Wednesday, September 5, 2012

House Building

House building in village is an art. Each poor villager is an artist, their creativity hidden by an education based on rote memorization and their talent clouded by the social drive towards consensus. When my neighbors come together to build a new house, they are sculptors, engineers, and architects working within the strict limits and with the secret benefits of nature.

Yawovi and friends
A few weeks ago I accepted my friend Monsieur Yawovi’s invitation to help his neighbor build a new house. Waking up before the sun to a cloudy monsoon sky, I made my way over to chez him.
The poorer villagers in Anfoin build their houses and compound walls out of what they call ‘clay.’ However, the material used is not really clay but a natural mixture of sand, clay, and other elements found below the top layer of soil. This mixture becomes almost rock solid when it dries, and walls are built by mixing the clay with water until a certain consistency is achieved and adding to them level by level. While it may seem primitive, well-built walls can withstand the stresses of the rainy and dry seasons for a decade or more in decent condition. Houses are built during the monsoon because the moisture in the air and cloudy conditions help keep the pile of building clay moist and because villagers have more free time while beans are growing (which require relatively little weeding).

Following my arrival chez Yawovi, we began by throwing palm branches shading a mound of clay to the side and scooping out a portion of the mound over the ground with hoes. Our workspace had been wet previous to my arrival to keep the clay from sticking to the hard-packed earth underneath. After splashing more water onto this clay, I helped to mix the water with the clay using a stair-master dance: pushing one foot into the clay (at an angle to make it go deeper and mix better), then doing the same with the other while pulling the first foot from the muck. Eventually the mixture reached was at the right level of muckiness to use on the house.

Rolling out clay balls…

… to be carried on over
Yawovi’s neighbors gradually came out of their clay houses to help. They usually began by watching me - commenting on my strength (‘Il est fort!’) and the difficulty of the work (‘Le travail, c’est dur!’). Afterwards we moved to the next step – crafting balls of the mixture and carrying them over to the house. Rolling these balls is not an easy task. It requires a feeling for where to apply pressure and how to use one’s bodyweight and the weight of the ball to help with sculpting. The key is a solid center – by driving their fingers straight into the muck, kneading a smaller solid ball, and then smacking more clay on the sides the workers shaped the mud into manageable volleyball-sized hunks. My arms were exhausted after trying to do one, and it fell apart in my hands while the men working beside me churned out ball after ball no problem.

Thus, the majority of my time was spent doing the easier task of carrying balls over to the house to be added to the wall. This did required skill in how to position my hands to maximize the area of my grip and minimize the point pressure exerted on the clay ball. One of my good friends, a fat jolly guy who speaks no French, delighted in making giant balls and then hefting them into my arms to watch me struggle. A mound containing the proper mixture of mud and water had also been placed in the center of each room of the house to roll balls. This allowed more neighbors to work at one time and sped up the building process.

Balancing on the wall

A neighbor throws a clay ball up to Yawovi

Yawovi adds a hunk of clay to the house

After being carried over, balls were hoisted or thrown up to men standing on the walls and added to the new level. I handed up the balls at first, but began to go with the flow and throw them up as I got the hang of things. Watching my friends climb up a sketchy ladder made from tree branches and balance on a wall while hefting heavy balls of mud made me feel sketchy. But they smiled and laughed and sang as the wall slowly grew. This part of the building reminded me of my ceramics class in high school. The men standing on the wall would pat down new clay with the pads of their fingers then run their hands up the side grabbing at irregularities and setting them straight. This is meant to minimize the air bubbles trapped in the clay, which can cause giant cracks when the wall dries in the sun (just as when clay dries in a kiln).

Smoothing off the edges

The new level was finally completed smoothed over using a machete. This smooting made the new level straight and true to guide and support the building of the next one. Unfortunately, the guy assigned this task was the last one to sit down and eat the pate and ademe sauce provided to the workers by the wife of the new home’s family. I preceded this breakfast with several shots of that great source of village spirits we call ‘sodabi’ (distilled palm liquor), and I ate a mountain of pate before laying back on a mat in complete satisfaction.

But the work was not yet over. For each house, four or five layers about half a meter in height are necessary. The first is a wider base, wide because it will support the rest of the layers and because rain splashing down from the roof gradually erodes the clay close to the ground. Each consecutive layer is different – space must be left for doors and windows, and each higher layer requires more hefting to put in place. The house I helped to build had three rooms in a straight line: the first on the left would become a cooking space and a ‘douche’ would be put up where the inhabitants could take that infamous bucket shower, the second would be a front room with doors opening to the front and to the other two rooms, and the last room would become a bedroom. Windows for each room were placed on the side facing away from the main path. The windows and doors were later covered with several branches upon which was stacked more mud to create the frames. After each new level, the mud must be left several days to dry. Wood stakes are shoved into the top and the new level is covered with palm branches to keep rain from washing the work away.

In front of the house

A ceiling and a roof are the final steps. As I walked by the house on a later day, some of my friends were shaping giant logs cut lengthwise from coconut trees into ceiling supports. They showed me how the wood from the base of the tree is stronger than that at the top because it has to support more weight. With that idea in mind, this part of the tree is used to create supports which run lengthwise along a house, while the weaker wood from the top of the coconut tree is used for cross supports resting on the stronger beams. More mud is piled on these supports to create a drop ceiling which helps keep the house cool through the hot season. A frame is then created, often using bamboo, on which the villagers pile straw in an overlapping manner to make rain water slide off the sides. A poorly built roof will last a couple years, but a well-built one can stand for up to five.

Time to eat pate

The changes taking place in house building mirror the changes taking place in Togolese society. As villagers in Anfoin move up in the world, they are beginning to build houses out of cinder block and cover them with metal sheeting. A mason, specialized in the creation of blocks and application of cement, must be hired to do the work that was once taken on by the entire community. This does away with the moments shared while working, the songs sung, and the pate shared by workers afterwards. Cement and metal sheeting come from outside the village (cement from a giant factory in Tabligbo, sheet metal from I don’t know where). And the kicker: these modern houses often lack the cooling effect of the thick clay walls, drop ceiling, and straw roofs found in mud houses, making them unbearable when the November hot season rolls around. This society is marked by a greater push towards individualism and a greater reliance on foreign materials. While much of my efforts are directed at ‘developing’ this country, I am coming to realize how the value of existing local knowledge.

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