The Sudano-Sahel region is a belt that stretches from the western coast to the eastern coast of Africa, with the Sahara to the north and the tropical deciduous forests to the south. It covers parts of the modern-day countries of Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Geographically, the zone represents a transition from desert to forest, consisting of wide grassy plateaus, savannahs where trees and tall grasses coexist, and a semi-arid climate. Over millennia, this climate has resulted in the presence of a collection of nomadic and semi-pastoral tribes and communities across the belt, who possess a similar architectural and material language, owing to a homogeneous availability of local material as well as kindred climate-responsive strategies perfected over the ages.
MATERIALITY, CLIMATE AND CONTEXT RESPONSE
The most abundant natural resource available to the Sudano-Sahelian people is earth. It forms the core of all traditional and vernacular architecture, whether through refined moulded blocks or rustic hand-moulded structural elements. This is complemented by thatch, reed and other grassy materials used in roofing, insulation and in some cases, reinforcement and formwork. The earliest examples of the Sudano-Sahelian style probably come from Jenné-Jeno around 250 BC, where the first evidence of permanent mud brick architecture in the region is found.
As communities shifted from a more nomadic lifestyle to an agrarian one with structured, hierarchical societies, defined religious practices and elaborate trade systems, their architecture reflected this. The building of grand palaces and mosques became a way for the community to gather and celebrate, as did the yearly renovation of these public structures.
With the expansion of Sahelian kingdoms to the rural areas in the savannahs, the Sudano-Sahelian style became more exclusive to mosques, palaces, the houses of nobles and townsfolk, whereas the older round hut styles prevailed in villages and rural family compounds. This distinction can be attributed to several reasons – the adobe-plastered city structures and monuments took longer to build than the traditional compounds, and therefore entailed more labour and cost. They also needed significant renovations after the annual rainy season, creating yet another demand on the average villager’s already eventful life. As the walls grew taller, there was a need for sturdy reinforcement in the form of solid wood beams – a luxury that most common folk could not afford. This resulted in an intriguing patchwork of architectural styles within the same material palette, providing visual variety to the settlements while achieving the same climate response required for occupant comfort.
RURAL FAMILY CLUSTERS
While talking of the massing, composition of volumes and spaces in Sudano-Sahelian architecture, it is important to distinguish between the ‘styles’ of the common folk and the nobility. Rural architecture was often characterised by small compounds where extended families lived together, with separate structures for different functions such as cooking, sleeping and most importantly, rituals to honour the nature gods and the spirits of the ancestors.
Thick walls of earth, straw and cattle dung protect from the harsh dry weather and the seasonal dusty harmattan wind. A varnish made of the nere fruit renders the walls waterproof. As a result of defense and climate response, the entrances to these homes are quite small. The small windows present in these earthen walls are few and far between, keeping the interiors cool throughout the day. Some homes display conical roofs while others have flat terraces. Though the essence of the built form remains constant, tribes differentiate their homes and compounds in the way they finish the surfaces. For example, the Batammariba people of Togo and Benin leave the earthen walls coarse, while the Kassena tribe of Ghana and Burkina Faso cover the walls in intricate geometric patterns replete with esoteric symbolism.
ARCHITECTURE OF THE TOWNFOLK
The typical forms found in the towns are characterized by the use of mud bricks and adobe plaster, with large wooden-log support beams that jut out from the wall face of large buildings. These beams also act as scaffolding for reworking, which is done at regular intervals, and involves the local community. While the most common examples of this architectural language would be public structures such as mosques or palaces, it is also seen in the homes of richer townsfolk, the chief and his extended family and other important administrators in the town. They are landmarks in a flat landscape that point to a complex society of farmers, craftsmen and merchants with a religious and political upper class.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Djenne in Mali is a classic example of this vernacular style. The entire town has buildings of sun-baked mud blocks called ferey, coated with plaster. The Great Mosque is a textbook example of the design vocabulary of the town. The largest clay building on earth, this mosque has an imposing facade with three minarets. Bundles of ronier palm called Toron project two feet from the facade, and serve the dual purposes of reinforcing the mud walls, as well as acting as inbuilt scaffolding for the annual repairs that are a part of the town’s tradition. Ceramic pipes extend from the roofline and ensure that rainwater falling on the roof does not damage the walls.
The Sudano-Sahelian style of architecture remains a strong influence on contemporary African architects such as Francis Kere, who seek to showcase the ancient wisdoms of the African motherland through a modern lens. It is a dynamic, ever-evolving family of styles bound together by the land and the African diaspora. Through the veil of different surface treatments or changes in building traditions, the pure essence of the earth shines through, upholding a legacy that stretches across millennia.