African Architecture: A Vanishing Way of Life


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 and 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. 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.