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Heaven and earth

In the West mud is seen as dirt yet in rural west Africa it is the most common of building materials. It has been used for hundreds of years to build sensational structures - houses, mosques, palaces, temples, entire communities - which are repaired and remoulded every year.

James Morris visited the desert communities of West Africa over a period of four months, hauling his bulky and heavy camera and tripod in and out of clapped-out cars, motorised pirogues (dug-out canoes) and at times on foot to find remote villages of elaborate mud structures. Many of these buildings are under threat. Mud is such a vulnerable material and there is an undoubted enthusiasm for building in concrete. Given the means, many would tear down their mud houses and build cement block and tin-roofed replacements, as has been proved in those countries that can afford to do so. It can already be seen happening in the wealthier countries such as Ghana and Nigeria where there is now virtually nothing left for future generations to repair and preserve. Not only the buildings have gone but the skills to build them too. Already the extraordinary up-turned jelly mould houses of the Mousgoum people of Cameroon are gone, soon too those of the Kassena and Gurensi in Ghana. The Sakho houses of the Boso in Mali are all abandoned and in ruins. The saving grace is probably Islam, ever expanding and building more mosques, but even then only in the rural parts. In cities the mosques, funded by Wahabi Saudi funds are atrocious concrete imitations of a bastardised Middle Eastern style. In the sparsely populated Sahel plains of the Western Sudan these built forms are one of the most striking
representations of human creativity and a unique part of our world culture they should not be forgotten.

James Morris' book Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa is published by Princeton Architectural Press.
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