Sunday, January 15, 2017

Clay Houses
Candice Methe
Warren MacKenzie Fellowship 2016
Ghana, West Africa Installment no. 3

Balboa Log at the entrance of house.
     In October I went to Ghana, West Africa. One of the aspects I was most excited about was to learn about and experience the clay houses of Northern Ghana. The clay for the houses literally comes from the surrounding property. It is dug, formed by hand, dried and then painted with pigments and minerals. Although the traditional houses are rapidly being replaced with concrete blocks and corrugated metal roofs (materials that are now cheap and readily available) there are still a small handful of clay and thatch roof houses. The following images are from Apolala's house, the women in the previous post who introduced me to Traditional Ghanaian pottery techniques.
     The first thing one might see is a an old log from the Balboa Tree at the entrance of the house. This, I was told is where the landlord sleeps (which I think was a joke). It was explained to me that this is where the family will gather and listen to the stories, wise words and the lessons of the elders. When approaching the house in a formal manner, one first finds themselves in a small courtyard for the livestock. Within the walls of the courtyard are small houses for the animals be they, pygmy goats, chickens, cows or other. The courtyard has another purpose besides to house livestock. It is a place to gather dung for fuel. Fuel to burn is a rare commodity in Ghana due to the high deforestation of the whole country. After you make your way through the corral and, yes you must watch your step, a guest will climb over a small wall to reach in inner confines of the small compound.
Little house for livestock
Formal entrance way is a small wall one must climb over

Next one will encounter the Granaries. Surrounding the small compound is the family garden where staples are grown such as Millet, sorghum, rice, tobacco, peanuts, and various root vegetables. The granaries are literally large pots which are used to store such food items for the family during the dry season when it is hot with no moisture.
View of neighbors house and garden from the roof

Granary with ladder and foot holds
View of the entrance, corral and granaries from roof
Roof top with drying crops and small pots
  The structures are beam and lentle supported and the walls are made of clay and plant material, which are "hand-formed". The structures have access to the roof where the occupants will sleep when it is hot and the area is used to dry crops. The house is in disrepair with tarps about to try and preserve the house from rain.

  The design of the house is a very interesting one. Much of village life in Ghana is conducted out of doors; cooking, gardening, tending to the animals, fetching water, etc. Ghanaians are very social and so to always be available for a conversation is important. Also without electricity the small rooms are dark and hard to occupy and are used primarily for storage. The doorways to these rooms are very low to the ground and one would have to crawl on hands and knees to enter. The reason for this is that historically tribes would war against each other and want to capture and enslave other tribes folk for themselves or to sell. If a house hold was alerted that trouble was headed their way they would escape to a room with a low doorway. If the attackers tried to enter, crawling through a low doorway would put them at a disadvantage and be attacked by the household instead.  Below is an image of the interior. This room has no roof and with the light we are able to see the beams and paintings. Materials for thatched roofs are scarce and have to be imported from neighboring countries making them hard to come by and expensive. The beautiful scalloped edges are a bench for sitting up and away from the doorway.

One can see remnants of exterior painting and also a raised design above the door. to my delight storage pots and puppies everywhere.
The house needs to be repaired and repainted about every three years and is done in the dry season. I planned my trip to coincide with this time of year so I could experience first hand the building and the painting of the dwelling but they were having an extended rainy season and wouldn't be undertaking that task for a few more months. The designs themselves are known as Bambolse are a done by the women in the community. The pigments that are used are materials that are found in the area. The Black pigment is a gravel called Kugsabela, the white is a limestone called Kugpeele and the red is an iron rich gravel called Gare. The materials are painted on with a bundle of fowl feathers or millet stalks stripped of their seeds and a sealant called Am is applied to seal the clay and preserve the paintings. The designs are meant to serve as omens and protectors or to tell stories. The design below is called Wanzagesi or broken calabash. Calabash gourds are a central component to women's lives in this region which are used for serving water, traditional foods, ceremonies and making pottery.

Outside the compound

Mosque of Larabanga
The Mosque of Larabanga is another  clay structure that I had the pleasure of visiting. So beautiful and unusual, it is a small structure of Sudanese Architectural style that is built of clay and reeds that is located in Northwestern Region of the country. It is the oldest Mosque is Ghana built in 1421 and one of the oldest in West Africa. This is a place of pilgrimage and is known as the Mecca of West Africa. Unfortunately being a women and  non-muslim, I wasn't able to go inside. But below is a view from a doorway.

Interior shot of Mosque of Larabanga
Another of my favorite clay structures that I had the pleasure of seeing were the enormous termite hills that covered the Savannah landscape. They were very organic, being pushed up from the inside and very exciting to look at and study.

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