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Why do Africans live in huts?

Every time one sees a picture of a hut, one thinks of Africa. In fact, the huts have been the defining architectural hallmark of Africa and, across the continent, have been the preferred building style.

Cabins are a form of living space. The huts 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 pole 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 grandeur south of the pyramids. In fact, architecture or architectural remains are the accepted business 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 not as accidental or simplistic as they may seem.

For one thing, most of Africa is warm to hot all year round, with no extended period of winter. 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 period of rapid and voluminous precipitation, unlike the rain in Europe, for example, which can be a 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 is in contrast, for example, to 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 refuge from wild animals. There has never been a need to invest as much in housing as there has been 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 were often away from home for long periods without shelter.

The huts are usually small and made of readily available mud or river 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.

Due to this relaxed philosophy of housing, 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 Damocles sword of foreclosure. The exploitation of this fear in the US contributed to the current global financial crisis.

It is also worth noting 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 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 financial disruption at half 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 begun. 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 hut, as well as on the floor. Communities that did not have 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 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 any pattern on her walls that she wanted. The men re-thatched the hut(s), using grass, such as elephant grass, which was mostly cut by the women. Among the Masaai, the women did the renovation work, as the men were often busy with the full-time job of protecting the tribe from lions and other dangers that lurked on the savannah.

A very satisfactory 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 cleaning 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 low cost, the cabins were also very flexible. A house of huts could be built: one for cooking, another for sleeping, another for receiving visitors, etc. Every time 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 within their huts were nobody’s business. Many teenagers today would appreciate the idea of ​​having their own cabin.

The cabins are very comfortable and exactly adequate 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 remains 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 the thatched roofs could burn very quickly, trapping people inside.

Recently, a team of architects in Switzerland have ‘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 need for 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 of natural ‘earth’ materials, fit with his basic philosophy of harnessing nature for all his needs, and only in the necessary amounts. 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 sticks 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 added 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 rush mats to act 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 reed baskets or in clay pots.

This philosophy of living in harmony with the bounty of nature led to zero waste, since everything was biodegradable. In fact, until the advent of modernity and urbanization, Africa was a continent of unspoilt natural beauty.

Sadly, today’s Africans are jumping on the bandwagon of expensive houses built from derived materials, which require a lifetime to pay for and a fortune to repair and maintain. The 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 cabin built entirely of dirt. 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 allure 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 thatch used for thatching.

In fact, more and more people are rediscovering why Africans lived in huts.

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