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Why the Africans Live in Huts
Whenever someone sees a picture of a hut, they think of Africa. Indeed, huts have been the architectural hallmark of Africa and across the continent, they have been the preferred building style.
Huts are a form of living space. The huts are usually round, with a high roof. They are usually made of clay or mud, with a wooden frame to support the building and a single wooden pole in the center which supports the thatched roof.
Many critics of Africa claim that Africa cannot boast of the great cultures south of Egypt. By this, they often mean that there is no architectural evidence of grandeur south of the Pyramids. Indeed, architecture or architectural remains are the accepted card of so-called ‘great cultures’.
While most of Africa can boast no such fossil evidence, there is reason to believe that the architectural choices made by Africans so far are neither as random nor as simple as they might seem.
For one, most of Africa is warm to hot year-round, without an extended winter period. The most unpleasant climatic period is the long rains, during which it rains a lot, mostly every day. However, in most of Africa, it rains instead of rain. This means a quick and voluminous period of rainfall, unlike the rain in Europe for example, which can be a light but continuous rainfall. In addition, most of Africa, which lies on the equator, experiences nearly equal periods of twelve hours each for night and day. This is in contrast to Europe for example, where in winter, darkness can last eighteen hours.
As such, most of life in Africa is lived outdoors. A shelter is only needed for the night, against the cold and as a shelter from wild animals. There has never been a need to invest as much in shelters as has been done in Europe for example. Strictly speaking, there was rarely a situation in Africa where homelessness would be life-threatening. In many African cultures, nomads, hunters, warriors, and messengers were often away from home for long periods without shelter.
Huts are often small and made of available mud or river clay, plastered over a framework of branches. They were completely free in both materials and labor. In many cultures, women did the plastering while men did the thatching. 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 taking shelter as is often the case in the modern world. In today’s globalized world, buying a home is a lifelong commitment that forces one to live chained to a mortgage, under the Damocles sword of a foreclosure. The exploitation of this fear in the US contributed to the current worldwide financial crisis.
It is also worth noting that almost all famous 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, housing 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 housing was unaffordable, unlike today’s world where many families become homeless if they experience financial distress in the middle of their mortgage.
In many parts of Africa, huts were renovated and renovated once a year, after the harvest season and before the next rains. This was the period of less work and it was like a holiday. The harvest was in and the next farming season had not yet begun. Women renewed the walls of the huts by plastering with a new layer of mud or clay. White or ocher colored river mud was used as a cosmetic decoration 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 task as seriously as taking care of her body. A fit woman could be identified by her immaculately kept tresses. Regular renovation also served an important hygienic function: river mud is a very clean and healthy material that discourages the growth of insects and other pests. Both mud and dry cow dung are similar to ash in this respect. Cooking ash from non-toxic burnt wood is clean enough to use as an alternative to toothpaste.
The renovation also gave the woman a creative outlet: she could paint whatever motif she wanted on her walls. The men rewrote the hut(s), using grass, such as elephant grass, which was mainly cut by women. Among the Maasai, women did the renovation work as men often took on the full-time job of protecting the tribe from lions and other dangers that lurked on the savannah.
A very satisfying effect of this annual renewal was the psychological effect. There was an air of renewal every year; of new life, of a new beginning, of cleansing the soul and letting go of the past. Every year. This is a very healthy psychological perspective. This period was also accompanied by festivals with dancing and feasting.
In today’s world, buying a home has such an outcome. The feeling of being rooted and held by a building for life.
Because they were low cost, the huts were also very flexible. One can build a house with huts: one for cooking, another for sleeping, another for receiving visitors, and so on. Whenever someone needed a new shed, he simply built one. The teenage boys were given a piece of land where they could build their own hut, some distance away from the rest of the family. Their privacy was guaranteed and their activities inside their huts were no one’s concern. Many teenagers today would appreciate the idea of having their own shed.
The huts are very comfortable and just right 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 and thus allow a free flow of air. It is often very hot in the afternoons in Africa. The hut remains cool and is a welcome resting place. At night, when temperatures drop, the hut maintains the temperature of the day, keeping the occupants warm.
Sheds are also very low maintenance. A well-maintained shed only needs to be swept once a day with a straw broom. There was no need to wipe, polish or dust. Liquid accidents were undramatic 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 has ‘discovered’ the virtues of clay as a building material. Clay is a hard and durable material that is easy to work with. Applied correctly, it can be used to build stable, durable and aesthetic structures without requiring the use of paint and cement. Most important of all, clay is healthy. Mud has now been proven to filter toxins from the environment. Modern building materials such as cement, paint, fillers and metals release toxins that endanger human health and well-being. A building made of clay or mud is completely environmentally friendly, provided the original source was safe.
Africans knew this long ago. The huts, made from natural ‘earth’ materials, fit their basic philosophy of drawing on nature for all their needs, and only in the quantities needed. For example, calabashes and gourds were used as containers for milk, water, local beer, porridge, honey or any other liquid. Cooking pots were made of clay, as were water vessels. The chopsticks were made of wood.
Water stored in a clay pot has a pleasant, natural freshness and an earthy smell. Drunk from a calabash, it has an additional woody aroma. Food cooked in a clay pot over a wood fire retains an inimitable earthy flavor, especially fresh beans or meat dishes.
Sleeping mats or sitting mats were woven from slips or animal skins, as were clothing. Some people built a raised mud platform covered with animal skins or mats to act as a seat or bed. The stools were made of wood or woven from rushes. Women wore jewelry made of bone, horn, wood, stone, clay, beads, or woven spikes. Food products were carried or stored in woven 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 on the bandwagon of expensive homes built with derived materials that take a lifetime to pay for and a fortune to repair and maintain. The materials used in modern buildings trap heat, wind and moisture and are often obtained using procedures that damage the environment. Homes lack the well-being effect of living in a shed built entirely off the ground. They are in keeping with modern trends of bloated consumerism, self-definition through possession, and a reckless disregard for the planet.
Fortunately, some are rediscovering the magic of sheds. They have been redesigned in some cases to be much larger, with large windows, or combined in cross or interconnecting structures. A famous hotel in Nairobi, Kenya was built using this concept, with treated straw being used for thatching.
Indeed, more and more people are rediscovering why Africans lived in huts.
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