Traditional architecture is an integral part of how people construct a sense of interrelatedness with their physical environment. These buildings tell of the history, culture, customs and religious beliefs which are intrinsic to a community`s sense of identity.
All across different parts of Nigeria, indigenous architecture which dates back to pre-colonial and early colonial era exist in dwindling numbers. Some of these buildings were built for day to day domestic living like the Orowa houses of Ile-Ife. These buildings were typified by thick mud walls, timber with thatched roof construction and spaces which were interlinked but connected centrally through the Orowa – a central large hall.
Many other buildings though were associated with a deeper sense of spiritual connectivity. Once described by Chinua Achebe as “a celebration through art of the world and of life lived in it…”, Mbari houses among the Igbo people were very sacred places. With a simple design of a square foundation with one small story above the ground floor, Mbari houses formed part of a complex corpus of ideas, belief system and sacred African religious practices.
I knew very little about Hausa architecture till I stumbled into Hausa Tubali architecture from Northern Nigeria. As I looked at pictures of some of these exquisite buildings, I wondered about the craftsmanship which had created such flawless structures. I was also inquisitive about the extent to which they mirrored the practical needs, beliefs and customs of the people who had built them.
The word “Tubali” refers to the style of construction of laying the bricks with points facing upwards. Tubali architecture like all indigenous architecture involves a perfect understanding of the interaction of many local materials. The walls and roofs are made of red laterite pear-shaped, sun dried mud bricks. The fact that these buildings have endured for decades is down to the skill and craftsmanship of local builders and artisans who lived decades ago.
The results are stunning. In temperatures which burn in the day and drop significantly at night, these buildings are also extremely practical for everyday use. As semi-conductors which manage the temperature balance, the carefully layered mud roofs respond to extreme temperature differences between days and nights. In addition, they act as a buffer between the inside and outside environment. This is intelligent architecture. And beautiful too.
Whichever way I looked, it was impossible not to be moved by the ornamental care and intricate decorations. They are colourful without being garish, tasteful and subtle at the same time. The effect is a merging of beauty, creativity and simplicity.
Decoration in Hausa traditional architecture involves surface design, calligraphy and “Graffito”, a form of decoration in which different colour wall plasters are arranged in layers. The design is made by scratching away the upper layers. As with most indigenous buildings in West- Africa, decorations and murals may carry some magical or religious significance .
Winston Churchill said: “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. There is so much to learn about our history as a people, the skills and local technologies which helped to create these buildings. Sadly, many of them are lost to us forever, totally disintegrated from neglect and a lack of a sustained attempt at conscious preservation.
What do we have if we don’t look after what we have inherited?
We must preserve so we can benefit from our own history. We must rescue indigenous buildings because they are fine examples of inventive skill and creative thinking. And the skills need to be passed on. There is knowledge buried deep within the walls of these inspiring buildings, preserving them should be of the highest priority for the country`s ministry of arts and antiquities.
Traditional buildings are priceless jewels. They remind us of what is possible if we can look inward and develop our abundant local and natural resources in Nigeria.