If I Were A Carpenter

Don’t pay the ferryman…

Having spent some time now in Senegal, West Africa, and having a background in building design, I am both amazed and confused at the building construction here.

The amazing part is the architecture, all done with concrete block. The buildings here are nothing short of spectacular!  Beautiful homes and complexes are springing up everywhere you look.  The process can go quickly, or span over years depending on the financial state you are in.  I’ve seen the same buildings remain in their partially completed state for four years.  I’ve also seen what was a vacant piece of land 6 months earlier now contain a beautiful 3 story structure ready for use.

The process is simple.  It usually starts off with a horse and cart, piled with cements bags, pulling up to a pile of good old African sand. The cement powder is poured onto the sand and mixed with a shovel. Cups of water are then tossed onto the mixture and all is mixed with a shovel to the right consistency.  After that, the mixture is packed into a metal block form and then carried to an area, removed from the form, and left in the sun to dry.

I keep scanning the construction areas when I pass by to see if anyone is using a level or measuring tape.  It’s been four years now and I haven’t seen any. (Might just be my eyesight)  I did see someone selling them in a shop so I know they exist here in Senegal and I couldn’t imagine how these beautiful structures could be constructed without them.  At any rate, after the blocks have dried, and the ground has been trenched to allow for footings and pads, and the cement poured and cured, the process begins.  It’s fast! Concrete block walls with door and window openings can go up in the time it takes me to leave my apartment and try to find baking soda (a little joke there as I never did find any) and return home again.  The blocks, water and cement are hoisted up manually using nothing more than a rope, pulley and some muscle……lots of muscle , since the same process is used when the building gets to be even as much as ten stories high.  The next thing you know, the building is in its completion stage.  I should note here that there are more modern operations that use hoists, cranes and cement mixers for the really large projects, but it isn’t that common.  My guess is that with the very high unemployment rate in Senegal, labor is inexpensive and there are many willing to take on the opportunity for employment.

Now, the finishing… hmmmmmmm.  You know Chris de Burges’ song… Don’t pay the Ferryman?… well, it should be a law here.  There are many gaps in the window and door frames in many of the buildings I have been in, big gaps! Sometimes the openings aren’t square, just close to it.  A bit of concrete and voila… almost airtight (Not) It’s Africa, and for the most part, its warm so you don’t have to risk the chance of frost-bite, but if the killer bees ever arrive, I don’t stand a chance!  

I just think that if you go to all the expense of building a beautiful structure, you should make sure “the ferryman” is on board.   But that’s me, and life continues no one for the worse.

Now the confusing part, which has come to make a bit of sense since I first started thinking about it.  Here in Dakar, when you purchase land, you can do whatever you want… build a home, have a business, raise chickens or build a ten story apartment complex.  Your neighbor can do whatever they want too, so when you put in windows for light or air circulation, you risk the possibility of your neighbor building up beside you and blocking all those windows.  Hence, the echo chamber!  Most (All?) construction here has it.  It’s a setback wall from the exterior perimeter… a jog inward that contains windows and openings to the bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens.  Great idea to cover the “just in case”.  But here’s the problem.  It also allows for sound and smell circulation.  Not a great idea if you have anything you want kept private.  I live on the third floor of an apartment complex, so the sounds and smells from the floors below have nowhere to go but up, past my windows and in through the gaps.  Sometimes, the smells of African dishes being prepared below makes my mouth water, and the African music I sometimes hear is pleasing to my ears.  I’m not sure how much my neighbors are enjoying the late night movies in English though, or appreciating by attempts at African cooking (which are sometimes not much more than burnt offerings), but that’s my contribution to the “echo chamber”.   Now, I’ll never come to embrace the morning sounds from below (hahah..that would just be weird!), but I have come to accept them as a part of living here in Senegal.

Another thing I have noticed is that the hallways are llllooooooonnnnngggggg and wide……and often take up good space that could otherwise be useful.  Each to their own, but right now my kitchen is at the polar opposite side of the apartment from my dining room.  I’ve probably walked a few extra kilometers running back and forth, but I’m looking at it as an opportunity for exercise now and it doesn’t bother me so much anymore.

I’m now working on a design for the Talibe home, Son Of Africa.  Fortunately, the land I have purchased is large enough that the home can be set back from the perimeter of the land and no “echo chamber” is required.  It’s different here, and I wouldn’t trade off any experience, good or bad.  It’s learning a different way of life… the African way.  I’m lucky to be here in Senegal, gaps, echo chambers and all!

I’ll be updating on my progress as I go, cloth in hand and mental notes in store.  Keep tuned in… this should be interesting.

Comments (2)

  • I can see it!!!! Thank you, Lori!

  • Hello, I’m writing from the University of New Mexico. I form part of a project to be placed in Meckhe, Senegal. The project is more or less a community center that some private investors want to construct to give the community a place for gathering and sharing. Pretty cool right? Well now we have found ourselves invested in this pretty cool idea but are not sure of where to go from here. We’re looking for any building codes for the area but haven’t found any. I guess the worst case would be to use our local codes since it will most likely satisfy the criteria out there. Any advice?

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