Eco-Living the Maasai Way

Learning from the sustainable architecture of the Maasai community in Arusha, Tanzania.

Creating a Maasai house (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Building with the Maasai

Following a transhumant practice, the Maasai in Tanzania have been constructing structures revolving around their livestock. Building practices in the Maasai land are characterised by the resources available and the knowledge systems that have been passed down through generations. The rudimentary building forms have been employing skills of the well versed Maasai women.

Landscape in Arusha, Tanzania (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

An ecologically sensitive society, the Maasai are known for conserving and protecting their land for centuries. Deeply rooted within the land and conversant with the yield; a palette is created based on availability and characteristics of the resources. Sensitive to the surroundings, the use of the land’s yield is monitored, optimised and allowed to regenerate.

An aerial view of Maasai settlements (2020) by Sabit TisekarProject FUEL

Spaces- Land and Enclosures

Influenced by the societal and cultural needs; the Maasai settlements have a number of buildings. The domestic settlements are called the ekang. Ekangs have independent dwellings in the compound which are called the ekanji. Their are cultural and social settlements as well, in the form of seasonal cattle camps called elatia. Ceremonial warrior camps are called the manyatta. Based on a common morphology and material palette, the layouts of the settlements are coherent to the user and its location. The size of the settlements vary according to the number of humans and livestock housed within the settlement.

Maasai settlements (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

The Maasai have been building spaces that are designed to provide a protected and enclosed space, integrating needs with material and techniques.

Protecting the Maasai settlements (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

The dwellings and settlements are protected by a spinny, thorny and sturdy fence made using a jigsaw of dead logs, branches and a living part made using shrubs and trees. The members with a larger diameter are chiseled to add on an extra degree of security.

How Maasai protect their bomas (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Fencing around a domestic settlement

Materials in Architecture- Cattle (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Building (in) an ecosystem

Dependent on the cattle to suffice economical, cultural and personal needs, the cattle has been an indispensable part of the Maasai ecosystem. No part of the cattle is squandered. The dung is used as a waterproof binder along with mud and ash to plaster the walls and roof. The hides have been used as a bedding owing to its thick nature and also as a covering for the tents in the seasonal cattle camp.

Maasai grasslands (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Maasai lands have been covered in grasslands, interspersed with woodland and forests. The Maasai traditionally have relied on smaller plants and shrubs for wood which is sourced within the vicinity of the settlement. The use of hand saws introduced by the Europeans gave rise to logging within the Maasai ecosystem. The species known to the Maasai have been said to be less subject to depredation by termites, thus lasting for a longer duration of time.

Building a Maasai boma, one branch at a time (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Heavy load of fallen branches, sturdy and pliable parts of plants and trees, fastened with a leather rope is brought to the site of construction by the Maasai women. Built without the use of nails, brick, complex carpentry or professional help. The structures are constructed using the wattle and daub walling technique; where a woven lattice structure is made using wooden posts, pliable twigs, branches and grass is daubed with a mix of mud and cow-dung or only cow dung. Bark shavings, bark fibres, stems etc are of shrubs, creepers and herbs have been used to fasten the members together.

Intertwined with structural members of the wall, a flat network of sticks of the roof creates a monolith. The roof is finished with a layer of grass and then a layer of dung. The layer of grass acts as insulation that helps regulate the internal temperature within the structure. The layer of render and the structural members of the roof and walls work in unison to ensure structural stability and cohesion to the built form. The floor of the Maasai structure includes the ramming and consolidating the existing ground, finished with a layer of cow-dung and an ash based render.

Shaping their homes (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Walls and roofs of the structures are dressed in a cow dung based render. The exterior portion of the house is plastered to sustain adversities in the form of temperature variations, rainfall and strong winds. Providing a place that is secure and comfortable through the changing seasons. In certain ekanjis the inner walls are plastered in a cow dung and mud based render. The finish, composition and thickness of the render is subjected to the location, availability of resources.

Inside a Maasai home (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

The walls of the ekanji are often rendered in a cowdung based render, with partitions made up of pliable sticks and branches.

Windows in Ekanji (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Windows in an ekanji are devoid of shutters and framing, sculpted using the branches used in the walls.

Maasai Furniture (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Furniture within the Maasai household is limited to a place for storage, sleep and sit and traditionally has been inbuilt and integrated with the structure. Furniture and fixtures are built using a palette similar to the one employed in the construction of the structures. The beds are designed with a structure similar to the make of the house; a framework of branches and twigs lined with a layer of dried grass and cow hides as the bedding.

Heirloom furniture of Maasai (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

The three legged stool used by the Maasai men is part of the heirloom that is passed down through the generations.

Work-in-progress for a Maasai dwelling (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

The walls and roofs are periodically tended to, to ensure the longevity of the building and protection against the elements and preparing it for the wetter season. The walls of the building are a canvas to express, create and sculpt something that has been foraged, mixed, structured, decorated and maintained by hand. The art of plastering creates possibilities for a structure to be distinguished, to have a personality, character and story imprinted in its walls.

New age Maasai dwellings (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Shift from Traditional to Modern

Distorting the record of the land and emphasizing on the external trends, a shift is seen in the building practices followed in the region. The shifts have been manifested into an altered homestead plan, skills, material and technology employed in construction. Early transformation and variation is now seen in the waterproofing layer of the cow dung. Difficulty to maintain and possibilities of leakages, the dung render was replaced with tin or galvanised iron sheets, thatched roof etc.; as a more durable and easier to maintain option. Use of wooden trusses to support the sloping roofs increased logging in a once protected land.

The repairs and building of the buildings has become a responsibility of a specialised individual rather than family members in some cases. The degree of change is a variable subject to the family. The origin of the resources moved away from the immediate surrounding to a distant location. Dependency on external resources has been increasing over the years, thus transforming the Maasai built landscapes.

Credits: Story

Project FUEL would like to thank Windows to Vernacular for creating this exhibit and the Maasai community in Monduli, Arusha for opening their hearts and home for this research.

Windows to Vernacular is an architecture focused organization based in India. A process-driven collaborative that is set on an exploratory journey, traversing through the countryside and hinterlands of India. They engage with the local population, listening to them, learn and understand the nuances of their culture, their way of life, why they build and how to build. In the process, the team creates a repository adding to the existing knowledge pool of built ecological studies. These experiences and learning are imbibed into a contemporary practice where the work contributes in shedding a light on the lost crafts and building skills. This engages in a fresh dialogue that involves a relevant, modern-day application of an otherwise factual investigation.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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