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Diary from Africa: Nothing in Africa is straightforward
Jon Beswick

London architect Jon Beswick, 27, has left the UK on an epic 48,000km overland trip circumnavigating Africa, during which he and his travel partner, strategy consultant Charlie Curtis, will build shelters for HIV clinics and raise money for UK charity One to One Children's Fund. Until 24 February, Jon was working as a project architect for Sacks Maguire Architects on high-end residential projects in Belgravia and Hampstead with construction budgets of £2,000,000. The budget for each shelter, which he is designing, is only a few hundred pounds and will pay for local labour and materials. Over the next few months Jon will be writing a diary for WAN as his adventure continues...

Having left Guinea, our arduous journey has taken us into relatively un-chartered territory traversing Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire. These three countries, not normally top tourist destinations, have been the highlight of the trip both architecturally and emotionally. Despite all three having so recently felt the devastating effects of war, the people we encountered were the most positive and the architecture most inspiring. For me this was made even more poignant when set against the backdrop of the previous decade… bullet scarred and abandoned vehicles and buildings, crumbled churches, UN camps, barbed wire roadblocks and disabled victims of war. Having safely passed through all three we headed North to Burkina Faso where the overdue construction was to take place. As so much has happened in the last month, I write about Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire in order to concentrate on the construction of the children’s shelter...


We arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso on Friday, the consequence of delays accruing from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, meant we had a very limited time slot for construction. We spent Friday interviewing the vice president and workers from the clinic to establish exactly what was required. The clinic is called Rev + and is an independently funded organisation set up to help mothers and children who are HIV positive. One2one children’s fund is the English charity helping to link them to hundreds of other clinics across Africa, under the PATA (Paediatric Aids Treatment for Africa) umbrella. We are visiting clinics in each country we travel through on their behalf, with a view to develop shelters that will ultimately benefit many of them. Burkina Faso is our first opportunity to construct such shelters, though there will be other opportunities further down the West coast. At Rev + it quickly transpired a shelter for children was required to protect them from the harsh Burkina sun and tropical monsoons. They currently have nothing and sit in the dried mud. If everything went to plan all this would change.

Our main drivers for the brief were; it had to mitigate the harsh environment for the children, and most importantly, because we were building on government land, it had to be a temporary structure. Due to further commitments it had to be constructed in ten days and to a budget of £1000


After interviewing workers and possible builders on Friday until the small hours, we spent Saturday visiting every builder’s merchants, manufacturers and street vender in a five-mile radius of the clinic to find materials, manufacturing skills and prices. Another long day left me disheartened…the limited availability of


materials here is almost inconceivable, construction akin to building a house from items found in a car boot sale. The final design was drawn and detailed on Sunday before a final meeting with the president of the clinic on the Monday ahead of construction the next day. The design is a tent-based structure that can be unfolded to form a large circle with an open aired centre. Independent frames remain erect by tension created by material strips woven around the frames, the undulation of which encourages cross ventilation between the outside and the open aired centre. All of the countries we’ve visited and their vernacular architecture have inspired the design: the strips of material from the slums in Free Town, Sierra Leone; the tents from Mauritania and Morocco; the cross ventilation from the lattices of Liberia, the inner circle from the round houses of Guinea.

With probably the quickest design process in the history of construction, we met the president on Monday. One of the major problems of the project was always going to be the language barrier. Although whole ranges of local languages are spoken, French is the dominant language in Burkina Faso. My French is limited, so in order to quickly communicate the design and the build I made the decision to draw everything in Sketch Up due to its speed and simplicity. The president seemed to understand the basic ‘fly through’ and loved the concept. We spent the rest of the day marking out the site in preparation of a hard start on Tuesday.


Money is singularly the biggest factor in the construction of these shelters. For the mean time money has been raised independently so, until we have company support, a little has to go a long way. After the first three days of continuous price searching I calculated that we would go several hundred pounds over budget. Part way into construction I’m convinced we’ll be under budget, but not without difficulty. The design has changed several times and every price obtained has had to be fought hard to achieve. The problem we face is that prices here aren't fixed, and as such they seem to increase by 200% if you’re Western, 400% if you’re white and English. Even buyers from neighbouring countries pay a premium. It is also impossible to get quotes up-front, that's just not how business is done here. The bill is received at the end of the job for the work done including all expenses. It’s frustrating, so to mitigate against spiralling costs we promised to pay our construction team x amount per person per day. Since then the construction team has grown in numbers every day, everyone is a family member or friend of another…It’s a steep learning curve.


The availability of materials similarly challenging. Driving through Africa and seeing building everywhere, one quickly identifies what materials are available and those that are not. Originally the design used a wooden frame due to the ready availability of wood. It was only when we started the buying process that we realised that in Burkina Faso wood was imported from Cote D’Ivoire and as such was expensive. All wood however suffers from the effects of termites and although treatable is again expensive. Then there was the problem with fabric. Originally, the roof design was to use canvas, such as that used by the UN tents we’ve seen so often in Liberia. Here in Burkina Faso this is impossible to source, the only waterproof material being plastic. At the time of purchase, there was only enough material in one colour… bright yellow. While to many, this colour may seem brash, the kids seem to love. Every material is critical in this construction and even obtaining the bolts to fix the material to the frames proved difficult. Until we could find a supplier, we could only manage to get a few of the same size from street vendors selling reclaimed bolts.


Due to budget constraints a solid concrete raft foundation (the norm here) proved too costly, so the solution was to build two circular strip foundations in which to bolt the frame to, then infill the centre with sand to make


a play pit.

Tuesday proved to be a manic day: buying materials, negotiating prices and sourcing a local metal manufacturer to construct the metal frames and trusses. Within hours of negotiations, two tonnes of sand, several hundred blocks, and 250kg of cement arrived on site by donkey, which was a truly wonderful sight to behold. The rest of the day was spent digging foundation trenches ready to lay the concrete. I always thought my non-verbal communication was particularly strong, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t find a face or gesture to convey to my Africa mason that our cement should take longer than 24 hours to dry. As previously mentioned, my French is bordering on terrible, so my colleague Charlie has magnificently acted as interpreter in trying to explain technicalities of the design but it’s a huge challenge. Unfortunately our fast-moving start was too good to be true and on Wednesday, with materials on site and trenches dug, we were ordered to stop work by the regional director for the Ministry Of Health. Although he had previously given permission for us to build, he was annoyed with our immediate start (We’re not entirely sure what he expected?) but this is not how things are done in Africa. To our frustration a meeting with this un-named minister was set up for Friday evening and three days of our ten day build time would be squandered. Not wanting to waste a minute we continued to work off site. While the local metal worker was busy working on the frames and roof trusses, we sourced material for the walls and roof and employed a local firm who used our template and some sketches to cut and sew the circular roof.

The regional director never showed up to our meeting on Friday. Not only did he not inform us of his absence, but he refused to take our calls, or accept our offer to drive the four hours to see him. Worst of all we now weren’t allowed anywhere near the site. Instead he kindly offered to see us on Monday evening, meaning the best part of a week would be lost to an official with a hidden agenda. With our concrete foundations needing the best part of a week to dry before bolting our frames to it, our chances of achieving anything were severely damaged. There’s something everyone should know about Africa, it’s irregularities and annoyances are also part of its beauty… there’s always a solution here (although its often attached to a problem that should not be there in the first place). Our bureaucratic problem led to the simple solution of constructing the shelter on the street 500 metres from the site. So over the next couple of days using help from the street and our material manufacturers, we attached the roof to the trusses and using manufactured pegs from our metal worker we were able to gain enough tension to bring both ends of the circular roof together to secure with rope threaded through eyelets. Today is Sunday, a day of rest for our growing labour force, so Charlie and I spent the day alone, bolting the steel frames to our new roof. Tomorrow the structure should stand by itself and if all goes to plan, will be near completion with the material bolted to its sides. If the regional director for the Ministry of Health does eventually show, we can give him his building, all be it 500 metres away from the site we had permission to build on. I’m sure at which point will we be faced with the problem of it’s relocation…undoubtedly, but I’m confident we’ll find a solution.

View images of Jon's design here.



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