Everyday actions are learned as we grow up, by observation, copying, failure, trying again and getting better little by little. Depending on our home place and culture of origin we learn very different skills: it may be using certain tools in the garden or on the farm, techniques for handwashing clothes, cleaning house even how to do shopping for food.
When, as an adult, you switch home place for a while and immerse yourself in a different culture its time to adapt and re-learn some things. This can be both challenging and very much fun.
A example is haggling over prices. In North America and Europe we are used to walking into a store or market and buying things at a fixed price. Here in Tanzania (and many other places of course)there are situations with fixed prices , such as supermarkets and larger stores, but in many places you have to negotiate for a good price. As visitors we first are given what we call “mzungu” prices: very much inflated and nothing a local would ever consider paying. So we haggle back and forth and sometimes leave without the item, otherwise having arrived at an agreeable price for both parties.
More recently I’ve been practicing carrying things on my head. Here we see young girls transporting buckets or sizeable bundles on their heads gracefully and without touching them with their hands.
I asked Saum to help me learn and she showed me to roll up a kanga and place it on my head which cushions and supports the bucket. The weight immediately settles the head and spine into a straight (strong) line. A little steadying by one arm holding the edge of the bucket helps me keep it there and prevents sudden movements. I have to learn to walk slowly and evenly, both strong and flexing all the time keeping a balance between the movement of my feet and legs and the slight movements of the water in the bucket.
During a work party with my friends of the Twiga group we were carrying buckets of clay, and great excitement stirred, when I picked up a bucket too. It works much better than our way of carrying off centre and one-sided. Do try it sometime! I was most impressed by the older women in the group working tirelessly and powerfully.
While some of the group were digging and moving the clay, others were building the stone foundation for the small cob cabin that we are building here at Amarula Camp.
And like every good work party we had food together at the end. Happy about what we achieved and feeling good to be working together again.
Soon we will start cobbing- if you’re in Tanzania and looking to learn cob building, please contact me. There’s always room for help.
I have dreamt of going to Morocco ever since I was a teenager in Germany, when it was still one of the destinations on the Interail train-pass. Marrakech was one of those names for me that carry mystery and calling. What better time to go than during this trip on Sabbatical.
Even today, where travel is easy and things we value, like safe drinking water, are readily available everywhere I’ve been, the sensual impact of a Moroccan town is big. Colours, smells, sounds and the mazes of old buildings and markets are at times overwhelming, but mostly awe-inspiring to me: I am definitely in a different culture!
The Arabic world is rich with ornament: from jewelry to buildings, in metal, plaster, thread, wood and leather. Patterns and symbols carrying meaning and story are passed on from generation to generation. Craftsmen and women spend their lives working on fine details, often using methods unchanged over generations.
And yet: the modern global flavour is strongly influencing local tastes: everywhere, but perhaps more in urban areas, we saw a blend of worlds: traditional gowns, tight jeans, Moroccan leather slippers and western style knee-high boots. Cellphones are everywhere.
The old world of the Medinas is full of the richness of tile work and plasters. Visiting the Ryad Moqri in Fez, which is now housing a school for the traditional crafts, I learned a little about the technique of the fine plasterwork. The pattern is transferred from a cast using a powder-coating. Then the plaster is cut to the depth desired by the artisan. The result is a relief with strong shadows.
Old buildings require repair and I saw plenty of restoration underway. Newly plastered facades grace beautifully restored interiors. Modern materials replace older tools here too: a plastic burnishing tool.
The sense for decor doesn’t stop in old town: high end condominiums also show attention to detail and seem to carry the traditions forward adding modern style.
Tadelakt plasters are a lime finish that we have just recently been learning about in Canada; Morocco is where this technique originates. We saw beautiful examples both indoors and out. They set the mood of a place and give elegance and beauty featuring cut out patterns and bright colours.
The waterproof surface isn’t used just for wet environments: here restaurant walls, hotel foyers and courtyard walls are finished with shiny blue, red and yellow. You can even take some home in the form of small containers bright turquoise, blue, pink or purple.
As a designer and builder of earthen homes I appreciate the work of finishes as much as the construction of the building.
On a trip south into the desert we saw towns and villages of earthen architecture; some dating back hundreds of years and kept in use or restored, others crumbling and in disrepair. There are themes in the architectural form: corner towers, stepped rooflines, courtyards and large colourful gates.
Houses are built tight together three or four stories high. Narrow streets and walkways are bridged here and there by arches of stone. The old buildings are built of mud bricks or rammed earth on stone foundations, tapered on the corners. They are covered with earthen plaster that is rich with straw fibre. Cut patterns create sharp shadow lines . The colour is the colour of the earth around, ranging from red to orange and yellow tones.
The desert climate allows for clay roofs as well. Layers of bamboo and clay over wooden beams form terraces that blend completely into the landscape.
It’s not all good though; earthen buildings need to be maintained annually and slowly fall apart if not cared for. They do age gracefully and damage can be fixed- even by re-using the original materials. It takes time, interest and energy to make that happen and out in this desert new buildings are often built with cement blocks like everywhere else. In comparison they appear sharper, their colours less attractive and clearly artificial. And if you’ve ever felt the difference inside when it’s 40 degrees outside you’ll stay with the mud.
I was often reminded of villages in Northern Sudan that I saw a few years ago: the private sphere of the courtyard behind walls of earth, bright coloured gates and large clay water urns on the roadside. A gesture of hospitality – even at the gas station.
It was an exciting day today for the Natural Builders at O.U.R. Ecovillage: we laid the reciprocal roof frame on the root cellar.
I had participated in a roof structure like this once during the Natural Building Colloquium in the Czech Republic where Tony Wrench taught us how to do it. I took notes that day and was very grateful I did when we started planning for this one.
I solicited the help of the building team and found that everybody wanted to try it and a couple of guys had a bit of experience. Thankfully the root cellar is a small room, so rather low risk for trying something.
We had prepared the poles by peeling the bark off. The walls were ready and the placement of the poles marked.
The biggest question was where to place the Charlie and when we started laying poles on we found that it needed to move a little. Once the process was started it all happened very fast and without further problems. Have a look:
A week ago today we traveled back to Arusha: our time in Mnenia village was finished- for this time. The standing question of the last few days there was “when will you come back?”
Following is a sequence of experpts from my journal to capture my time with the women of Twiga group, building their store in the village of Mnenia.
In the village there’s not much available. Especially building supplies, either more expensive or not available at all.
On the 2nd day of each month there’s a bigger market in Kolo: there you can buy clothing, shoes, roofing, baked goods, vegetables, cookware, tools, livestock and more. One can imagine that this becomes an important event in the life of the villagers.
The next larger town is Kondoa- 25 km from Mnenia , and if you can’t get what you need there you have to travel 8o km to Babati. There are daily buses in both directions.
We tried to be very organized and purchase and load all supplies in Arusha when we went to pick up Sue and Sean.
A problem with the vehicle held us up on Tuesday so we didn’t leave until 4 pm. I was glad to leave the busyness of the town and head back out towards the village. We stayed the night in Babati on the lake. Our hope for a visit by the hippos that night did not get fulfilled, so we hired a fisherman to paddle us out to see them in the morning. Still no luck- all we got was their sound – no visual.
Arrival at camp meant unpacking everything and setting up kitchen and tents . Just when we had everything tucked in a thunderstorm blew in and tested all our tents and setup with strong gusty wind and rain coming horizontally. All was well and we took a deep breath!
Thursday came and time for the beginning celebration. The women had prepared the site with colourful strips of fabric, flowers and a few palm fronds for decoration. In the morning we slaughtered a goat for the occasion that later was eaten with the pilau.
Official beginning of the event was at two pm or saa nane- eight swahili time.
The women started by performing traditional dances to welcome us into the community. The village dignitaries were present and a master of ceremonies.
He gave me the name Mma Matumaini-(that means Hope) and everyone liked that. I received a black shirt, kanga and string of white beads and was asked to cut the ribbon for the other small structure that had been built.
Next the group presented me with a few local traditional gourd and clay cooking dishes.
I spoke a little to them about my hopes for the project and presented a unity flag to Twiga group. With all formalities finished it was time to eat and finally dancing in the square where Sue and I joined the women for a few dances.
After such a good beginning I was very excited to start work the next day. Everyone showed up as agreed at eight with hoes and shovels to excavate.
But first we had to decide on the final positioning of the building. The door will face onto the square where the waterfountain is and you can see the porch from the workshop as well as the road, so that when things are displayed outside they will be easily visible.
With many hands the digging was done quickly. A tractor load of stone was delivered and we started to build a dry stone foundation.
Teatime offers opportunity for a little bit of “shule” some short talks about things around the building, structure and process.
|Mama fundi: Zenia|
Snapshot of yesterday morning.
We now work on scaffolding made from Sisal poles. Sara is is now pretty competent at cutting “corner”bricks and works with three or four others: someone getting udongo,someone handing bricks, someone on the scaffold with her to spread the mud and fill the joints. From the inside of the building you can hear Sue’s voice:”level?….level!” as she goes around checking level and plumb. There is another group on the other side also laying bricks and mixing mud. Everybody is engaged, occasionally visitors drop in and help out a bit.
Meanwhile in the backyard, a few women cook the day’s meal on a couple of small fires. This is also where people go when they take a short break and need some shade.
Rain has been a daily event lately. Sometimes in powerful thundershowers, then in long periods overnight. Last night everyone in the small tents got wet from a long downpour.
The river at the bottom of the land is high today. We can hear it rushing from the kitchen.
There was an upset in the village and we found out that someone very respected had died when a tree fell on his house. The women needed time out to attend the funeral. So we stopped after tea and went to Kondoa for roof materials.
The road from Kolo to Kondoa is part of the historic “great northern route” from Cairo to Capetown. It’s rough- damage from rain and earthmovements, broken bridges . Once again we’re grateful for the Land Rover’s power.
Massive Baobab trees mark the landscape and I wonder what their story would be if they could tell it.
|see more here|
CM is here. His arrival was very much anticipated by the women and boys. At the end of the day yesterday I received a special gift of a fresh chicken with eggs inside that I was to cook for him. Saum help with preparing it and we cooked it in the earthen pot in the cob oven.
Today all the women showed up to welcome us. Seppo and CM brought three bicycles donated by folks in the Cowichan Valley and a sewing machine from Sue- items the women had wished for. Still more bicycles needed but this was a great start!
We danced to welcome CM and then went to work: plaster! We mixed lime and earth and many hands once again made fast work and by lunch time the building was plasterered inside and out.
Last day on site. We have accomplished a lot. Walls are complete with plaster, the floor is laid and the door is hung. Costa will return in a few days to work with the group to build the roof. The model stove in the store room is finished and a few of the women feel confident to reproduce these.
I watched the women take on this project and my highlights were times when I stood back and saw everyone busy on the building- work divided by aptitude and energy level, and once scaffolding was involved, the older women stayed on the ground. They all mixed mortar and plaster, laid bricks and packed the floor. At one time all of them were inside the building singing and plastering. As they occupy this building they will always know that their own hands built it. It is my hope that they will take these skills home and perhaps do some needed repairwork .
We had a closing celebration yesterday with a few “speeches”, the presentation of the bicycles and sewing machine, and expressions of gratitude and hope for future cooperation. And one more round of dancing together. Good bye hugs and words and wishes for our journey and then it was done.
Now the faces of Zena, Sara, Zura, the four Hadijas two Hawas , Zaina, Fatuma, Fatima, Mariamu, Hafsa, Maimuna, Rehema, Sewatu and Zaruna are part of my memory of a very special time in their village.
My gratitude extends to Seppo Hallavainio for setting everything up and for being my “brother”, to Sue and Sean who stepped out of their comfort zone and joined the project without knowing much beforehand, to Daniel who gracefully danced between languages and cultures and to the village council of Mnenia for their support of this project.
Things will change here and I can’t help but wonder what it will look like a few years from now. Will it still be quiet and dark at night with the sounds of insects, dogs, the wind and the river and human voices? Will the women still wear their traditional dresses with Kangas and headscarves?
What of this lifestyle is important to take into the future and how can their standard of life improve?
Many questions to take with me and to ponder.