Vernacular architecture is one that is synonymous with the African society and in this case, Uganda. Mr Nelson Abiti, Conservator Ethnography, Department of Museums and Monuments, explains that it is called vernacular because the building principles were never written down but rather passed on from one generation to another through word of mouth.
Before the huts, Mr Joshua Kasalita an engineer with Joshmark Contractors, says people slept in caves (rocks) or around a fire. “People would choose these depending on how much protection they could get from them.”
Dr Ephraim Kamuhangire, a consultant on cultural heritage and a senior presidential advisor on cultural matters, says the fire and caves happened in phases. He explains that it was during the Stone Age period when people stayed in the caves and forests. It is later during the Iron Age when people started discovering fire and constructing shelters.
“They put up temporary shelters of grass or banana fibre. This was done depending on where people lived,” Kamuhangire says. Later they moved to using weave work as walls while the grass and banana fibre acted as the roofs.
It was with the coming of the Arab traders that Ugandans started appreciating the permanent structures made of mud and wattle. Kamuhangire says the buildings were later improved during the colonial times. Abiti agrees to this and says the idea of windows was learnt when the Europeans came.
One characteristic that was common to the architecture was the circular shape they took and all the materials were never imported but made locally in every region. The doctor says everything was indigenous and not borrowed from outside. However, during the succession wars, one group would borrow from another and during migration and settlement.
Generally, the huts would be small and simple in nature because they would be occupied by a single person or utmost two. Dr Stephen Mukiibi, chair of Architecture School of the Built Environment at the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology, Makerere University, explains that long ago people used the huts for protection. They would only go to the huts to sleep in the evening just like the other animals.
The biggest hut
However, in the 19th century, Ssekabaka King Ssuna II constructed the biggest hut “Kasubi tombs” that has made history as the biggest hut in Africa and the world at large. According to Kasubitombs.com, it was expanded by Ssekabaka Mutesa I although, Mr Abiti says the structure that was burnt down in 2010 was expanded by Ssekabaka Daudi Chwa II.
Abiti explains, “Daudi Chwa hired an Indian architect for the job who employed the best ideas. This explains its survival up until it was burnt down.”
Not even in the North and North East where it is still predominant architecture, have they managed to raise such a huge structure (hut) as the Kasubi tombs in at least in the imitation of the modern architecture that has evolved with big houses. In the central and western regions, Kamuhangire says people have abandoned the vernacular architecture completely for the modern one.
Although, this development may have come in at the beginning of the 21st century because the 1995 Vernacular Architecture series edited by Dr Barnabas Nawangwe, show that by the 90s many people in the western region still had the vernacular architecture.
Currently its entertainment places that are using grass for thatching as more of an aesthetic than tradition. The grass used is treated.
Although they had these quite similar characteristics, the huts often differed a little usually conforming to the traditions of the people who built them.
Types of huts, according to ethnicities in Uganda
The hut is made in such a way that it rises from the ground in a straw dome. They use emiganda (strong sticks that are resistant to termite attacks), which are woven in a spiral pattern to create a basketlike skeleton. Then spear grass is used to do the thatching. Bedrooms are separated by woven sticks attached to poles within the hut. The huts are made strong because in the past their skeleton could be moved whenever ancestors shifted to new grazing areas. Another platform called orugyegye is used to keep the milk pots from the ground. A small platform is raised in front of the door way of the bedrooms, on which a small skin is spread. This one is meant for the seat of the wife, where she sits to receive the milk.
The huts are built of earthen materials, wood reinforced with wooden poles. The roof is thatched of spear grass (Imperata cylindirca), which is bound onto woodwork of poles in a conical shape. Right outside the entrance, two reed pillars adjoin the roof to the veranda, consequently forming a mild arch-like shape. The exterior is lavished with plain earth colours all through. In the interior, it is separated by an earth partition to form a sitting room and bedroom.
the hut is built of straw roof draped to the ground, concealing every bit of the hut, the front façade reveals the reed work. The threshold is carefully trimmed into an arch like a blond haircut. Between the arched roof and the actual entrance is a small veranda that is set off by two reed-laden walls. The interior is divided into two portions using a reed wall. Another distinct feature is fact that there is no mud wall in sight; the roof continues to the ground, creating an impression that the hut is made of fibre materials only. The house takes the shape of a bee hive with an apex at the top known as itunju.
The apex varies in height depending on the status of the owner; in the past, the greatest house in the land was the king’s court’s, which had a spear at the pinnacle. The part of the frame of the roof which was finished that night was raised on the three poles to such a height that goats and dogs could not reach. The house is divided into two almost equal portions by a reed wall, and it is impossible to see through from one room to the other. In the second room is the bed of the owner and his wife.
Peasants had to build their huts themselves, though at times one would call his friends to give a helping hand. His first task was to make materials available by utting poles and making ropes from papyrus stems, locally known as impotore. Alternative materials included palm leaves or banana fibres.
The architectural design is distinct on two main features: the roof and the details on the wall. Firstly, the walls are characterised by in-built columns, which are spaced out between each other. The rectangular columns form partitions that are meant for decorative detail rather than buttresses.
The hut is round with a small passage by the entrance. At the centre of the hut is a dugout fireplace where a permanent fire burns – sometimes for a lifetime! The roof is made of grass with some tier around it. Because Karamoja is windy, there are poles put around the hut on the outside to hold it firmly.