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

Visiting An African Village

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.

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.

Live in the Old Way

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. 

The Ancient Culture of Africa

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.

The average African living on the savannah can look around and find materials to construct a comfortable dwelling in hours, and complete it in a couple of days.

In the so called “modern” world, this is an impossible feat where erecting a structure not only takes weeks or months but is also an invasion of the natural surrounding whatever they may be, not to mention an entire infrastructure needed to support the construction project.

Mud Mosque in Djenne, Mali. Photo by James Dorsey
Mud Mosque in Djenne, Mali. Photo by James Michael Dorsey

In West Africa I have stayed at a village that was one complete structure of more than 100 rooms, all made from sun dried clay, complete with the floors, remarkably similar to that of the Anasazi of the American southwest.

In the great cities of Timbuktu and Djenne in Mali, not only are the giant mosques and universities made of mud, but so are the entire cities.

I have visited villages whose homes were made entirely from tree branches and others that were made from palm fronds, and found that most of these could be lifted intact.

It is relocated to another area with no damage to the structure, and leaving no trace that they ever existed on their original spot.

I have stayed among nomads who made shelters out of nothing more than dried grass that were quite livable for weeks at a time, and been in remote deserts where tents were sewn together using camel hides stretched over a wooden frame.

Spending Nights in A Hut

I have spent nights in huts made entirely from strips of bark peeled from trees and even stayed at the base of a volcano where the houses were made from petrified magma with grass roofs.

This combination of organic materials has proven over the centuries to be more than just practical, but a necessity to shelter families in areas where due to lack of infrastructure they would otherwise be at the mercy of the elements.

These homes are warm in the winter; cool in the summer, easily and quickly constructed, and for nomadic cultures, when the time comes to move on, they are simply abandoned, to return to the earth that provided them, eventually leaving no footprint on the earth.

This cannot be said of modern high rises or the modernistic architecture of the western world.

To those travelers who look at a family living in a mud hut and think them poor, I say you do not understand.

These people are true environmentalists who exist in harmony with their surroundings and would not trade their homes for a “modern” dwelling for any price.

This westerner who was born into a world of mortgages, insurance, security systems, utility bills, support teams of gardeners, housekeepers and maintenance workers, often turn my thoughts turn towards Africa and make me think, “What if?”

Africa has always remained true to its origins and traditions and more than anyplace else, this has always been manifested in the homes of its people.

This is the image the world has of Africa. It is the face of its heritage that visitors wish to see before the advance of modern society replaces it forever.


About the author: James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer with extensive travels in 44 countries.

Most of his journeys are far off the beaten path to record indigenous cultures that he uses as a vehicle to explore the relationship between man and the environment.

Janna Graber
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