Whenever you see the image of a hut, you think of Africa. In fact, cabins have been the defining architectural hallmark of Africa and, across the continent, they have been the preferred building style.
Cabins are a form of living space. The cabins are usually round, with a pointed roof. They are usually made of mud or clay, with a wooden structure to support the building, and a single wooden pole in the center, which supports the thatched grass roof.
Many critics of Africa claim 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. In fact, architecture or architectural remains are the accepted calling card of the so-called “great cultures”.
While most of Africa cannot boast of such fossil evidence, there is reason to believe that the architectural choices made by Africans thus far are neither as accidental nor as simplistic as they may seem.
For one thing, most of Africa is warm to hot throughout the year, without an extended period of winter. The most uncomfortable climatic period is the prolonged rains, during which it rains a lot, especially every day. However, in most of Africa, it rains, rather than rains. That means a swift and voluminous period of precipitation, unlike the rain in Europe, for example, which can be light but continuous precipitation. Furthermore, most of Africa, which is located at the equator, experiences nearly equal periods of twelve hours each for night and day. This contrasts, for example, with Europe, where in winter, darkness can last up to eighteen hours.
As such, most of life in Africa is lived outdoors. A shelter is only necessary for the night, against the cold and as a refuge for wild animals. There has never been a need to invest as much in housing as has been done in Europe, for example. Strictly speaking, there was rarely a situation in Africa where lack of shelter would have endangered life. 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 over a skeleton of branches. They were completely inexpensive 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, referred to as a manyatta.
Due to this relaxed philosophy of refuge, Africans were not enslaved by acquiring a refuge as is often the case in the modern world. In today’s globalized world, buying a home is a lifetime liability that forces one to live chained to a mortgage, under the Damocles sword of foreclosure. The exploitation of this fear in the United States contributed to the current global financial crisis.
It is also noteworthy that almost all the famous architectural monuments of the great cultures were built using slave, forced and semi-forced labor. That has never been necessary in Africa south of the pyramids. In fact, the refuge was so inexpensive that nomads could walk away from their huts at any time and walk into the savannah, the epitome of freedom.
It also meant that no family was left without shelter because shelter was inaccessible, unlike in today’s world where many families are left homeless if they experience financial disruption midway through their mortgage.
In many parts of Africa, huts were renovated and refurbished once a year, after the harvest season and before the next rains. This was the least busy period and it was like a vacation. The harvest had started and the next agricultural season had not yet started. The women renovated the walls of the plastered huts with a new layer of mud or clay. The white or ocher colored river clay was used as a cosmetic finish inside and outside the cabin, as well as on the floor. Communities that did not have access to the river’s clay used a mixture of cow dung and mud or ash.
A good African housewife took this duty as seriously as caring for her own body. A capable wife can be identified by her impeccably cared for cabin (s). Regular renovation also served an important hygienic function: river clay is a very clean and healthy material that discourages the reproduction of insects and other pests. Both clay and dried cow dung are similar to ash in this respect. Non-poisonous burnt wood cooking fire ash is pure enough to be used 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 put straw back into the hut (s), using grass, such as elephant grass, which was mostly cut by the women. Among the Maasai, women did the renovation work as the men were often busy with the full-time job of protecting the tribe from the lions and other dangers that lurked in the savannah.
A very satisfying effect of this annual renewal was the psychological effect. Every year an atmosphere of renewal reigned; of new life, of a new beginning, of cleansing of the soul and of getting rid of the past. Every year. This is a very healthy psychological perspective. Festivals with balls and banquets also accompanied this period.
In today’s world, buying a home has this purpose. A feeling of being ingrained and captured by a building for a lifetime.
Because they were inexpensive, the cabins were also very flexible. You could build a farm of huts: one for cooking, one for sleeping, another for receiving visitors, etc. Every time a new cabin was needed, one was simply built. The adolescent boys were given land to build their own huts, away from the rest of the family. Their privacy was assured and their activities inside their huts were of no concern to anyone. Many teens today would appreciate the idea of having a cabin of their own.
The cabins 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, allowing free air flow. It is often very hot during the afternoons in Africa. The cabin remains cool and is a welcome resting place. At night, when temperatures drop, the cabin maintains its daytime temperature, keeping the inhabitants warm.
The cabins also require very little maintenance. A well-renovated cabin only needs to be swept once a day with a straw broom. There was no need for cleaning, polishing or dusting. The liquid accidents were not dramatic because the liquid was simply sucked into the ground. The only real danger was fire, as thatched roofs could burn very quickly, trapping people inside.
Recently, a team of architects in Switzerland has ‘discovered’ the virtues of clay as a building material. Clay is a strong and durable material that is easy to work with. If applied correctly, it can be used to build structures that are stable, durable and aesthetic without the use of paint and cement. Most important of all, clay is healthy. Clay has now been shown to filter toxins from the environment. Modern building materials such as cements, paints, putties, and metals release toxins that compromise human health and well-being. A building made of clay or mud is completely environmentally friendly, as long as the initial source is safe.
Africans knew this for a long time. The cabins, made from natural ‘earth’ materials, fit in with his basic philosophy of turning to nature for all his needs, and only in the quantities needed. For example, pumpkins 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 pots for water. The kitchen sticks were made of wood.
Water stored in a crock pot has a pleasant natural freshness and smells like earth. Drunk off a pumpkin, it has an added woody flavor. Food cooked in a crock pot over a wood fire retains an inimitable earthy aroma, especially fresh beans or meat dishes.
Mats for sleeping or sitting were woven from reeds or made of animal skin, just like clothing. Some people built a raised clay platform covered with animal skins or mats to serve as a seat or bed. The stools were made of wood or woven from reeds. Women wore jewelry made of bone, horn, wood, stone, clay, beads, or woven reeds. Food was transported or stored in woven baskets of reeds or clay pots.
This philosophy of living in harmony with the bounty of nature led to zero waste, as everything was biodegradable. In fact, until the advent of modernity and urbanization, Africa was a continent of fully preserved natural beauty.
Sadly, Africans today are jumping on the bandwagon of expensive houses built from derived materials, requiring a life to pay for and a fortune to repair and maintain. The materials used in modern buildings trap heat, odors and moisture and are often obtained through processes that damage the environment. The houses lack the wellness effect of sitting in a hut built entirely out of dirt. They are in keeping with modern trends of bloated consumerism, self-definition through possession, and a careless disregard for the planet.
Happily, some are rediscovering the charm of the huts. They have been redesigned in some cases to be much larger, with large windows, or are combined into structures that intersect or interconnect. A famous hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, was built using this concept, with treated straw used for roofing.
In fact, more and more people are rediscovering why Africans lived in huts.