creative outlet: she could paint any motif she wanted on her walls. The men remade the huts, using grass, such as elephant grass which was mostly cut by women. Among the Masaai, women performed the renovations as men were often busy with full-time jobs protecting the tribe from lions and other dangers lurking in the savannah.
A very satisfying effect of this annual renewal was the psychological effect. There was an atmosphere of renewal every year; of new life, of a new beginning, of purification of the soul and elimination of the past. Every year. This is a very healthy psychological perspective. Parties with dances and parties also accompanied this period.
In today’s world, buying a home serves such a purpose. A sense of being grounded and captured by a building for life.
As they were low cost, the cabins were also very flexible. You could build a farm of huts: one for cooking, another for sleeping, another for receiving visitors, and so on. Whenever a new hut was needed, one was simply built. Teenage boys were given a plot 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 interest to anyone. Many teenagers today would appreciate the idea of having their own cabin.
The huts are very comfortable and exactly suitable for many parts of Africa. This is mainly due to the building materials used. Both clay and grass are good insulators, but they are porous and therefore allow for free flow of air. It is often very hot during the afternoons in Africa. The refuge stays cool and is a welcome resting place. At night, when temperatures drop, the shelter maintains its daytime temperature, warming the inhabitants.
The huts also require very low maintenance. A well-renovated hut only needs to be swept once a day with a straw broom. There was no need to clean, polish or dust. Accidents with liquids were not dramatic because the liquid was simply absorbed by the earth. The only real danger was fire, as thatched roofs could burn very quickly, trapping people inside.
Recently, a team of architects in Switzerland “discovered” the virtues of clay as a building material. Clay is a strong and durable material that is easy to work with. Applied correctly, it can be used to create stable, durable and aesthetic structures without requiring the use of paints and concrete. Above all, clay is healthy. It has now been shown that clay filters toxins from the environment. Modern building materials such as cements, paints, fillers and metals release toxins that compromise human health and well-being. A building made of clay or mud is completely ecological, provided that the initial source was safe.
Africans knew this a long time ago. Huts, made with natural ‘earth’ materials, suited their basic philosophy of tapping into nature for all their needs, and only in the necessary quantity. For example, gourds 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 pots. The kitchen sticks were made of wood.
Water stored in an earthen jar has a pleasant natural freshness and smells of earth. Drunk from a pumpkin, it has an additional woody flavor. Food cooked in a clay pot over a wood fire retains an inimitable earthy aroma, especially fresh beans or meat dishes.
The mats or mats were woven with rushes or made of animal skin, as were the clothes. Some people have built a raised platform out of clay covered with animal skins or reed mats to serve as a seat or bed. The stools were made of wood or woven with rushes. Women wore jewelry made of bone, horn, wood, stone, clay, beads, or woven rushes. Food was transported or stored in woven reed baskets or clay pots.
This philosophy of living in harmony with nature’s bounty led to zero waste, as everything was biodegradable. Indeed, until the advent of modernity and urbanization, Africa was a continent of natural beauty preserved in its entirety.
Sadly, today’s Africans are jumping wholesale on the bandwagon of expensive homes built from derivative materials, which take a lifetime to pay and a fortune to repair and maintain. The materials used in modern buildings trap heat, odors and moisture and are often derived using procedures that harm the environment. Houses do not have the feel-good effect of sitting in a hut built entirely of earth. They are in line with modern trends of inflated consumerism, self-definition through possession and a careless contempt for the planet.
Fortunately, some are rediscovering the charm of the huts. In some cases they have been redesigned to be much larger, with large windows, or combined into intersecting or interconnected structures. A popular hotel in Nairobi, Kenya was built using this concept, with treated straw used for the thatched roof.
In fact, more and more people are rediscovering why Africans lived in huts.
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