African Architecture: A Vanishing Way of Life

Grass fulani huts in Africa. Photo by James Dorsey
Grass fulani huts in Africa. Photo by James Michael Dorsey

It is the image of village life, of people in mud huts with thatched roofs that first drew me to Africa; an image perpetuated by western television that fascinated me by the various innovative ways other chose to live their lives.

It is difficult to speak in generalities, but when it comes to using natural resources to improve ones’ standard of living, Africa stands alone. The sheer style, diversity, and practicality of habitat puts the African continent in a class by itself, and this is only speaking about housing constructed from natural materials.

To address the issue of generality, of course, many Africans live in large modern homes with all the technical conveniences this entails, but overall the majority of people live quite comfortably in homes made from organic materials; some out of economic necessity, and others by personal preference. Either way this mode of life needs to be not just considered, but studied.

The only other continent about which such a statement could be made would possibly be the Arctic where the Inuit and Inupiaq people of the far north who used to make homes of snow and ice, now mostly live in prefabricated housing provided by their governments, only using snow caves and igloos when they go out to hunt for prolonged periods.

Homes in Tagasango, Burkina Faso. Photo by James Dorsey
Homes in Tagasango, Burkina Faso. Photo by James Michael Dorsey

The people of Africa have made a high art form of living in harmony with their surroundings, and this in turn has given the entire world a model to copy when it comes to both architectural style and utility, not to mention having a minimum impact on the environment.

This type of housing of course, was the only alternative to early man who chose to cease living in caves, but over the millenniums, while societies across the planet progressed, and technical advances changed the building materials and advanced the possibilities of housing comforts, it was the people of Africa more than any place else that chose to live the old way.

While much of this topic was simply a matter of economics in which the people just could not afford more advanced housing, for many people it was an adherence to tradition, and respect for the ways of their ancestors, where in Africa, respect for ancient cultures is still paramount. This involves not only ritual, dance, oral history, costume, and religious belief, but architecture as well.

The indigenous architecture I am referring to usually involves an interior support system of wood, primarily tree branches that form the basic shape of the structure over which as a general rule a mixture that can include local clay, mud, animal dung, and dry grass is spread, and dries in a matter of hours. Thatch, which is simply plants or dry stalks, are usually woven together to make a weather tight roof. This is often quite a piece of art as master weavers have integrated designs into their work.

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