Vernacular Architecture in Botswana 

10 September, 2016
Traditional Architecture
Vernacular Architecture
Modern architecture is expanding, turning modern materials (cement bricks and sheet roofing) popular. Those materials have to be purchased; the construction involves the labor of specialized and commercial craftsmen and will last longer but the sheet roofing heats fast under the strong sun and increases the temperature inside. As a result, the comfort inside those houses isn’t by far as good as in a traditional house.

Vernacular architecture is commonly seen in Botswana. Since gaining independence in 1991, urban areas have been growing and as a consequence architecture, building techniques and materials have been modernized. Even though the cities are developing, there is still a lot of people living in small villages where traditional culture is still a way of life.

In order to understand the architecture of the site, we have to first comprehend the lifestyle of the people living in that place and the surroundings, since architecture, specially vernacular architecture, is designed as an answer to the needs of daily live and according to their surroundings.

I’m not an expert on Setswana (Setswana is the adjective used to describe not only the language but also the rich cultural traditions of Botswana) so I’ll just share all what I have learned when I met a very nice bushmen family in a village called Khawi, who opened their doors and happily shared their stories.


About the Bushmen

The head of the household is Phudu Hudu, whose name means Steenbok (a small antelope common in Southern Africa). His name shows the importance of wildlife in the Bushmen culture. The Bushmen have always been nomadic hunters, they used to live in the sekgwa (bush) but nowadays they are settling down in villages. Hunting has recently been banned in Botswana, so Bushmen lifestyle is being forced to change.

I would like to point out, even though it’s not the main topic of this post, that when I first heard about this prohibition it made me very happy, not only because I chose not to eat animals, but also because in that area trophy hunting is terribly popular. I realized though, that this prohibition only affects all those groups of people, such as the Bushmen, whose life depends on hunting, they eat and dress what they hunt. They just hunt what they really need and there’s no other way they can survive by now. However, trophy hunters can pay thousands of dollars and that allows them to enter in certain private areas that have been exempted from the ban.

In the villages, most of the houses are constructed the traditional way, self-build using natural materials found in the surroundings (mud, wooden poles, straw) and manufactured by the members of a household. This kind of construction provides the best comfort conditions in the extremely hot African climate.

Sadly, from my point of view, modern architecture is expanding, turning modern materials (cement bricks and sheet roofing) popular. Those materials have to be purchased; the construction involves the labor of specialized and commercial craftsmen and will last longer but the sheet roofing heats fast under the strong sun and increases the temperature inside. As a result, the comfort inside those houses isn’t by far as good as in a traditional house.


Traditional houses

Traditional houses are actually compounds composed by at least one nto (hut) and a lolwapa (courtyard).

Most of the daily activities are happening at the courtyard, cooking, eating, handicrafts making, teaching… Huts are mostly just for sleeping. The courtyard is clearly part of the house, and as such they keep it clean sweeping it with a special broom made of grass.

Even during the rainy season all activities are held in the courtyard where most of the times a roof will be build in order to protect themselves from the rain. Pudu hudu is now drying grass to build a roof in their courtyard before the rainy season starts.

This outdoors area, where everything happens, is fenced with canes. African culture, in general, is not about fences and private properties, but this area is surrounded by wildlife and even though they know how to coexist, it’s never safe. The canes are collected, dried and weaved together. This texture is very common in the villages.

When I first met Pudu Hudu, two of his daughters were coming from the river carrying heavy buckets of water on their heads. I couldn’t understand, why don’t they build their place beside the river? Well, I keep forgetting that they live in the wild and riverside is never save. So, that’s why their compound is placed in a flat area, with no trees and at a certain distance from the river.

Pudu Hudu’s compound is comprised of 3 huts around the courtyard. The compound starts with one hut and more will be built as the family grows. The first hut that Pudu Hudu built is where he sleeps. It is oriented to the West. West is the best orientation and East should always be avoided. The reason being, as I’ve been told, to avoid the morning sun and to protect from the strong winds which always come from the East.


Some construction details

Both round and square huts can be found. Their sizes will never be bigger than 4m x 4m, they know it won’t collapse and will resist the rains and winds during the rainy season. The structures of these huts are made with dried wooden poles, as the one in the picture below.

Once the structure is done, it’s time for filling the empty spaces left in the structure with mud, which can be done using different techniques. Pudu Hudu does it just with a thick mixture of mud and straw and sometimes mixes other techniques to make the walls more resistant. The most common one is using mudbricks. In that area, everywhere you look you’ll find sand, so I thought that’s the sand they use to make the mud and the mudbricks, and I was right, but in order to use a high quality clay soil they usually take it from termite mounds. I never heard that before, but makes sense, and there are thousands of these mounds around. I found it fascinating. Straws can also be mixed in the mud in order to make them stronger. The straw works as steel in reinforced concrete. Mudbricks have to be done first and dried out before using them.

Now it’s becoming very popular to use soda or beer cans instead of, or together with mudbricks. They are filled up with sand to make them solid and resistant and will be placed as bricks. Of course, using mud in between them as mortar.

Afterwards, the walls will be coated with mud and clay. This coating protects the structure and makes the walls look well finished. Some people even paint them or use different colors of clay to make it look nicer.

All is covered with a thatched roof, using dry grass as materials. There are multiples types of grass and they dry and use different ones depending on different factors. Some of them are more resistant to water, others are stronger, more flexible or will last longer. I haven’t spent there enough time to learn all those, but was really nice to listen to them explaining the properties of each, talking about colors, length, textures…

Bushmen are really experienced craftsmen, not just in house making, but they also create all kind of objects using grass. Pudu Hudu’s wife, actually, is a real artist in handicrafts making.


And what about the toilet?

I was in the compound and couldn’t stop thinking about the toilet, where was it? Pudu Hudu’s family has actually no toilet. The bush is their toilet. Some other compounds do have one though. The toilet is always placed at least 10 meters away from the huts and the courtyard, for hygienic purposes and to keep the smells out of the living area. Most of the times it is shared with other families.

We all have built sand castles in the beach and know what happens if we water them, so don’t the walls melt when it rains? And what about the roof, doesn’t it spoil?

Of course natural materials wont last as long as industrial ones, but architecture techniques can make a difference. A mudwall well protected from the water can last maybe as long as a concrete one. And even though in these villages they might not have the resources to make the walls perfect, every year after the rainy season they recoat the walls restoring all possible damages the rain could have cause.

Roofs are made of grass, and no, they don’t use any waterproof layer, it is not necessary. The geometry of the roof makes the water run down and the few droplets that do take a wrong direction will never reach the inside due to the thickness of the grass roof. However, every 3-4 years these roofs have to be changed or restored.

Even though there could be some negative aspects from this way of building, there is a long list of positive ones that make me love it. The main one, and very important in the area is the temperature comfort, mud walls have a high thermal inertia, which means that it takes a long period of time for mud to modify the temperature, so the daytime heat will take the hole day to cross the wall and get inside, and the cold temperatures of the night will take the hole night to get inside too. Consequently the temperature inside will be fresh during the day and will keep warm during the night. Other aspects, such as sustainability and health properties are great enough to make us all support this way of building.

I would like to thank Pudu Hudu and his family for opening their home to us

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