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Why the Africans Live in Huts
Whenever one sees an image of a hut, one thinks of Africa. Indeed, huts were the defining architectural hallmark of Africa, and across the continent, they were the preferred building style.
Huts are a form of living space. The huts are usually round, with a peaked roof. They are usually made of mud or clay, with a wooden frame to support the building, and a single wooden pole in the center, which supports the grass roof.
Many critics of Africa claim that Africa cannot boast of great civilizations south of Egypt. By this, they often mean that there are no architectural elements of grandeur south of the Pyramids. Indeed, architecture or architectural remains are the accepted calling card of so-called “great civilizations.”
While most of Africa cannot boast such fossils, there is reason to believe that the architectural choices Africans have made so far are neither as random nor as simplistic as they appear.
For one, most of Africa is warm to hot year-round, without a prolonged winter season. The most uncomfortable climatic period is 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 quick and massive period of rainfall, unlike the rain in Europe for example, which can be a small but continuous rainfall. In addition, most of Africa, located 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 be over eighteen hours.
Therefore, most of life in Africa is lived outside. A shelter is only needed for the night, against the cold and as a refuge 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 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 framework of branches. They were completely cheap 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 referred to as a manyatta.
Because of this loose shelter philosophy, Africans were not enslaved by the acquisition of shelter as is often the case in the modern world. In today’s globalized world, buying a home is a lifetime 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 has contributed to the current global financial crisis.
It is also worth noting that almost all the famous architectural monuments of the great civilizations were built with slave labor, 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 run out into the savannah—the epitome of freedom.
It also meant that no family was ever without shelter because shelter was unaffordable, unlike today’s world where many families become homeless if they experience a financial upset in the middle of their mortgage.
In many parts of Africa, huts were renovated and renewed once a year, after the harvest season and before the next rains. This was the period with the least work and it was like a vacation. The harvest was in 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. The white or ocher clay of the river 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 body. A capable wife could be recognized by her immaculately kept hut. Regular renovation also served an important sanitary function: river clay is a very clean and hygienic material that discourages the reproduction of insects and other pests. Both clay and dried cow dung are similar to ash in this respect. Ashes from cooking fires made from non-toxic burnt wood are clean enough to use as an alternative to toothpaste.
The renovation also gave the woman a creative outlet: she could paint whatever patterns she wanted on her walls. The men re-roofed the hut, using grass, such as elephant grass, which was mainly cut by the women. Among the Maasai, women did the renovation work, as men often took up the full-time job of protecting the tribe from lions and other dangers lurking in the savannah.
A very satisfying result of this annual renewal was the psychological effect. There was an atmosphere of renewal every year. of a new life, a new beginning, the purification of the soul and the abolition of the past. Each year. This is a very healthy psychological perspective. Festivals with dancing and feasting also accompanied this period.
In today’s world, owning a home has such a finality. A feeling of being rooted and captured by a building for one’s whole life.
Because they were low cost, the huts were also very versatile. One could build a house of huts: one for cooking, another for sleeping, another for receiving guests, and so on. Whenever someone needed a new hut, he simply built it. The teenage boys 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 concern to anyone. Many teenagers today would appreciate the idea of having their own cabin.
The huts are very comfortable and just right 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 thus allow air to flow freely. It is often very hot in the afternoons in Africa. The hut stays cool and is a welcome resting place. At night, when temperatures drop, the hut maintains the day’s temperature, keeping residents warm.
The huts are also very low maintenance. A well-renovated hut only needs to be swept once a day with a straw broom. No wiping, polishing or dusting was required. Liquid accidents were non-dramatic because the liquid was simply absorbed into the earth. The only real danger was fire, since thatched roofs could burn very quickly, trapping people inside.
Recently, an architectural group in Switzerland “discovered” the virtues of clay as a building material. Clay is a strong, durable material that is easy to work with. Properly applied, it can be used to build structures that are stable, durable and aesthetic without requiring the use of paint and cement. Most importantly, clay is healthy. Clay has now been proven to filter toxins from the environment. Modern building materials such as cements, paints, fillers and metals release toxins that endanger human health and well-being. A clay or mud building is completely environmentally friendly, provided the original source was safe.
Africans have known this for a long time. The huts, made of natural “earth” materials, fit their basic philosophy of drawing from nature all their needs and only in the quantities they needed. For example, gourds and gourds were used as containers for milk, water, local beer, porridge, honey or any other liquid. Cooking utensils were made of clay, as were water vessels. Chopsticks were made of wood.
Water stored in a clay pot has a pleasant, natural coolness and earthy smell. Brewed from corn, it has an extra woody flavor. Food cooked in a clay pot over a wood fire retains an inimitable earthy aroma, especially fresh beans or meat dishes.
Sleeping mats or sitting mats were woven from fur or animal skin, as were clothes. Some people built a raised clay platform covered with animal skins or mats to serve as a seat or bed. Stools were made of wood or woven from brush. Women wore jewelry made of bone, horn, wood, stone, clay, beads, or woven burla. Food was carried or stored in woven baskets or clay pots.
This philosophy of living in harmony with nature’s bounty resulted in zero waste, since everything was 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 on the bandwagon of expensive houses built from derivative materials, which take a lifetime to pay for and a fortune to repair and maintain. Materials used in modern buildings trap heat, odors and moisture and often come from environmentally damaging processes. Homes don’t have the wellness effect of sitting in a hut built entirely off the land. They conform to modern trends of bloated consumerism, self-definition through possession, and careless disregard for the planet.
Fortunately, some are rediscovering the magic of huts. They have been redesigned in some cases to be much larger, with large windows, or combined into intersecting or interconnecting structures. A famous hotel in Nairobi, Kenya is built using this concept, with treated straw used for thatching.
Indeed, more and more people are rediscovering why Africans lived in huts.
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