Cob—a mixture of clay, dung, sand, and water—is pretty much the oldest building material in human civilization. It’s also one of the most durable, withstanding heat, earthquakes, and rain, for centuries in some cases. You can find it in England, Afghanistan, and Africa, and thanks to the efforts of some modern builders, it’s currently enjoying a comeback.
In Tiébéle, a small village in the south of Burkina Faso, it never went away. There, each new clay-and-straw cob home is decorated by a group of women from the Gurunsi community, in a process that is part group art project, part spiritual practice, and part architectural detailing job. These images from Belgian photographer Rita Willaert are some of the most beautiful we’ve seen of the town.
You can read a ton about the women’s work online (or check out the great documentary Traces, Women’s Imprints), but here’s a quick rundown of how it works. Before the rainy season sets in, women use chalk and a mixture of mud and dung to inscribe patterns and colors into the walls of the newly constructed homes. Fresh dung is used to bind the colors to the walls (and strengthen the structures), and then the whole wall is varnished with a mixture made by boiling néré pods, from a common local tree.
There’s a strong social element to the work, with younger women acting as the interns to their project manager elders. Handye Magazine explains:
The work on the walls reflects the informal organization of the community. Women of all ages come together, with the older women taking the lead and guiding the younger women. The most senior woman is responsible for taking a stone and incising the first line. She starts with a long horizontal line across the top, drawn quickly with the confidence of someone who knows exactly what she’s doing. Other women then join in, filling out the overall pattern.
Though there’s social and spiritual meaning to the decorations, it turns out that they also serve an important functional purpose. The deep lines that run horizontally over the mud facades act as tiny, ad hoc gutters, channeling the flow of water over the surface. The néré varnish helps to prevent leakage and erosion from the foot-thick walls, which were necessary for protection from raiding slavers. Which partially explains how the Gurunsi got their name: It’s derived from the word Guru-si, which means “iron does not penetrate.”
[H/t Visual News]