Maasai Architecture: Building Our Homes

Understanding the layered architecture of the Maasai Community in Arusha, Tanzania

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

Through the Maasai built landscapes

Traditionally, the Maasai and their cattle have a long standing relationship with the valley of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. A group of migratory pastoralists whose life, economy and identity revolve around their herd. Young Maasai boys are trained to be valiant warriors, capable of warding off predators and others threatening their livestock. Cattle, as an asset, is considered a medium of exchange, a means of governing the planning of the households, livelihood, cultural and social activities for the Maasai. Wealth is accounted through the quantification of cattle and children within the Maasai ecosystem.

Cattle as Maasai currency (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Maasai lands are a shared pasture and home for the wildlife that coexist in an altered ecosystem. In recent times parts of the land is dedicated to cultivation, reducing the transhumance roots.

A community held together by a value system rooted deep in culture and traditions. The traditions are reflected in the location, character and resources for construction. The Maasai move around, shadowing their herds and living in semi-permanent houses and enclosures.

A Maasai woman near her dwelling (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Traditionally, a strict order is maintained with respect to the division of labour, duties and power within the Maasai society, where one’s gender defines their roles, organisation of spaces and authority. Women are responsible for the construction, repairing and maintenance of the houses along with other household chores like cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood, milking the cattle and looking after the children. Whereas the Maasai men are responsible for taking care of the herd, maintaining and building cattle pens and other decision making.

An aerial view-image of Ekangs (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Settlements and Forms

The Maasai are generally subdivided into clans occupying specific areas. The clans settle on an elevated parcel of land where a number of family based homesteads are locally termed as ekang. Strategically located, protected by a tree cover and the direct view. The proximity between two homesteads can vary from a few meters to a couple of hundred metres. The compound of the  ekang houses the Maasai and their livestock.

The ekangs are interspersed with spaces in between for grazing, collection of water, cultivation and firewood collection.

Ekang, Maasai dwelling (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Enclosed and guarded by a protective fence; the ekangs is a place designed to support communal and societal traditions. The elevated position of the livestock and a nuclear-polygamous family system structured the spatial planning of the ekangs.

Pivoting around the cattle enclosures (locally termed as kraal or boo, indicated with b in illustration), the multiple lone standing living quarters (locally termed as ekanji, indicated with e in illustration) for the family members are placed within the fenced bounds.

Trees are often located around and within the homestead, providing shade and a place to rest for the animals and humans.

The compound houses a couple of structures based on ritualistic and cultural needs, ranging from temporary kitchens to shrines used for sacrifices during specific times of the year.

The boo is a series of multisized enclosures housing the cattle, goat, sheep and calves, individually. Traditionally, the younger members of the livestock were sheltered in a space inside the mother’s dwelling at night.

Maasai dwellings, Ekanji (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

In general, the Maasai as a community are private. A number of independent dwellings (locally termed as ekanji) are constructed within the homestead for different members of the family. Traditionally the living quarters were segregated and positioned on the basis of gender, age and family structure. The size, number and type of dwelling within the homestead vary and are incremental to the growth within the family. The configuration of the spaces within the ekanji are based on the member using the space. The average size of a traditional ekanji varies between 3200 by 5600 millimeters.

Maasai dwelling in process of construction. (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Building up from the bottom

Designed and constructed by the women of the house, the ekanji is a loaf shaped monolith; constructed with wooden poles, horizontally fastened by sticks that are woven together and the in between is lined with sticks, branches and twigs that are wrapped in a dung plaster with a hyperboloid roof.

Wooden structure of a Maasai dwelling (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Traditionally, the roof was layered with grass and a cow dung or a cow dung and mud mix. The wall supports are intertwined with the roof supports, thus, making an integrated shell structure.

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

The construction and upkeep of the house is considered a measure of a lady’s ability and skills. The ekanji plan is devoid of any rigid corners; filleted edges facilitate an ease in termination of the structural members at the corners creating a continuous form.

Enkaji Orripie (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

A plan of a traditional ekanji ensat, a dwelling designed to house the mother. Consisting of spaces designed for the young children and animals along with mother.

Traditional Enkaji (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

A plan of a traditional ekanji orripie, a dwelling designed to house the father.

Spaces for socialization (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

The spaces outside the compound and in between two ekangs are used for public and social gatherings.

A close look at Maasai dwelling (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Regular maintenance of the cow dung plaster is done to ensure protection during the wetter months in the case of wear and tear. The choice of material allowed the structure to become one with the land once it served its purpose and duration.

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

The 21st century shift

Increasing conversations with the people outside the Maasai land has resulted in change and evolution of the traditional built forms used by the Maasai. The changes are manifested in the organization of spaces within the homestead compound, building materials, techniques and skills employed and changes in the social structure of the Maasai.

Kitchen in a Maasai dwelling (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Kitchen in the new ekang morphology moved out of the ekanji and is an independent structure within the compound.

Changing with time (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Parts of ekanji previously reserved for animals and the hearth transforms into a place to store as the number of belongings increase.

Maasai dwellings (2020) by Windows to VernacularProject FUEL

Roofs are now constructed using a timber framework and tin sheets, kitchens have moved out from within the house to an individual structure. Although changes have been made in the past couple of years; the morphology of the fenced ekang is seen embedded in the 21st century compounds.

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.

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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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