Timelessness: Life in a West African village – Nowhere in (West) Africa Part 2
As we reach the village in the district Kombissiri, 60 kilometres south of the capital Ouagadougou, and get out of the car, I am beamed into a different space and time. I see chickens, goats and pigs propelling freely towards the next source of food, a few older women, are working on the fields, dressed only in colourful textiles which they had wrapped around their hips. A young man and a boy are ploughing the soil with the help of bulls. Stone Age, the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th - in my confusion, my first impression is like I am finding myself amidst an amalgation of all periods of time. The only thing that is for sure: Within 12 years, since my last visit, not too much has changed. The atmosphere is exactly the same as it was, when I was here for the first time in 2007.
From mud hut to sweat hut. Living space:
The first striking thing I noticed right after the incredible calm and the free and happy looking goats, sheep, bulls, pigs and donkeys was… the living space! The housing of a family is basically an arrangement of tiny mud houses in a circle called court in French. Doors and windows face inwards the court, the space in front of each hut being, with mud walls, divided into slots and connected with a corridor path that leads to an exit on one and to the entrance on the other side of the space. Of which, during the village festivities, one is used only by the men and the other only by the women.
Outside, right next to the living space, there’s wood stored and small granaries. While these are usually covered with straw, the huts are covered with ribbed roofs. Also, outside the walls of the court, the animals have their space, except for the dogs who are always close to the humans and for the cheeky chicken who sneak themselves in, looking for something to eat in the kitchen area. The dwelling is surrounded by several small fields that belong to the family.
The toilet is outside the court near a corn plantation. A calm and protected place. It is a dry squat toilet with concrete floor surrounded by a wall. You squat over a hole and your defecations fall into a space underneath that is emptied after some months when it is full. For people from Northern or Western Europe, North America or Australia this kind of toilet takes a while until you get used to it – it is, however, the toilet model mostly used on this planet. Friends of mine in India, who are ayurveda doctors, claim squatting is considered the best body posture for effective and healthy pooping. The fact this toilet is not a flush but a dry toilet reminds me of the dry or compost (though sitting) toilets that are used in ecovillages, permaculture gardens or on eco-conscious festivals such as the BOOM Festival (in Portugal) where people nowadays travel back into the future this way.
The moon light was required for certain evening activities
Most of the other dwellings continue utterly traditional in their architecture and without access to electricity. The one of Margo’s family, however, has been reconstructed in the meanwhile. Mud is replaced by more solid concrete. Ribbed roofs prevent a yearly replacement of the thatches of the granaries. In 2007, there was no electricity at all. The moon light was required for certain evening activities like the rehearsal of the march of the women for the celebration of the International Women’s Day, and a few lamps and radios were used with batteries only. In 2008 they had a small solar panel which I co-financed back then. Nowadays, they have access to the state’s electricity network in the house of Margo’s older brother, Hamado, which makes it possible to have light, watch television, charge one or two phones and have a small fan stirring the air. As it is also the biggest house of all in the court, with a living room and a few sofas, it is the place where the family gathers when it is raining or just to watch a bit of TV before bed time.
Quite luxurious compared to the average village standard. Hamado’s youngest daughter sleeps on the floor on a straw mat. Straw mats are, by the way, most convenient and common, used as a bed or as a place to sit by most of the villagers. Lying on a thin and firm ground helps having a cool sleep in the already heated houses – sometimes people even sleep under the starry sky – and is healthier for the back than a thick mattress.
The sun heats up the roofs, transforming the former mud huts into sweat huts
Nowadays, Hamado’s house has also a window facing the fields outside, allowing a soothing breeze to pass through the living room. It is the only room one can be in and rest during the day. The small ‛maisonettes’ have usually no air circulation inside while the sun heats up the roofs, transforming the former mud huts into sweat huts.
Why does each house normally only have one window which faces the inner space? “In the past there used to be more thieves, we were more protected having windows only in the inner walls”, says Benoit, Margo’s younger brother. “It is simply like this – it is a tradition”, says Hamado. “They are very small houses, that’s why there’s no need to put so many windows. One door and one window next to it – keep it simple”, says Mama, his wife. I wondered if I received a few more possible answers in case I had continued asking. But I decided I was happy.