Colonial Perceptions of Gikuyu Architecture


Sometimes you think, “When I am grow-up I will have a very big and beautiful house.” Perhaps you think you would like it to be very tall, or perhaps you think of the wonderful carved doors you would like or the large number of rooms you would have; but there are other very important things that you should think about when you are going to build a house.

To live happily in your house you must be healthy, and in order to be healthy you must have plenty of fresh air inside every room. This is very important in hot countries where women and children often live inside houses when the sun is hot. Fresh air can come into houses through large windows, or through spaces between the walls and roof. It is good to have windows in a house because they allow both fresh air and light to come in, and light helps to keep the people living in the house healthy.

Houses should be kept very clean because, as you now know, dirt makes people ill. The floors of all houses should be swept out at least once a day; water should first be shaken over the floor so that dirt will not fly about the room, but can be easily brushed out. If you live in a mud house you must not allow cracks to form in the walls or floor, as dirt and little animals hide here. If you see a crack forming, you must cover the walls and floor again with fresh mud.

That was lesson ten from Mary Blacklock M.B., B.Sc., D.T.M. Lady Medical Officer, Sierra Leone, West African Medical Service, formerly Professor of Pathology and Lecturer in Hygiene at Lady Hardinge Medical College, Delhi, India.

Mary and others colonials pioneers like her in the field of Tropical Hygiene probably had far more to do in the evolution of African traditional house form than any other kind of professionals. In 1926 at the height of the African colonial experience when Blacklock wrote her book  An Elementary Course in Tropical Hygiene, the only other influential people engaged in the civilizing mission were religious missionaries and to a lesser extent doctors and administrators. By presenting the need for change as a medical imperative or divine wishes of the most high god; by presenting it as a choice between life and death, it was easier to convince the people. Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed that

In cultural invasion … the invaders are the authors of, and the actors in, the process; those they invade are moulded. The invaders choose, those they invade follow that choice – or are expected to follow it. The invaders act, those they invade have only the illusion of acting, through the action of the invaders.

Mary’s 44 page little book was a school primer intended to inculcate in the new African, the values of Western hygiene and health. This value system came face to face with the African system of health based on taboos, ancient wisdom and belief systems. In part two of her book she uses the device of fiction contrasting the two sides in an allegorical story describing a family before and after the changes. The contrast of before and after was used later by skin bleaching beauty products like Ambi on African women and is still very popular in the advertising world. She writes,

Mr kamara and his wife and children lived in a house made of mud and thatched with palm-leaves in a small village …. there were no beds in the house; the family slept on mats on the floor. …. They were cold and miserable …. Momo’s mother kept food in earthenware pots and in calabashes but most of these pots had no lids and flies used to go inside .… the Kamara’s were often sick, but they did not know the reason why.

Later on after Momo had attended school and learned about mosquitoes and flies and how to get rid of them she writes,

In a few years the Kamaras had a very comfortable house, for Momo had learnt how to make windows, and he put two nice windows at each side of the house. …. there were beds in the family to sleep on instead of on mats lying on the ground …. They all looked very happy …. He began to talk about other things and of the nice comfortable chair he was going to make ….

And one is almost tempted to add to this happy tale – and they lived happily ever after.

Elspheth Huxley’s Before and After photographs in his novel “Red Strangers” of 1939

Father Cagnolo, a pioneer Catholic Missionary working among the Gikuyu at around the same time Blacklock was writing her book was more vehement. His entire book The Akikuyu is a presentation of the before and after scenario.

He writes,

The inside of a Kikuyu hut is not attractive. To gain an entrance, you must go almost on all fours in order not to strike your head against the cross-poles. There is no window, and the little light that finds its way through the door is obstructed by your body while you enter, so that when you begin to grope inside, you have no idea in what direction to advance. At first you probably stumble over a barrel of millet or a calabash lying near the entrance; then you may cling to the wicker-work which answers the purpose of the  goats’ enclosure, but the ground is moist from the various inhabitants, and you are likely to slip up, which would cause general confusion among the miscellaneous contents of the hut. No matter how carefully you proceed, it is difficult to avoid striking your head against the trellis of twigs which is suspended a short distance above the fireplace to prevent the sparks setting fire to the thatched roof. When at last after devious maneuvers you have reached the fire, burning among the three stones which lie on the ground, you will find a few three-legged stools which serve as seats, and your eyes smarting with the smoke, still find it hard to distinguish one thing from another.

It is a pity that father Cagnolo allowed himself to get emotional thus denying himself the chance of a deeper interaction befitting scientific enquiry. Throughout the book, he uses terribly insulting language that detracts from the central issue being studied. Here are some examples when he describes Gikuyu music.

“With a few simple bars of music these young imps can amuse themselves for a whole hour.”

“There is no shading of crescendo and diminuendo, no piano and forte, but always forte at full strength. There is little harmony, and no keeping of time in the proper meaning of the word and even the rhythm is not easy to follow. Now music reduced within such narrow limits is inevitably a crude and childlike affair.”

“As we have already said, the music of this tribe is so defective that it is impossible that it should produce any composition that could be appreciated by people who know the chromatic scale.”

Is it any wonder knowing the strong link between architecture and music that the so-called researcher cannot contemplate the hidden philosophical underpinnings behind the Gikuyu form-making and their ideas of harmony? He is looking for crescendo and diminuendo and kroma-I-don’t-know-what. In the same way he is entering a Gikuyu compound in order to compare it with his own idea of house and looking for a window and finding none begins to smart in the eyes in fury. He cannot see connections in weaving and architecture or between music and architecture having trashed Gikuyu weaving thus:

Proper weaving is unknown to the Akikuyu. They are nevertheless able to produce bags and purses with knotted strings, of an even and strong texture, which satisfactorily takes the place of our baskets and bags.

It is in The Book of Civilization that we are shown clearly this naked partanalism. Yes. That is its proper title. The Book of Civilization: On Cleanliness and Health, the Care of Children, and how to get rid of flies by A. R. Parterson, Director of Medical Services of the Kenya Colony with the assistance of many officers of the agricultural, education, forestry and medical departments of Kenya and profusely illustrated by one Margaret Trowell. Her before and after pictures of the civilized people are beautiful.

Here we see in this picture the two lifestyles contrasted.

Living in the round huts with many goats contrasted with the modern lifestyle.

Parterson paternalistically describes the before scenario in chapter 3 thus:

I have spoken about clean villages, now I will speak about clean houses.

If your house is to be clean there must be light in the house. If there is no light in a house how can you see the dirt! Therefore you must have windows in your house to let in the light, and to have windows you must have high walls. You must have high walls and large windows, not little windows, but large windows. Is there any light in the small round huts that many of the Kikuyu and the Jaluo and the Akamba and nearly all the people of this country still build? There is not. Are all these huts clean? You know that they are not. These huts are small and dark and dirty and full of smoke which hurts the children’s eyes; and the huts smell, they smell badly. Are these huts good places for men to live in? Could a man with clean clothes or a clean skin go into one and come out clean? You know that he could not; he would come out dirty. Are there rats in these huts? You know that there are many rats in these huts, they eat the food of the people, and they eat their blankets and their leather straps, and sometimes they eat the people’s toes. And then the rats get sick and die, and the fleas leave the rats and bite you, and give you the sick­ness which killed the rats, and you people die of the sickness, the sickness that is called plague. Why are these rats in your huts? There are rats in your huts because rats like dark and dirty houses; the rat is a thief and he likes darkness, and there are many rats in your houses because your houses are dark and dirty. Your houses are good houses for rats, but they are not good houses for men or women or children to live in. You build houses for the rats, that is what you do, and so long as you build huts which are small and dark and dirty and better for rats to live in than for man, then so long will rats live with you in your houses and share your food. Hyenas and rats like darkness and dirt. If you are men why do you build a house which is as dark and small as the hole the hyenas lives in and which smells as badly? You must build better houses. You must build high walls and you must have large windows and you must tell this to all the people. In this book there is a picture of the inside of a house of the kind that many of the people of this country live in. How can a man or a woman or a child be healthy in a house of this kind? You must build better houses. Below the picture of the bad room there is a picture of a good room, and at other places in the book there are plans of good houses, but all have high walls and windows. You may please yourselves which kind of house you build, but you must have high walls and you must have windows.

The before and after scenario. Note the child falling into the fire in the before.

After pausing to catch her breath she then continues by describing what she thinks is good architecture thus:

I think that the best kind of house to build is the oblong house with three rooms. I think that this is the best kind of house because it gives you a living-room and a room for …….

Bra bra bra!! Yes mom! We have heard!

Near the end of the book Parterson goes from ballistic to prophetic and in a fine colour rendering by Margaret she revisits the moment of creation when the God of Mt. Kenya, Mwene Nyaga showed the first Gikuyu, all the land and told him to go down and live in it – that is fit in. What the Gikuyu saw through Mwene Nyaga’s eye was however very different from what Parterson, the civilizer wanted? According to her fellow Christian civilizer Father Cagnolo, the new agenda was to “subdue the land, build fences around individual parcels and till it”, not fit in it.

The caption reads: “And so in our minds we may make a picture of Africa very different from that which we know – a picture of Africa parcelled out into small farms of well-tilled land. … Some Africans have seen that picture in their mind’s eye.” Need the picture remain no more than a mere picture in the mind’s eye?

The above picture was meant to evoke the image of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven from God as a bride adorned for her husband as described by St. John in the Bible’s book of Revelation. Well! It came down – Four Square, not round! And with windows of course!

The before and after discussion is probably best illustrated by the late Okot p’Bitek’s landmark poems Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. Lawino is a woman representing the old ways and Ocol her estranged husband represents the new. Though Okot was writing about the Acholi of Uganda, the discussion is representative of all who are caught up in this saga whether it is the confrontation between Father Cagnolo and the Gikuyu or between Hernan Cortez and Montezuma or even more urgently, of the Gikuyu as a metaphor of  humanity gone with the wind and western civilization. Okot deserves a more thorough discussion just by himself.

One thought on “Colonial Perceptions of Gikuyu Architecture

  1. Very condescending. Seems they came with set minds coupled with a superiority complex and furthering the white people supremacy theories. We have to foment decolonization process-tucoke mbaranginyo na twibange wega tondu thu ciitu ni ciatugiire mbere muno.


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