A road trip from Alexandria in Egypt to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa will reveal several things about Africa. One of the most significant will be the round, decorated, grass-thatched houses that dot the roadside.
These huts are symbolic of Africa. They are the hallmark of a definitive architectural ingenuity. To many, they are a cornerstone of the African renaissance that was inspired by what is arguably Africa’s most dazzling human creation: the Egyptian pyramids.
Despite their rich history and cultural heritage, huts have come under attack from modernisation and its praise singers, who argue that the round structure, usually made of mud or clay, with a peaked roof, is backward and primitive. The proponents of this worldview hold that huts are not good housing facilities for people as they are incompatible with the use of electricity. This is because they are often wooden structures, with a single pole in the centre to support the highly flammable grass-thatched roof.
In 2008, Dr Lamaro Schoenleber, a psychology lecturer and researcher at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) in Uganda, published an article titled ‘Why the Africans live in huts’. She argued that while there is not much architectural fossil evidence, there is reason to believe that the architectural choices made by Africans thus far are neither accidental nor simplistic. “Many critics of Africa claim that Africa can boast no great cultures south of Egypt. By that, they often mean that there is no architectural evidence of greatness south of the pyramids. They forget that the huts they so despise were inspired by pyramids, hence the peaked roofs,” she says.
What was an ideal African hut like?
Traditional African builders constructed huts for sound reasons. They were easier to build from a circular foundation with cheap, readily available raw materials: mud, clay and tree branches. But the logic was not just in the architecture; it was mostly in the communalism and complementary nature of society. Because of this relaxed philosophy to shelter, Africans were not enslaved by the acquisition of shelter, as is often the case in the modern world.
In the African context, huts played a more societal role. Long ago, in the west of Kenya, for example, people sought safety in numbers and clustered together in walled villages for protection. Settlements were surrounded by a strong mud wall, with a ditch outside it. There was a thick hedge, formed by a ring of euphorbia trees tall enough to hide the homestead. Because of their strategy, during the period when Kenya was ruled by Britain, cattle raiding was suppressed.
In an article titled “Wisdom from an African Hut”, Alan McSmith stated: “In most, if not all indigenous cultures, social gatherings and councils took place in circles around a focal point. Usually a warm fire …Within the hut, families would sit and eat together in the same way, tell stories in their circles – excluding no one. They would sit, eat together. I believe Westerners can learn a lot from this system if they tried it.”
Legend has it that in the 1800s, Shaka Zulu, the indomitable king of the Zulu in present-day South Africa, sent a warrior, Soshangana, to conquer the Tsonga people in the north. Instead, the warrior was very taken with these peace-loving people and their round, patterned huts with thatched roofs, so he made his home with them. They took his name to become known as the Shangaan.
Because of their low cost and the availability of materials, homelessness and congestion were minimised and families were kept together in one homestead because grass-thatched houses required less space.
“It also meant that no family was ever without shelter, unlike in today’s world, where many families become homeless if they experience a financial upset midway through their mortgage,” Lamaro noted.
The hut in the 21st century
Although huts still exist in poor, mostly rural Africa, one could safely argue that they are a thing of the past; that these structures have been overtaken by technology and modernisation. However, due to their benefits, like natural air conditioning, serenity and tranquillity, the hut has found its way into the modern age.
John Oprong, the chair of the Ugandan National Organisation of Trade Unions (NOTU), recently argued that huts are made of local materials, as opposed to imported products. Hence they are not only environmentally friendly but also economically sound. “A grass-thatched house is cool and when you drink water kept in a pot, it is as cold as water from the fridge,” he was quoted as saying in the New Vision, a local daily.
Architect Sadam Kakande told This is Africa that the re-emergence of the hut stems from the increasing temperature in Africa due to global warming. In order to attract clients, hotels and luxury pubs have adopted a grass-thatched style for their cottages and bars. Huts are very comfortable. This is mainly because of the building materials used. Both clay and grass are good insulators, but they are porous and allow a free flow of air.
“It is often very hot during the afternoons in Africa. The hut remains cool and is a welcome resting place. At night, when temperatures fall, the hut retains its daytime temperature, keeping the inhabitants warm,” Kakande explained.
Modernity vs Tradition
In Social Studies, a community is defined as a group of people working and living together. It was on this basis that Kenyan-born religious philosopher John Mbiti coined the famous saying, “I am because we are.” Traditionally, according to Dr Kihura Nkuba, the pan-African proprietor of TV Africa and the now defunct Voice of Africa radio, young unmarried men slept in a hut close to the gate. The unmarried girls stayed in a nearby village or with their grandmothers, if they lived inside their fathers’ compound. Recently, though, given the trend to build permanent homes of brick and steel, instead of a group of mud-walled huts, families now live in enclosed neighbourhoods, a system that has killed the sense of brotherhood, communalism and togetherness that Africa was famed for.
Sadly, he adds, present-day Africans are jumping wholesale onto the bandwagon of expensive homes built of derived materials, which require a lifetime to pay for and a fortune to repair and maintain. “The materials used in modern buildings trap heat and odour and are often manufactured using procedures that harm the environment.”
The question of whether the re-appearance of huts in Africa and beyond is a positive development or a sign of Africans not letting go of their “primitive” past is indeed a question that can be debated.