Sudano Sahelian

The Influence Of Islam On West African Architecture – Preservation Not Destruction!

Vey sad news have been spread all over the world through television. Several ancient buildings have been destroyed by ex-Gaddafi Taliban fighters who occupy presently the North of Mali, trying to introduce the law of the scharia. Amongst these buildings was a religious shrine, that was built in the 15th century in the style what is today defined as the Sudano Sahelien Architecture.

What has been destroyed is not only part of  the heritage of Mali and belongs to the Malian people, but it is at the same time the cultural heritage of the whole world. It is easy to tear something down ( a saying of my grandfather who survived two World Wars) – it is as easy as counting to one, two, three – but it can sometimes take centuries to build it.

The irony of this situation of destruction, reigning in the North of Mali is, that Islamic architecture heavily influenced the Sahel and Sudanian regions of West Africa during the 16th and 17th centuries with the use of mud bricks, adobe plaster and wooden support beams jutting from the wall to act as scaffolding for reworking. The architectural creations of the same religion( a peaceful religion in its essence)  are destroyed now by its extremist followers.

The influence of Islamic architecture on ancient West African architecture can be traced back to the 8th century with the arrival of Muslim traders. Arab Muslims incorporated existing indigenous architectural elements into designs originating in the Middle East.
It is mentioned in old documents that the famous Malian Muslim Emperor Mansa Musa returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca in the year of 1325, bringing back with him a baked brick technology to build five mosques, which influenced the future and the style of  West African construction.

The beauty of the Sahelian Sudano architecture lies in the fact that the Pre-Islamic West African architecture, that consisted largely of compact mud and tent structures was paired with centuries old Islamic design elements creating a completely unique and fascinating architecture, famous and admired all over the world. It is the perfect fusion of these two styles and cultures, that give the Sudano Sahelian architecture a mystical and deeply religious dimension.
It is a type of architecture that can be essentailly considered as organic, sustainable and ecological. Is Eco Design not what the West and the first world countries are trying to introduce into their societies on a larger scale ?
Let’s look to West Africa for inspiration and learn from it.
In the Sahel region, Islamic architectural styles of mosques and palace courtyards and high walls brought the concept of municipal city centers to West African cities.

Mosques were designed by using existing West African, Malian Dogon architecture consisting of conical towers, pilasters and buttresses that continue today to be a Sahel mosque’s primary characteristics.
Looking at these images of a mosque in Bandiagara in the Dogon Plateau one can sense easily the greatness of these buildings. They were taken by my very good friend Ralf Scheurer, an architect during a visit to Mali to the Dogon country.

One has to realize we are talking about mud- buidlings that date back to the 15th century and earlier. They have been preserved ever since just to be destroyed now.
What is happening in the North of Mali is a disaster and a catastrophe.

Preservation Not Destruction!

Categories: Africa, African Architecture, Arab, Islam, Mali, Mali Villages, Sahel, Sudano Sahelian, Tradition, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sahelian Architecture in Nara, Murals in Ocre and Mud Bricks

THE PLEASURE OF JUST BEING THERE

My working days looked like this: I started out early and went to the villages in the morning when it was not too hot. I came back at around lunch time and during the obligatory desert siesta I took notes ( yes, notes from my mud hut. I filled page after page of my diary with descriptions of what I saw and what I experienced). In the afternoon I went again to the villages to come back shortly before sunset. Then I got myself a drink, usually a beer from Kouame’s Bar or the unavoidable colonial Gin and tonic and looked over my wall until it got night, holding my drink below and not above the wall as Kodjo had recommended.

No, I am not strange ! That was what other people did as well. Except for the beer and the constant visiting of the villages. But looking over the wall is a popular past time in Nara and it is really absolutely not boring.

I visited the villages daily, mornings, afternoons and sometimes even in the evenings when I was invited for a ceremony. I was blessed because I was allowed to witness so many scenes of Nara daily life. When browsing the internet now I come from time to time across great articles that describe in detail some aspects of Malian life.

I was really incredibly blessed. Sometimes you don’t know a blessing when it is there, but you realize it later how great the gift was that you have received. The fact that I stayed for several years in Nara gave me the chance to see everything with my own eyes and to  experience the pleasure of just being there !

Not only to see it with my own eyes but to see it OVER AND AGAIN – until I could say without shame, yes I have seen this truly.

Most of the buildings in the villages in the Sahel zone are mud brick constructions. Mud brick houses are the traditional way of building in the Cercle de Nara and way beyond the borders into Mauritania.

The mud bricks are made where and when they are needed. Villages usually have a mud hole next to them, often in a dry lake,  where the bricks for the village are made. Mud brick building have to be repaired a certain period of time, especially after the rainy season, and need frequent attention but it is astonishing how long mud bricks can last.

A mud brick is a non fired brick, made of a mixture of clay, mud, sand, and water mixed with a natural and organic binding material such as rice husks or straw. Brickmakers use a stiff mixture and let them dry in the sun for 25 days. It takes a lot of experience to make bricks and a brickmaker is a professional who works throughout the whole year. He makes bricks for other people as well.

A well maintained and with beautiful wall mural decorated homestead in the village of Keybane Soninke

In warm regions, like the Sahelian zone with very little wood available to fuel a kiln, the bricks were generally left in the sun to dry out. This had the result that their useful lifespan is reduced to around thirty years. Once a building collapsed, new bricks would have to be made and the new structure rebuilt on top of the rubble of the decayed old brick.

This phenomenon is the primary factor behind the mounds on which many ancient cities stand. In some cases brickmakers extended the life of mud bricks by putting kiln dried bricks on top or covering them with stucco.

In the Nara environment the mud brick were called Banco: a mixture of mud and grain husks, fermented, and either formed into bricks or applied on surfaces as a plaster like paste in broad strokes. This plaster must be re-applied annually

A traditional wall painting on a "Banco plastered wall" made from mud bricks in Keybane Soninke

Categories: Africa, African Architecture, Mali, Mali Wall Murals, Nara, Sudano Sahelian, Tradition, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sudano – Sahelian Architecture

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Store room for sorghum and maize built from mud

If you do not visibly succeed with your development and project activities in ” building better communities or making a real difference to local comunities in your host country ” ( this statement would probably be part of your job description or of your Development organization’s mission statement when you sign up) – you still have the invaluable opportunity to develop yourself. There is no amount of money that could pay for this opportunity.

This may sound very harsh but this statement bears a lot of truth. There is a high probability that you would not succeed in building better communities and you will not even make a tiny difference sometimes. The communities are just fine without you.  And that is ok.

The really beneficial thing of doing volunteer work is the impact it has on the volunteer. The seven years in Mali were a never ending personal journey of discovery and learning in terms of culture, tradition, art, language, social norms and personal relations, etc. This jouney would have continued had I stayed. Gradually and slowly one becomes less judgemental, less racist, less sure about one’s owns convictions, less superficial and less proud. In fact the local community can teach you a lot of things your own culture would never do.

My first contact with Sudanese Sahelian architecture in Mali left me speechless. I will write more about it at a later stage. But this style of architecture and the way of building is entirely adapted to the ecological and environmental condition of the region.

French-Sudanais or the newer term Sudano (Sudanese) Sahelian Architecture covers a variety of similar architectural styles that prevail in the Sahel and in other regions of  West-Africa. These styles can be found south of and within the Sahara. The Sudano Sahelian architecture can be found only above the Savanna and the forest regions of the African coast line.

WIndow Shutter

This style is characterized by the use of mudbricks  and an adobe plaster, with large wooden-log support beams that stick out from the wall face for large buildings such as mosques or palaces.

At the same time the beams also act as scaffolding for reworking or repairing the building if necessary after heavy rains.  Reworking is done at regular intervals, and involves the local community.

Categories: Nara, Sahel, Sudano Sahelian, West Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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