Why do Africans live in huts?
Every time one sees an image of a hut, one thinks of Africa. In fact, huts have been the defining architectural hallmark of Africa and, across the continent, have been the preferred style of construction.
Cabins are a form of living space. The cabins are usually round, with a gabled roof. They are usually made of mud or clay, with a wooden frame to support the building and a single wooden post in the center, which supports the thatched 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 greatness 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 are reasons to believe that the architectural choices made by Africans thus far are not as accidental or as simplistic as they may seem.
For one thing, most of Africa is warm to hot year-round, without an extended winter period. The most uncomfortable climatic period is the long rains, during which it rains a lot, especially every day. However, in most of Africa, it rains, instead of raining. That means a rapid and voluminous period of precipitation, unlike the rain in Europe, for example, which can be light but continuous precipitation. Also, most of Africa, which is located on the equator, experiences nearly equal twelve-hour periods for day and night. 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 needed only for the night, against the cold and as a shelter from wild animals. There has never been a need to invest so much in housing as has been done in Europe, for example. Strictly speaking, there was rarely a situation in Africa where homelessness would have been life-threatening. In many African cultures, nomads, hunters, warriors, and messengers used to be away from home for long periods without shelter.
The huts are usually 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 thatching. Among the Maasai of East Africa, the woman builds the entire structure, which is known as a manyatta.
Because of this relaxed housing philosophy, Africans were not enslaved by home ownership as is often the case in the modern world. In today’s globalized world, buying a home is a lifetime liability that forces you to live chained to a mortgage, under the sword of Damocles of foreclosure. The exploitation of this fear in the US 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, shelter 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 homeless because housing was unaffordable, unlike in today’s world, where many families become homeless if they experience a financial upset halfway through their mortgage.
In many parts of Africa, the huts were 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 holiday. The harvest was ready and the next agricultural season had not yet started. The women renovated the walls of the huts by plastering them with a new layer of mud or clay. White or ocher colored river clay was used as a cosmetic finish on the interior and exterior of the cabin, as well as on the floor. Communities without access to clay from the river used a mixture of cow dung and mud or ash.
A good African housewife took this duty as seriously as the care of her own body. A capable wife could be identified by her impeccably maintained shack(s). Regular renovation also served 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 dry cow dung are similar to ash in this regard. 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 re-thatched the hut(s), using grass, such as elephant grass, which was mostly cut by the women. Among the Masaai, women did the renovation work, as the men often took it full time to protect 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 cleansing the soul and ending the past. Every year. This is a very healthy psychological perspective. Festivals with dances and banquets also accompanied this period.
In today’s world, buying a house has such a purpose. A feeling of being rooted and captured by a building for a lifetime.
Because they were inexpensive, the cabins were also very flexible. A house could be built of huts: one for cooking, another for sleeping, another for receiving visitors, etc. Whenever one needed a new hut, he would simply build one. Adolescent boys were given land where they could build their own huts, some distance from the rest of the family. Their privacy was assured and their activities inside their huts were none of anyone’s business. Many teenagers today would appreciate the idea of having their own cabin.
The cabins are very comfortable and exactly 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 and therefore allow free flow of air. It is often very hot during the afternoons in Africa. The cabin stays cool and is a welcome resting place. At night, when temperatures drop, the cabin retains its daytime temperature, keeping the inhabitants warm.
The cabins are also 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. The 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, 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. Applied correctly, it can be used to build stable, durable and aesthetic structures without the use of paint and cement. Most important of all, clay is healthy. Clay has now been shown to filter out toxins from the environment. Modern construction 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 green, as long as the initial source was safe.
Africans knew that a long time ago. The cabins, made from natural ‘earth’ materials, fit in with his basic philosophy of harnessing nature for all his needs, and only in the quantities needed. For example, gourds 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 pots. Kitchen chopsticks were made of wood.
Water stored in a clay pot 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.
Sleeping mats or sitting mats were woven from reeds or made from animal skins, as were clothing. Some people built a raised clay platform covered with animal skins or reed mats to act as a seat or bed. The stools were made of wood or woven with reeds. Women wore jewelry made of bone, horn, wood, stone, clay, beads, or woven reeds. 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. In fact, until the advent of modernity and urbanization, Africa was a continent of preserved natural beauty in its entirety.
Sadly, today’s Africans are jumping 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 are often derived from procedures that harm the environment. The houses lack the feel-good effect of sitting in a hut built entirely of earth. They are in keeping with modern trends of inflated consumerism, self-definition through possession, and a disregard for the planet.
Fortunately, some are rediscovering the charm of the shacks. 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 was built using this concept, with treated straw used for thatching.
In fact, more and more people are rediscovering why Africans lived in huts.