At Home in the Congo
I recently discovered a previously unfamiliar form of housing during a month-long work trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I stayed in the small town of Pweto on Lake Mweru, in the Katanga Region (southeast DRC). In Pweto there is no electricity or running water, and the inhabitants (now returning from Zambia where they have spent several years as civil war refugees) have few possessions.
A house of bricks and straw
In Pweto, a family’s home is typically composed of 3 separate structures: a cottage or hut, a gazebo-like structure called a “paillotte,” and an outhouse. The cottage begins with a stone or mud brick foundation rising about a foot above the ground, and extending in the front a few feet beyond the walls. This extension creates a stoop often used as seating. The walls are of baked mud bricks sometimes covered with stucco. The roof structure is bamboo installed in an intricate criss-cross pattern. Long grass is tied in bunches to the bamboo grid, creating a thatch roof 9 to 12 inches thick.
Pressing on under the thatch
This cottage/hut is used for sleeping, dressing and storage, and occasionally, in bad weather, for cooking and living space. (I think it is also used for some mysterious type of non-electrically assisted ironing, as the people who emerge from these homes always have impeccably pressed clothes, and repeatedly reproached my wrinkled shirts.)
Most of the time, however, people prefer to live outdoors, within and around the “paillotte,” an open-air structure surrounded by a 2 foot mud brick wall, and covered with the same bamboo and thatch roof as the house. It is the center of day-to-day living, providing a sense of privacy, shelter from sun and rain, yet also an open environment which easily accommodates their convivial lifestyle.
Finally, there is the picturesque outhouse, a miniature model of the thatched hut.
Living lightly with what’s at hand
Although I have always brought an awareness of “green” aspects of design into my work, I realized in Pweto that our best efforts represent only a small fraction of the sustainability inherent in these thatched hut communities.
Other than a bit of cement from Zambia for the most privileged foundations, all materials used are found in nature within a 5 mile radius of Pweto. The mud bricks are baked on site, piled in a mound with cavities where intense fires burn for several days. Foundation rocks, gravel and sand are collected in river beds or at the lake. Bamboo and grasses for roofing are found in abundance outside of town. The minimal transportation required is by bicycle, foot, or on the heads of local women.
This is truly living lightly on the earth, and a humbling lesson in contrasts.
var _gaq = _gaq || ; _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-34748963-1']); _gaq.push(['_trackPageview']);