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No Country For Old Men

It may not shelter us from the humming storm and it may break sometimes in the middle of a swamp, but when we’re keen to go off the beaten track, the bike is our tool of choice. It sure did the job when we wanted to spend more time in the African villages that we love so much. Eversince we rolled onto African soil, the similarities to where we had come from kept creeping up. We’ve touched the topic before, and this time is about the countryside and its countrymen. This journey takes us to the basics and it revolves around what Romania, like many of its sister nations of Africa, is in the process of losing. Let me explain.

Firstly, [highlight color=’#393939′ background_color=’#ccff00′]the shelter[/highlight]. The need for one is hardwired into every sentient creature. Pretty much everywhere in the world vernacular architecture is rooted in impermanent resources. Yet, the humbler the building material, the craftier the outcome. Some of the most ingenious structures dot subsaharan Africa: the intricately huts of the pygmy peoples, weaved from leaves and twigs, the patchwork of everything transformed into thick walled igloos by the the semi-nomadic Borana people of northern Kenya

..the thatched roofed adobe buildings with humble but lovely examples throughout the Sahel, like the symbolic Dogon architecture in northern Mali (for this house the adobe is mixed with stones, a variation encountered on the Bandiagara falaise)

the decorated homes of the Gourounsi people in Burkina Faso

the high ceiling mud’n dung houses in central Ethiopia, built on eucalyptus poles and left unplastered

… the red clay huts typical to all central Africa, from coast to coast, like this one from Mozambique

… all the way to glorious monuments in neo-sudanese style like the iconic Djenne mosque (a replica of the XIII century original and still the largest mud-brick structure in the world)

… or the mosque in Bobo Dioulasso, where the volume is determined by structure and spatial segmentation. The poles sticking out of the walls have both a structural function and help climb up the mosque when it’s in need of repairs, which in Djenne for example become an annual regional event, with thousands of people gathering to hand-plaster the mosque after the rains stop.

In this perishable and fragile world a few notable sturdier exceptions stand out: the Zanzibari houses built in coral blocks, not so sustainable if you ask…

The mono-cellular tukul, looking like hobbit houses elevated on a foundation of boulders, to be found in the Ethiopian highlands (arguably the only example of vernacular architecture developed on several floors)

And the very functional and sombre, albeit picturesque circular hut of the Basotho people, called mokhoro. Even in Lesotho though, the stones used to construct the walls are held together with a mortar of sand and soil mixed with dung.

Africa though is rapidly changing: even in the remotest deserts where elusive tribes like the Himba have been struggling to hold onto their old lifestyle, modern comfort is replacing tradition:

No wonder there is little anthropological evidence left and little hope to find more. We will not go into debate about what’s best for the people, we will refrain to recording our findings while striving to understand what we are soon to lose.

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[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/6″]ITW talks[vc_separator type=”normal” position=”center” thickness=”10″ up=”5″ down=”0″ separator_color=”#ccff00″ color=”#ccff00″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”5/6″]Want to learn more about vernacular architecture around the world?
We love to speak about tribal habitat and rural settlements that we visited and photographed during our travels. Learn how we can arrange to come to your school or office for an engaging presentation. [/vc_column][/vc_row]

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Now, let’s go back to Romania, to [highlight color=’#393939′ background_color=’#ccff00′]my father’s village, Varlezi[/highlight]. This hilly, Eastern semi-arid region is geographically isolated from the main urban settlements in the district. When I was kid, we had to walk for 10 kilometres from the nearest train station to reach the tarmac, then there was another few Ks to knock on my grandmother’s door. Nothing stands out: there are no interesting landmarks, no major course of water, no elaborate tradition to observe. The kind of place where the city dweller like myself can’t find their place, bored to death. The kind of place that has nor the charm of Maramures, nor the dynamics of central Transylvania. A typical, slow-life village where people seem to have just stayed, their powers spent after marching aimlessly on their way to a merrier land. But give it a moment, let the magic unfold, and you’ll see why they did.

Not too long ago, all the buildings in the village were made of mud and dung, much like in many places of Africa. The shelter was still man’s connection to the land, hand-built with what the forest and the animals gave for free. After the earthquake of 1990, I remember all the family rushing to the countryside to help with hand-plastering the cracks in the walls of my grandmother’s house. Nowadays only some of those structures are still standing in the compound, visibly weathered under a layer of fresh paint and a heavy roof.

When I was little, I was begging my parents for stories every night, which made them struggle for fresh material. My dad is particularly good at making up stories, and some of my fav series featured him wandering the hills as a lad, cuddling next to a lamb in a horse-pulled cart or rabbits dancing on his chest while he was napping in the forest. Seeing this area coming alive from spring to autumn, with the field smelling of wild thyme and bugs glistening from the grasses, I can almost believe these stories.

My dad and his friend over-landing without a GPS towards some place

Where they engage in their favourite activity

Most day is spent here in the open air: working on the corn plantation

and in the veg garden

As everywhere in the temperate climate, fall is the most rewarding season. This year’s autumn was stunning: wheat and corn have been harvested and milled

Sufficient grains have been stored for winter, for animal feed

Chicks have been reared

Fresh herbs have been cut and slowly dried on paper in the attic, to flavour the stews and soups of the cold season to come

Leaving nothing to waste, not even dill stems, that were finely chopped and mixed with sorrel and parsley

Wild plants have been hand picked for the many herbal tea blends my dad brews yearlong to soothe a flu or just to enjoy in the afternoon

Nuts, fruits and berries have been processed to stand the test of the long months to come

But the most awaited moment of the fall is grape harvesting. When the summer’s sun finally coagulates in precious drops of sweetness, people start roaming, the field starts vibrating and limbs start rock’n rolling.

It’s a sprint to the finish line, where the bags of aromatic fruit are carefully readied for the next step.

Some will be dried and cured

Most will be crushed

And fermented into dark, strong wine

Something links food and shelter: you eat how you live, and it all comes down to choice. Are all these produce delicious and wholesome? You bet. Is it hard-work and uncomfortable to grow and harvest them? Sure it is. Is is cheaper and more efficient to mass produce and mass distribute them? Seems like it. But should we be so hasty and dismiss such traditional ways of doing things as obsolete? Most of the urban Kenyans we talked to were confident we should, saying that the Maasai, for instance, aren’t relevant in today’s world, that Africa cannot develop fast enough in a race to catch up with the pace of other emerging regions. We cannot argue it isn’t so. Since it become a free market economy, Romania too, hasn’t stopped changing. It has a unique blend of oriental and Latin heritage, plenty of wild tracks to off-road and reasonably unspoilt landscapes in the countryside. Being away from the country for quite a bit of time allowed us to notice even the subtler changes. Things move fast. There is a lot to applaud, and a lot to debate. But one thing is sure, it would be good if both Romania and its distant fellow developing countries incorporate in their renewed identities not only regurgitated models, but also their rich heritage. We need to learn from our elders, so we know better what to teach our young.

P.S. This feature concludes our posts from the Eastern Europe. Let the dice roll…