Improving African Futures Using Lessons from the Past

Making Houses

"Mu kre kee nga chiin? Pooro, na kee, na nyaa ni, o tolԑԑlԑ na o lelԑԑlԑ pre naa teeri na nyinyi siin fa."

"Did you know? With earth, wood and grass, our grandfathers and our grandmothers built houses in the past."

Today many houses and other buildings in the Banda area are made using industrial materials. As such, people might imagine that building a house depends on having the money to buy cement, timber and roofing sheets, all of which are purchased through the market and come from elsewhere. But in the past, and for many centuries, people living in the Banda area made houses from locally available materials. Building and maintaining a house involved skills and techniques passed down across generations.

Houses and shelters in the past were often made using a combination of earthen and organic materials. These materials were freely available in the form of clay used to make the walls of buildings, wood used to create supports for roofs, grass for thatching roofs or gravel used to make floors.

Making Walls

People chose which building materials to use based on the building's purpose and the amount of time and labor available to build it, among other factors. For example, a shelter built at farm might be used to protect people from rain and provide a place to sleep when people stayed overnight at farm. It did not need to be as long-lasting or as sturdy as the houses in which people lived on a day-to-day basis. For this reason, the walls of farm shelters might be made using woven mats protected by a thatched roof.

Farm shelter near Ahenkro, 1982
Exterior house wall, Ahenkro, 1986

Houses meant to be more durable houses were often made using earthen materials. Though sometimes sometimes referred to as "dirt" or "mud" houses, these terms do not recognize that not just any "dirt" or "mud" can be used to build a shelter. The skilled practice of making houses from earthen materials requires knowledge of soil characteristics like soil texture (sand, silt and clay) and structure.

Two building techniques that use soil as a primary material are wattle-and-daub and atakpame.

Wattle-and-daub house, Ahenkro, 1982

Wattle-and-daub is a composite building technique. This means that it combines different materials to make walls. To make a wattle-and-daub building, builders first make a lattice frame from wood (the wattle) to support the soil mixture (called daub) which is pressed into the wattle frame. Because the wattle supports the daub as it is added and dries, the walls can be built quickly, without waiting for lower levels of the wall to dry before adding upper levels.

Archaeologists have found evidence of wattle-and-daub architecture at sites dating to several thousand years ago. These sites are associated with early settlements of the Kintampo complex (also referred to as Kintampo culture) after the town where such early settlements were first described. The evidence for this is burned pieces of daub showing stick or branch impressions created when the daub was pressed into the wattle frame. Because they were exposed to high heat (perhaps through a house accidentally catching on fire), the clay daub was fired, preserving traces of the building technique.

Atakpame refers to a technique of building earthen walls in layers or courses. The courses are made of carefully mixed and kneaded clay, formed into balls, and added to gradually build up the layer. The course is carefully leveled and left to dry for some time before another course is added. Building the wall gradually in this way ensures the the lower courses can bear the weight of the upper courses when they are added. Sometimes the walls were finished with a plaster coating. If not, the courses that form the wall remain visible in the finished dried wall.

Preparing Atakpame balls, Dompofie, 1982
Placing Atakpame balls, Dompofie, 1982
Atakpame walls, Dompofie, 1982
Exterior house wall, Makala, 1994

Atakpame-walled buildings are very durable. If well-roofed and maintained, they can last for many decades. In order to protect earthen walls from erosion by rain, roofs need to be periodically repaired or replaced. Walls and porches may be plastered with a clay solution to create a durable and protective finish. Over time, this plaster finish erodes and must be refreshed or renewed.

Making Roofs

Today many people in the Banda area prefer to roof their houses and other buildings with metal sheets. These sheets are durable and fire resistant, but they are also expensive.

Before metal sheets became widely available, it was common for people to roof their homes with bundles of grass in a technique called thatching. Tall grass grows readily around the area. By harvesting it after the grass has started to dry--when rains have tapered off in the dry season--the bundled grass can be layered to create a dry and insulating roof. Bundles of grass are tied to wooden or bamboo poles which form the roof's rafters. By thickly layering the grass bundles on the sloped rafters, outer layers of the thatch shed water, keeping the inner layers of the roof dry.

Roof Thatching (Banda Area, Ghana), 1982-2019

Sloped roofs like the ones pictured here are referred to as gabled roofs, a form that is common in areas which receive high rainfall. Further north, in drier regions of West Africa, houses and other buildings were sometimes flat-roofed. Flat roofs are made by pressing clay into a matrix of criss-crossing wooden poles (similar to the wattle-and-daub technique described above). These roofs need to have some form of drainage to remove rain water which would otherwise collect and add weight to the roof.

Re-roofing Kafͻnͻ Katoo, Ahenkro, 1986
Houses on Wewa's main street, 1982

Making Houses Through Time

Careful archaeological excavation can provide information on how people in the past built their houses. We can learn about the sizes and shapes of houses from the traces of earthen walls. We can learn about whether roofs were gabled from the patterns of posts used to support the roof's timber framework.

Traces of a structure, Mound 118, Kuulo Kataa, 1995
Traces of a structure, Mound 118, Kuulo Kataa, 1995

For more resources on how people used locally available materials to build useful and sustainable buildings, see the "Housing the Family" poster.

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