Designing and Building in Central and East Africa

15,000 Bottle Caps for Africa

As a development professional working in Sub Saharan Africa, I always adhere to the ultimate goals of my client: the community.  As an architect, I try to bring new ideas and always push to raise the expectations of those I am working with, by working hand in hand with local artisans and community leaders.

A Maasai woman, Loita

The Maasai are among the most recognized of ethnic groups in East Africa due to their continued historic customs, unique social structure and beautiful aesthetic.  Their territory spans between Kenya and Tanzania, alongside the Maasai Mara and Serengeti.  As nomadic pastoralists, they exist within a patriarchal social system, share a religion unique to their tribe, and, contrary to many stereotypes, are very peaceful and hardworking.   They are also often eager to explain the details of what makes their Maasai culture unique.

The integrity of their culture has not been sustained by accident, but rather by a deep-seated sense of identity and pride within the Maasai community.  Since the early days of colonization, the Maasai have always kept western influences at arm’s length.   This pride sparked action in 1975, when Maasai leadership banned western cultivation practices in order to preserve their way of life.  While this ban was lifted in 1992, Maasai politicians still resist major development opportunities that would have brought roads and other infrastructure to the region.  Such drastic self-imposed limitations may appear stubborn to those in the west, but this proud sense of identity has undoubtedly preserved the beauty of the Maasai environment and culture.

Even with steps taken toward preservation, for better and for worse, the lives of the Maasai are changing.  The encroaching borders of game parks, the growing challenge of finding water, the emerging concern for maternal and community health, and concerns of the next generation’s future in this changing world have led many Maasai to put down roots.  As a result, many emerging communities have begun to organize the development of schools and clinics.  The remote community of Loita Hills is one such community.

Understanding the tribe’s customs and rich history, I realized that I was faced with an enormous challenge when I was offered the opportunity to create a library and internet learning center in Loita with Under The Acacia, an organization working on small scale development projects in Kenya.    UTA had already been working with this community for three years and had established a primary school of three classrooms, a clinic, and had set up food and water program resulting in the creation of seven new jobs.  The next step was to bring information – massive amounts of it – through thousands of books and a Wi-Fi internet connection.

In Loita, where education and western medicine are just beginning to take root, the idea of introducing something as foreign and as far reaching as the internet would be an enormous challenge.  While the younger generation was entirely ready (proven by the fact that many had well over 1000 friends on Facebook through their mobile phones), I was concerned about the elders’ acceptance of such a project.  A library is straightforward enough; the concept of the internet can be extremely difficult convey. Described as “a library in the sky”, the internet would allow the community not only to see out into this vast world, but it would also allow the rest of us into theirs.  This was to be a massive step, one that would have to be taken carefully and with the entire community on board.

The question for me then became “How to create a building that that will not only provide space for these learning programs, but will also work within a process that involves the community in the design to ensure that it is accepted as a project unique to the Loita Hills Community?”

The answer lay within the culture itself.

Schematic Rendering - showing incorporation of Maasai jewelry

It is the Maasai jewelry that stands out as the most iconic symbol of the tribe.  Jewelry is worn at all times by both men and women, and in great quantity during special occasions.  The jewelry can range from simple bracelets of solid color to elaborate headdresses of intricate patterns.  The jewelry is quite complex, in that each piece, and therefore each designer, must follow a distinct set of rules.  There are primary colors and secondary colors; and each color has a symbolic significance.  Further, each region of Maasai land tends to favor a specific color.  These regional differences lend to variations in design styles and preferred types of jewelry pieces.

I began to study this art form through various journals and textbooks, and even tried to design some of my own.  Clearly though, as a white American man, I have no place assuming that I have the skills necessary to be a designer of Maasai jewelry.  The only people qualified to design such a piece are those who have grown up in the craft: the Maasai women.  Jewelry making has woven itself into the social structure of the women of Loita, who come together after the day’s work is done.  The learning of the craft starts at a young age, and the best designers enjoy great recognition of their skills and beauty.  Their art permeates everything Maasai.  Here was an opportunity to bring the local women into the design process and literally make the learning center into piece of jewelry.  Not only would this became the driving force behind the community’s involvement, but the building as a whole would stand as a monument to the beauty of Maasai art.

A Maasai woman, Loita

A challenge emerged: what could we use as our beads?  I considered the possibility of small painted stones, but their inevitably inconsistent size could create a sloppy result.  I referred back to my previous projects in other parts of Kenya, and remembered that bottle caps are used quite often as washers, wheels on toy cars, or as units on an abacus.  Here was a consistent unit that had the unique shape that would stick into plaster and is available all throughout Kenya.

In initial sketches, I began to realize that if this was going to be a success, we would need thousands of caps.  Living in New York City at the time, I began a campaign to collect used bottle caps.  Over the course of five weeks, I got acquainted with servers at bars and restaurants within my neighborhood, taking home close to 2500 bottle caps per week.  I knew I wouldn’t have enough.  Some friends helped make a YouTube video that helped get the word out, and soon I was receiving boxes of bottle caps from people all around the USA.  Thousands from California, New Hampshire and Georgia arrived in New York.  In all we received caps from nine states.  After five weeks, we had too many to count.  Some strategic thinking brought us to FedEx, which upon hearing about our project, offered to send all of the caps to Kenya for free.  These bottle caps eventually met up with growing collections in Kenya, bringing our collection to a total of over 70,000 bottle caps.

But how to incorporate this art form into the design of the building?

Traditional Maasai Manyatta

I began by studying the local architecture.  In this nomadic society, architecture is largely limited to residential structures: manyattas, or bomas.  Further, these structures are built to be easily dismantled for transport and/or to leave a minimal footprint.  Only local materials are used, mainly tree trunks, branches, mud and cow dung.  These materials are then assembled using a method similar to the wattle and daub method of spreading mud and dung over a woven framework of sticks.  The typical plan also includes some unique features: tree trunk columns within to support the roof, a circular plan or rounded corners which provide structural rigidity, and entrances that turn in at 90 degrees to prevent cattle from entering the homestead.  While many African tribes build huts of various styles, these characteristics are unique to the Maasai culture.  In contrast, Under the Acacia’s architectural projects in Loita (3 classrooms, a clinic and 2 offices) were to be made with some of the best and strongest building materials available.  The use of stone, continuous cement mortar, reinforced concrete elements, and the best roof panels available will ensure that these structures remain standing for years.  The buildings are also accented with plaster finishes, pointing, and fresh paint.  As much as these buildings are vibrant examples of craftsmanship and construction and are the pride of the community, they stand in stark contrast to the surrounding manyattas.  Further, the stone block accounted for a large portion of their construction costs, as all materials had to be trucked into Loita from Narok, a two to four hour drive away.

This disconnect between the historic vernacular and the accepted “standard” modern building practices became the first conceptual challenge of the architectural project.  After establishing the square footage requirements for a twelve-unit computer lab and a 4000-book library within the limitations of a $20,000 budget, I began to work towards a scheme that would combine and resolve these contrasting building systems. After various iterations, a plan emerged that would employ some of the characteristics of the typical manyatta plan as well as introduce a new system of construction that resembles the wattle and daub method while incorporating modern building materials.  This method could then be blended with the standard confined masonry construction used in the existing

Learning Center Plan

classrooms. I opted to build the main body of the structure with standard stone construction.  This may seem odd, for the method was out of context, but this was the best possible approach for two reasons:  (1) as a proven method in which I had experience, we would be able to guarantee successful completion of the project and better estimate the construction timeline;  and (2) the masons would be working within a construction method they would be comfortable in for the majority of the project.  Therefore the method of stone construction served to secure the spaces in strength and constructability.

As the plan developed, it became clear that the reading/meeting area created a structural challenge.  At 24’x18’, it would be a large space, and require some special considerations to achieve the roof span.  It became apparent that columns could be necessary, which could potentially fracture the space I had originally intended for gatherings.  This challenge however, soon became another opportunity for further incorporating Maasai traditions and culture.   Oleng’oti meetings among elders are held regularly, and always under the shade of a tree, to discuss local issues and marriages and to settle disputes. With some creative structure, we would be able to create a permanent meeting space that would reference the Oleng’oti tradition while providing needed structural support for the large roof span.

This reading and meeting space and stone structure was then complimented by a curved feature wall of wattle and daub construction to define the circulation corridor between the spaces.  It was this curved wall that became the ideal palette to become a wall of Maasai jewelry.

At the beginning of the project, the women organized themselves to into groups to sort the bottle caps into colors and sizes and to prepare designs for the installation.

Bottle Cap Installation

The election of three group leaders , Nalepo, Memotie, and Kerembe, by all the village women not only ensured that the three women’s enthusiasm would spread to everyone, but it also gave the design team structure and direction.  Four weeks into the project, we had two designs for the wall.  Chosen for the outside was a common pattern that used all of the colors of the Maasai palette, and incorporated white, the most popular color of Loita beadwork.  The interior pattern emerged as an extremely traditional and unique geometric design that is found only in Loita.  Once the designs were completed, I got to work estimating the quantities of colored caps that we would need (20,000 white, 8,000 red, etc.), and used this information to purchase proper quantities of paint.  After one week of painting, we finally reached the convergence of the construction progress of the masons and the hard work of the women.  For four days, a massive assembly line went into operation, with the masons plastering one section at a time, and the army of women following installing thousands of bottle caps, one at a time.

Throughout construction, the women (and many of the men) were amazed with what was happening.  After five weeks of planning, designing and coordination, the Loita Learning Center had taken shape into something that no one had ever seen before, yet spoke a language that everyone understood.

The Costs

Materials and local labor costs for this project came in at $20,000, or $18.00 per square foot.   A relevant, yet challenging, cost comparison would be to a typical government-funded school construction project.  When the Kenyan Ministry of Education commits to building a classroom, a grant of $7,000 is provided, which translates to about $12.00 per square foot.  Thus, the Loita Learning Center project cost $6,500 more than a “standard” construction project in rural Kenya of the same size.

This project however, is far from standard.

It is always difficult to justify any increase in cost when working with donors and organizations that are faced with the challenge of raising money.  A skeptic may challenge a project such as this one by asking “Why build that building for the cost of ‘x’, when you could build two lesser quality structures and reach twice as many people at the same cost?”  This is a logical question – but the wrong one.  If we as investors in Sub-Saharan Africa allow ourselves to lower our standards for what can (and needs) to be achieved – such expectations can very well seep into the communities themselves.  Such a result would then undermine any and all efforts to initiate sustained growth.  Allocating additional yet measured funds towards a higher quality of construction, towards a process that involves the community in construction and design, and towards an elegant finished product can have long lasting effects that can improve lives beyond any statistical measurement.

Since completion of the GreyStone Learning Center in November of 2011, the community has declared the reading area to be the new and official meeting space for matters of Oleng’oti, and the women of Loita can point to their creative expertise as the driving force behind the building’s unique design; a design which has begun to draw numerous elders from over the horizon.  Once the internet and books arrive in Loita, news, information and learning software will become available, and word of something special in Loita will continue to spread.

As of January 2012, UTA’s partners are on the ground in Loita working to install solar panels, set up a Wi-Fi connection, and to ensure the internet café business model is off to a good start.  The funds for this equipment is possible by a grant from The Internet Society.  Adele’s Literacy Library is also in the process of resolving logistical issues in sending the thousands of books that will supply Loita’s new library.  Completion is scheduled for the end of February, 2012.

3 responses

  1. Beautiful! Ingenious way of working with the community!

    January 25, 2012 at 8:23 pm

  2. Pingback: The Loita Learning Center – Up and Running « afritekt

  3. Laurie

    Impressed, as Yan said way of working with community.The inspiration was there, right where you were in the Masai culture and I am sure they definitely felt part of it because the design includes their identity.Well done, few people understand that.

    August 2, 2013 at 9:53 am

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