Out of Africa

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The dirt floor was as hard as concrete. The open doorway cast a sun wedge into what was otherwise a cool dark hut. The thatch roof rustled with every breath of breeze. An 8-year-old American girl living in South Africa could stand in the middle and yell her lungs out and the solid mud walls would absorb the racket and swallow any echoes. I know, because I was that girl — standing inside a Zulu kraal, inhaling memories of Africa with every breath.











I didn’t know it at the time, but I was mentally documenting African Vernacular Architecture. Too bad it was forty years before my friend Jon’s Indiegogo campaign at


Part of Gary Geboy's
Jon’s portrait, part of Gary Geboy’s

He’s an architect living in Beaufort, South Carolina whose take on what constitutes “proper” building methods was permanently skewed by a Peace Corps stint in Zambia back in the 90s. When he wasn’t building latrines, he sketched every African-style insaka, hunting lodge or mosque he saw and studied how it worked. (it’s all on this website check it out)


He studied the baked mud,  pre-weathered bricks that could be replenished literally in the back yard. Thatch roofs that allowed cooling breezes to pass through sleeping quarters. Women plastered walls in brilliant, geometric designs without chemicals, toxins or trips to a city for materials. But despite how sustainable, not to mention beautiful, these traditional (or “vernacular” in the vernacular of architect-speak) techniques seemed to Jon at the time, Western construction materials were considered more modern and desirable.

Zulu dancers in Durban, where I lived as a kid
Zulu dancers in Durban, where I lived as a kid

If I went back to Natal, South Africa today it’d be a lot harder to find a kraal, or any example of African vernacular architecture. Which is where Jon’s campaign comes in. He’s raising funds to continue the work he started in Zambia. He’s traveling to Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland – this time with a digital camera and an app to teach other architects, tourists, Peace Corps volunteers and villagers how to upload images of African Vernacular Architecture. He figures if he can at least document what’s left and build an easily accessible data base he can revitalize interest in the beauty, history and functionality of indigenous architecture before it’s too late.

I’m contributing as much as I can to his mud hut Indiegogo campaign because if there’s one thing I rant about incessantly, it is how homogenized and bland architecture in this county has become. Just consider Beaufort, South Carolina. Sure, we still preserve and celebrate our antebellum mansions, but what about our African-American architectural heritage? The last remaining Gullah praise houses, built by slaves, are disappearing and developers are itching to tear down historic, dilapidated freedman’s houses and replace them with oversized condos cloned from Florida and Arizona suburbs.

Eddings Point Praise House, St. Helena Island SC -- photograph by Gary Geboy
Eddings Point Praise House, St. Helena Island SC — photograph by Gary Geboy

Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a kraal, Africa’s vernacular architecture is part American history – of our collective human story. Jon’s campaign is a chance to say it is a story worth telling.

If you are ugly, know how to dance

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The Nyanja people of Zambia have a proverb Byrne would have loved: If you are ugly, know how to dance. How telling, when dance is so much a part of a culture that to be able to dance is celebrated almost as much as beauty.

I like to think that dance is on an upsurge again in our own culture, if only as evidenced by popular TV contests like “So You Think You Can Dance.” I’m not sure that dance was ever as central to the North American culture as it is in other places. Maybe the very number of distinct cultural traditions that “blended” here meant no one dance form became as prevalent as, say, Folklorico in Mexico or Ring dancing in African countries.

Native Americans had their own, complex, relationship with dance. Byrne’s “son” Benjamin Barney of the Navajo People explained to me that dance for his people is spiritual, not meant for entertainment. It took him almost a lifetime to convince his real mother to accept his choice to dance for the love of it. He found a way to blend both worlds by forgoing a career on stage, performing and dancing just for the joy it gave him.

Byrne was so proud of Ben’s dancing that she didn’t see the balance he was trying to achieve, at least until much later in her life. By the time I met her, I think she understood. Taped to her refrigerator was the cartoon where Snoopy says something like this: If you can’t dance, everyone at least can do a happy hop 🙂