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Diary from Africa
John Beswick reports

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...

Two articles ago, I promised to return to write about Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte D’Ivoire, as I’m currently being way laid in Nigeria, I once again have a chance to return to the vernacular architecture that I’ve encountered. 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 have been 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.


There are a great number of similarities between the construction techniques employed in Sierra Leone and Liberia for the simple reason that both lie in equatorial climates. Being close to the equator these climates have a relatively low atmospheric pressure and heavy rainfall culminating in thick tropical rainforest. Vernacular construction uses the vegetation associated with this landscape. Across both countries, we encountered variations on a construction technique involving a timber and mud lattice. Construction starts by driving thick wooden stakes into the ground in a line. Thinner branches are then tied horizontally on both sides of the stakes creating a wooden grid structure. With all four walls completed, a mix of mud, straw and water is forced by hand into the gird. The treatment of windows is particularly interesting; the mud infill is shaped to define the windows, while the primary timber structure is left exposed creating a grid providing shading and security.

Roofs are constructed in a similar grid method to the walls but are then thatched with palms. The thatched roofs are built up in layers to form a thick coat providing protection from the sun and monsoon rains. Palms are a common roofing material here with palm branches being split down middle, laid side by side, and woven to form a herringbone pattern. The majority of roofs I’ve seen overhang the structure by some considerable distance to provide a degree of protection to the delicate mud wall. The large overhang also provides a substantial air gap between roof and wall to encourage natural cross ventilation. Apart from the main dwelling for


living and sleeping each has a varying number of additional smaller structures for cooking, washing, animals, thatch storage etc. These use variants on the same construction techniques. For example a hut for cooking might have the timber latticework and a thatch roof, but little to no mud infill to maximise airflow. Outside Freetown, Sierra Leone I even fell upon a mosque constructed using the same technique.

Freetown was a strange architectural mix of slums and old colonialism, both utilising corrugated iron roofing to different degrees. As with all major cities in West Africa, construction uses whatever materials are to hand, be it corrugated iron, shipping containers, old cars, timber, mud or even old sacks. It was in Freetown that I discovered timber-framed shelters made of branches, with plastic sacking sewn to the frame in squares. Squares of material were seemingly missing to provide airflow. It was at one of these huts that the idea for our shelter in Burkina Faso was born.


Geographically, Côte D’Ivoire is similar to Ghana and varies enormously from tropical forests to savannas in the North. They are similarly economically advanced, with large cities and tourist complexes on the coast. Unfortunately Côte D’Ivoire has had large areas deforested (as of 2005, less than 2 percent of the country's land area was covered with primary forest), resulting in the traditional dwelling being less common than its neighbour Liberia. However we did see some beautiful mud and thatch villages in the North, conical dwellings built with mud bricks as we’d seen in other parts in West Africa but for the first time we saw specific structures for food storage. Clustered together these strange mud encased objects were raised off the ground on sticks using mud bricks and topped off with a thatched roof. Varying in size depending on their content, each was full of varying crops from nuts, to pineapples. Without a single aperture in the structure we were initially puzzled at how food was accessed, until we were shown that the thatched roofs were effectively just hats and could be lifted off. We pointed out that it must be difficult to reach the contents when stocks were running low and were left stunned by the ingenuity of the solution. Each conical structure had wooden lintels built into the mud at varying heights. As the season progresses small access holes are knocked into the structure just above the present level of produce to allow for easy access… remarkable. Each year the structures are rebuilt with a mix of mud and straw and the process begins again.


We noticed a gradual transition of climate and architecture as we drove from Northern Côte D’Ivoire into Burkina Faso where we again encountered beautiful mud villages, where dwellings had been walled together to form compounds. Mud is incredibly malleable when wet and is capable of producing wonderful forms, built up using handfuls of mud. When the mud dries through evaporation, the soil shrinks bringing layers of mud together until they act in compression thus strengthening the structure. These villages used a combination of mud brick and sculpted mud to build a series of conical moulded huts for sleeping, cooking, washing as well as huts for food and livestock. Everything in these villages is created with mud including walled thresholds, seats and shelves.


Similar to Burkina Faso we encountered beautifully sculpted mud villages in Northern Ghana. Organic in form cylindrical towers housed everything the family would need. Here other seemingly random conical mud towers contained the ashes of the recently deceased. Honoured with liquid food, the columns are allowed to collapse with time. In doing so the deceased are returned to their ancestors. In Nongodi, Ghana,


the location of new walled villages is the responsibility of the land priest called Tendaana. Depending on the family’s position, walled compounds scatter the land.

Most of our time in Ghana was spent along the coast visiting bamboo-constructed huts where we learnt to appreciate its versatility as a building material. This is due to its inherent qualities of being fast growing (nearly a meter a day in the rainy season) having a standard size, shape and weight, as well as its strength to weight ratio being far superior to most other natural vegetation. The hardest tissues are on the outside creating a hard shell with hollow interior. Bamboo is also easy for locals to work with; it can be cut with machetes as well as sewn. For these reasons Bamboo is one of the few materials that can be used entirely in construction of a dwelling. When used as a roof it can be cut in half and laid overlapping (one up, one down), in a similar manner to Spanish tiles. Bamboo frames can be made using peeled bamboo for lashings. Walls can then be clad with weaved bamboo splines which are split from chum then flattened with mallets. Alternatively bamboo can be driven vertically into the ground and subsequently plastered with mud. In Beyin, Western Ghana we visited a stilt village, built in the mangroves to protect inhabitants from neighbouring tribes. Here floors and walkways were constructed with bamboo lashed together.


Mainly hugging the coast we saw only a limited amount of Togo and Benin, both exciting countries rich in history and famed for being the birth of Voodoo. We were fortunate to stay with simple fishing communities where tropical palms hit sandy exposed sandy beaches. As with similar communities all over West Africa the whole community focus is around the act of pulling in the nets each and every morning… come rain or shine. Soon after sunrise the men pull at the two respective, roped ends of the looped net. They sing and dance, until three to four hours later, hundreds of fish lie netted on the beach. The fish are divided equally (including our share) and the men spend the rest of the day resting, while the women prepare and smoke the fish. Like the community's lifestyle, the architecture is simple. All the buildings are in a line with the sea on one side and a mud track on the other. While few inhabitants have any means of transport the track is important as at four o’clock each morning, the woman are collected in vans to sell their fish at the market. Most dwellings are linked to other family member’s huts by using fencing at the rear. This also provides an area with a degree of wind protection for fish preparation, net repairing and space for several small furnaces to smoke the fish. The dwellings are constructed in a way to mitigate against the high winds of coastal storms. They are windowless with thatched roofs, held fast with old nets.

You can see further images of the constructions discussed HERE

If you want to donate money to the charity One to One or find out more about Jon and Charlie's travels around Africa, you can visit their dedicated website at www.ontheedgeofafrica.com



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