The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1853] The Building Exodus of a Going People


To time we lose

To time we’ve lost


Cultures and customs

That of our neighbors and those of our own

Eating and cooking,

Making, building and living

Living as ghosts of our true meanings

Yet seeming,

Only that we’ve instead let live

Burnt out as candles at dawn

Our souls weaker than the wick that burned

As we count the sticks left in life’s box of matches

So the smoke outlives us,

And certainly leaves us

Rising to be with the clouds

In a place where dreams still count

Dreams of the past that get lived in the future

Rising over our heads,

Rising before our eyes

That slipping through our fingers is no tale of yo

But one only less archaic than time himself

A tale of our own in mud and in gait

And in weaving and in dealing

Yet now burned ashless,

And a smoke we don’t see

Time, one of the many intangible mysteries mankind daily confronts, is like a ship which has carried us from age to age, always going forward and never going back. The idea that she never goes back is consistent with a sad truth: that much of what becomes a part of us in one age, we lose in our upstream journey on the ship called time.

Customs, languages, totems; the strong tides of life that are always with us on the journey at sea, have on many occasions faded these and many other hues that are the colours of our traditional stories. When the oars that these elements were had been rendered feeble by the hard rowing that life is, we -men- could not help but pick up fresher pieces of wood from the banks of age and fit into whatever new realms our ship docked us to.

Building traditions and customs have not been spared in this journey.

Say, Salongo. An age old cultural practice amongst the Nande people living at the foot of the “Mountains of the Moon” or Mount Ruwenzori, standing tall at the heart of Africa. The practice entails such activities as building and maintenance of village markets, gravel roads, bridges, and worship places, as well as repairs to homes of vulnerable and venerable persons as the sick and elderly respectively.

Drawing from the vast naturalness of the area, the practice is carried out using indigenous and locally available materials as mud brick from the mineral rich blood-red earth, reeds from the bushes that remain home to innumerable fauna and flora, animal waste from the many domesticated ruminants and fowl, as well as timber from the mvule (Milicia exclesa) and the soaring eucalyptus forest that characterises the regions skyline.

Sailing on voluntary participation, Salongo functions as if a large crew of sailors with a ship to navigate, executing community projects with the common goal of social development.

Salongo and many such cultural practises that are traditional to indigenous peoples go a long way in painting history at an individual scale, with direct benefits to man like fresh water to a sailor at sea. The intricate details of the methods of construction, little histories of the same methods as well as their meanings; these and many other priceless treasures get to be passed on in local tongues from one generation to the next. Like sailors and song, human bonds are easily built through people doing things together, things that contribute to basic human needs. The ideal experience of, “in the grasshopper season we repaired the hut where we keep the village grain mill.” Such are the moments that provide for a transfer of culture, strengthening bonds of tribal fraternity along with it.

Considering that the works get done by the local people, and the materials are often provided for through gathering voluntary contributions, the practise provides that efficiency be key and highlighted so that “the people’s materials” are not put to waste. Further, the preservation of Salongo allows for local businesses and civil society groups to give back to the community. Building materials, tools and other logistical support can be offered, thus providing a platform on which different stakeholders in society can meet face to face and share social responsibilities.

On a more “green” note, the traditional methods of building usually employ indigenous building materials. The advantage here is that these materials are more often than not, natural – or organic – i.e. materials that have not been industrially processed, which implies the net impact on the environment with regard to pollution is less when the traditional methods are used as opposed to the modern building methods with their refined yet eco-hazardous modern materials.

Even better, community based building work as Salongo go so far in giving the participants a sense of ownership of public goods/public places. This implies that in the long term the spaces that have been developed by the people’s own hands will be less prone to vandalism, more respected and have a longer life expectancy. In the same light, Salongo and such practises allows for a direct translation of what the people want or need to the shore of the built.

The works, be it maintenance or a case of fresh construction, are often based on the people’s ways of living. This strong social involvement in community development projects contributes towards a heightened sense of objectivity when creating a hierarchical order of social needs.

Ultimately, reflecting back on the analogy of the journey on the ship called time, I can suggest that through the preservation of practises like Salongo, old oars are saved from getting thrown out to sea, and instead allowed to get stronger by adding on to them new pieces of wood, bound together with cords which in this case represent our will.

To be able to say how these customs can be revived, it is necessary to understand why our hands are too happy to throw out old oars. For the Nande people -my people- and indeed for much of Africa, colonialism played part in crippling the steady development of “our ways,” and with it came the “modern ways of doing things,” and eventually, the famed globalisation. The abandonment of age old African ways and the subsequent adoption of ways of the European colonial masters was, and still is analogous to a pirate takeover of a ship that was our birth right. Shift in lifestyle, a change in land and building use, a shift in the choice of materials, as well as a cancerous replacement of our own building customs and traditions with ones that worked in Europe. The inevitable commercialisation of work or activities that were until then considered to be community work was among the last and most regrettable of the tragedies.

Then, as an ordinary crew member on this ship called time, one wonders what it might take to perhaps restore the fading customs of ours, in this case those to do with building and traditional wisdom...

Yet, the fruits of globalisation, the fruits of mingling and melanges of cultures, at the end of the day, still are but fruits. We need not stop eating and throw away what is left. No, we just have to trim off, neatly, those parts that have gone a little sour.

In my opinion, for the revival of the social architecture of old, the formal architecture as we know it today has to meet traditional wisdom on the ship deck. And for that to happen, Architecture as an industrious profession has to be brought on board. To do this, the notion has to be rendered appealing, attractive, and rewarding to the lot of architects that are often urban dwelling, and who must be able to win bread at dusk.

So, how do we create a professional inertia toward the rural areas where practises such as Salongo await architecture? Consider the stake holders. First, the state.

The state has to take practical interest in the issue, why? Well, consider a democracy; the state is responsible unto its people to direct and mobilise their needs and hopes into fruition, and she has the mechanism necessary to mobilise the resources for it. In their hands is the power to make law, in their hands is the power to provide recognition, in the state therefore is the most necessary partner to help bring such activities as Salongo to bloom. Take the law for example, the state can be advised –as a partner in the quest- to revise the rules regarding taxation of professional architectural services in rural areas. This means that architects will find it lucrative to set up branch offices where communities based organisations (or CBOs) need them, and even better, lessen their service fees knowing well that the tax collector won’t be too keen to menace them. The state can also revise taxation of modern building materials sold in rural areas; or offer subsidies for the same, all times making certain that the subsidised materials are solely and directly benefitting community based works. This will allow the architects’ design for the CBO works not to be restricted to the indigenous materials, but instead be experimental melanges of the archaic and the new, without an out of scale worry about costs. In the same light, the state could influence interest rates to be lowered for loans borrowed for community based works, particularly the ones that try to promote indigenous construction.

The state often has financial strength unmatched on its land. Therefore she can be advised on the need to support and finance research and development of traditional indigenous building and construction materials, such that these materials can be standardised and their actual properties and potentials explored in the implementation of projects not only in the rural areas but in urban centres as well, bearing thus more sincere witness to the change of times. On the other hand, considering that the state is often the biggest developer of infrastructure, she can choose to be culturally conscious and demand that all architectural practises bidding for state projects submit, along with their bids, a portfolio of community based works. We should see it as corporate social responsibility.

It is also necessary that local communities that do organise such building activities as the Salongo be able to benefit from some form of urban planning expertise. Through the local governments, urban planners would be posted periodically –synchronised with CBO activities- thus help better orient the local infrastructural development through the community groupings. This would help in reducing pressure on resources necessary for the projects such as tools and materials, as well as making it easier for more people to commit to the activities considering an available time table.

Lastly, the state should necessarily recognise with honour, architectural practises that endeavour on their own to offer pro-bono services in order to aide community activities as the Salongo.

Next in line to grab the oars are the Architects. Architects, as well as students of architecture, have the kind of role to play in this quest that cannot be understated. First and foremost it is necessary that architects become more willing to understand and consider the indigenous people and their way of life when designing. For example, Nande customs forbid direct interaction between men and their mothers-in-law, women and their fathers-in-law; coupled with that is normalness of grand extended families. Architecture designed to house a traditional Nande family needs to reflect such ideas and many other customary norms –or even superstitions- that go along with it. Today, modernist functionalism has bulldozed through and replaced behaviour -which is always bolted on custom- as the dominant issue in space orientation. Sustained, traditional spatial orientation settings have a lot of value in maintaining order, say, in domestic units. As such, I recommend that such subjects as human psychology and even more relevantly, anthropology be introduced -or reinstated where it has phased out- in the curriculum of schools of architecture. This would make it easier for the architects and the architects-to-be to understand community needs, and thus to better advise on surviving customs when consulting on projects such as the ones in Salongo.

This would then help guarantee that even in the ultra modern times to come, my kids-none yet- will have the opportunity to know what it is like to live like a Nande, simply by living in a home designed on the basis of Nande anthropology.

Also, architects’ associations as well as schools of architecture should organise prize-design-competitions aimed at designing contextually consistent, economically viable, and ecologically sustainable projects that community groups as the Salongo could then adopt and execute. This will almost certainly reinvigorate thoughts on traditional building styles amongst architects and possibly even go so far as making it fashionable to design using indigenous blue prints, staying the idea not too far away from the daily palette of the architect in practise.

Most architects today have access and/or skill regarding Computer Aided Design, or CAD. CAD allows for the simulation virtual buildings, enabling the architect and the client to try out an almost unlimited number of permutations of design without going through the rigors of the traditional drafting process. Even more importantly, CAD can go so far as offering us structural solutions in various design scenarios, thus making the design studio a place where nothing is really unreal... This phenomenon can also be used to develop community based work, particularly in simulation of design options that involve indigenous materials. If coupled with research on the same materials, CAD can be developed to be customised for the purposes of promoting traditional wisdom in construction and design.

Holding onto the anchor of the ship are the people of the commune. They are the most important stake holders in this equation, most important because they are the principle implementers, and final consumers of their projects. They need to stay motivated and remain in appreciation of what is and what was once all there was, for if they cease to care, with them will die the identity and the wealth of knowledge that has sailed through time with it. For this oral tradition as well as formal education of the youth in the traditional ways should be organised as part of everyday life. More particularly, the people in the communities as those that organise and participate in Salongo among the Nande need to get mobilised. Even as participation is voluntary, to benefit fully from the fruits of interaction of all the stakeholders, and to eliminate abuse of the privileges that should be theirs, such groups should be registered with local authorities as community based organisations. For purposes of accountability to their own people, the activity should be.

True to their name, which comes from the phrase “bana’enda,” which is Swahili for they’re going, the Nande people must keep sailing in the journey of life. Yet as time sails, we should remember that customs and everything traditional aren’t just memorabilia, the soul of the ship, which must out live us all.

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