One of the most common images that comes to mind when Africa is mentioned are mud huts. These simple one room structures made from clay and thatch are extremely common throughout rural parts of the African continent, but little is commonly known about how they are built and used.
Although seemingly simple, mud huts are highly variable depending on their use and the region they are built in. Because of this, I'm going to focus on the traditional building techniques in Northern Cameroon, although many of them are consistent throughout Africa. So let's jump right in.
Although single room mud huts can be used for a variety of functions, they are most commonly used as bedrooms within a larger housing complex. The housing complex is comprised of multiple sleeping huts (each devoted to a single person), storage huts, open spaces, and an enclosing mud wall. Exterior space is where much of the daily activities take place and is a critical part of the housing complex. Open spaces are where the family gathers to talk, where the open kitchen and all the cooking takes place, where clothes are washed, where all the animals are kept and butchered, and all other equipment is stored. (In wetter climates the cooking is done inside a hut because it is easier to start a fire.) Just as the white picket fence is used to outline the edge of a property in America, the mud walls perform the same function for rural Cameroonian homes. Unlike in America, the housing complex is easily adjusted to fit the needs of the family which is primarily due to the construction methods and building materials. (See photo above.)
The huts themselves are made of locally found materials. The overwhelming majority of individuals living in mud huts are living on less than $5 a day and can't afford to buy building materials. The two primary components of the mud hut are clay bricks and thatch.
Mud bricks were, and still are, the most popular building material in Cameroon and much of Africa. These bricks were made through the traditional process of sun drying. This process involves three phases; mixing the mixture, placing into a mold, and letting it cure in the sun. Making the mixture is straight forward and just involves using any available soil with water. The molds are made of wood and are lined with sand before the mixture is placed inside. Once the clay is in the molds they are hit on the ground several times to prevent cracking and bubbles. Finally the molds are laid out in a shaded area to dry for several days. If there is no shade available grass is placed on the top of the bricks so they don’t crack under the sun’s rays. After the bricks have cured, more of the water and soil mixture is made to act as mortar in between the bricks and to be used as a protective layer over the entire structure before the thatch is used.
Sun dried soil brick making process
Thatch is the other critical component to structures. Thatch grows quickly and is readily available in Northern Cameroon and much of the country. (Other areas of Cameroon and Africa have a more tropical climate and building materials differ based on what is available.) The thatch is woven together to create a stronger barrier against water and then laid over the bricks to form the roof. The thatch traditionally comes to a point in the center of the structure and hangs over the sides in an attempt to wick water away from the fragile mud bricks. Harvesting the thatch happens in the spring after the rainy season has ended. Traditionally the women and children in a community spend a day out in the bush collecting new thatch, which they then use to reconstruct the roofs or to fix any damage done to them during the rainy season.
Wood supports inside the hut are also used to provide further structural support to the walls and the roof.
mud hut construction
Although the construction is straightforward, the cultural implications of these structures is considerably more complex. The impermanence of a structure is an immediate indicator of the family's level of poverty. In Northern Cameroon, where it only rains for 3-4 months of the year, there is an entire season devoted to rebuilding homes after the structures and the enclosing walls have collapsed or been washed away. A brand new mud hut will last 1-2 years, depending on the amount of rain and erosion during the rainy season. Traditionally, the structure's ability to be quickly erected and then abandoned to mold back into the earth was actually an advantage. In native Northern Cameroonian culture, when a member of the family died, it was believed that the home complex had to be abandoned to get away from the bad spirit that caused the family member to die. Thus the impermanence of the structures was advantageous and allowed the family to quickly abandon the old complex in search of a new home without lingering bad spirits. However, in modern times, the process of constantly rebuilding these homes is viewed as labor intensive and time consuming. For this reason, families that can afford it will buy expensive materials and hire laborers, resulting in a house that will stay standing much longer.
Deceivingly simple, mud huts represent a fascinating inside look at the daily life and customs of African cultures. While we only scraped the surface and didn't talk about the hundreds of variations of mud huts depending on the regions they are located in, it is easy to see how much this structure impacts the culture of rural Cameroon and the rest of the African continent.
It is unfortunate to see modern architecture in Africa that doesn't look back at traditional buildings for inspiration. Simple concepts about functionality - that involve connecting to the earth and using local materials - can be seamlessly incorporated into stunning modern architecture, further integrating African culture and ingenuity into the modern world.