The Sunday News
CHANGES that are wrought on a cultural landscape result in numerous changes and adaptation to a particular community. We should not imagine that changes on the built environment end at just the material level. Architecture is an art form that, like other arts genres, constitute expressive culture.
Where there are changes at the cultural level be it tangible or intangible cultural heritage, the changes are monitored, captured, expressed and represented at the arts level. It follows therefore, that architecture is a product and expressive manifestation of changes taking place within a given community’s culture.
The changes may be endogenous, resulting from internal or indigenous changes by members of the community. Largely, such changes are on a minimal level. More importantly, the changes rest on existing cultural foundations. For changes to be meaningful and sustainable, they have to anchor on the foundations of the past. Meaning is an important ingredient in ensuring that changes will be accepted and thus sustainable.
Where changes are to be embraced, the important condition is that they be rooted on and linked to the existing ideologies that authenticate and legitimate changes that are regarded as meaningful. This is a critical consideration when it comes to the definition of development. Often, building material infrastructure is considered as development. My view is different.
Essentially, development is normative, relevant to the needs of a given community, meaningful and adds value to the lives of a people. Material infrastructure, like material objects, is a facilitator and its role and value translate to intangible states. A car is useful only as far as it provides convenience. It may also be an expression of status. Materiality is what matters beyond material items per se.
Where changes within a given community have their origins outside of the affected community, the cultural changes that are wrought are more fundamental and demand careful strategies to ensure acceptability and dovetailing the changes to already existing cultural foundations, especially at the level of worldview, cosmology, thought and beliefs. This conditionality will endure rootedness and linkages between the present and the past.
The past defines and shapes the present. The former provides the foundation that panel beats new additions to incoming changes. Changes, for them to be acceptable and sustainable, should not be like a foreign body in the eye. Where this is not the case, people will pretend to be embracing the suggested changes, especially if there is money involved. As soon as a development agent gives them her/his back, the whole venture falls flat on the ground. It simply did not answer to the felt needs of the community.
Development was defined to the community and implemented on incomprehensible methodologies.
Deceptions are the result when material outcomes are presented as measures of changes (or development). Yes, they are changes. However, changes per se, especially when they come to the physical infrastructure, the minds, hearts and souls of the community are left untouched. Yet, these are the sieves, judges that pass activities as development or antidevelopment.
When we refer to a built environment in the case of the Ndebele people, and indeed other people’s not only in Zimbabwe but Africa in general, the kind of architecture that had entered the scene, faced onslaught in the advent of colonization that marked rapid, coercive and exotic changes. More importantly, the changes came about without reference to existing architectural traditions.
The structures were not borne of ideas and ideologies that were relevant and meaningful to the receiving communities. Conquest, by its very nature, is violent.
The ways of the conqueror become superior to those of the conquered. It was not just changes on the political front. It was all-embracing and had manifestations in all other spheres of life such as performances (music, dance and poetry, inter alia) graphic design, sculpture, drawing, art, religion, cuisine, inter alia.
After all, all of them are expressions of underlying cultures. When cultures change, we expect a shift in the expressive cultures in line with shifts taking place at the lower basic level. That, in turn, is informed and underpinned by the formative and primary factors at the level of beliefs, cosmology, and worldview.
The newly introduced cultures must find acceptability, adoption and application. Where cultures are not equal, it is the seemingly superior culture that triumphs and sets the tone.
However, it was the perceived superiority based on race that were in charge. Even the missionaries who were the precursors of the violent colonial project the forceful imperial cultural penetration preferred to perpetuate the cultures of those of their ancestors rather than those of the communities that they sought to proselytize. In fact, to them, the agenda went beyond mere Christianization. It was about overhauling everything African, including architectural traditions and beliefs. These were replaced with practices and beliefs that were Eurocentric. All African phenomena were denigrated, rubbished and demonized.
For many of the missionaries, it did not dawn on them that their own ancestors once centered the circular design. That was abandoned together with its interpretation.
The built environment ought to be perceived against this background. African traditional architecture was regarded as primitive, pagan and backward.
Circular designs, without understanding their basis, meanings and interpretations, were scandalized and adjudged as primitive. The missionaries at the LMS Inyathi Mission struck a middle of the road arrangement when they came up with lozenge as their design. Soon they reverted to the rectangular design and its 90-degree angles, an un-African design.
Clay was despised as a building material. It was replaced with fired bricks. Grass was last to be abandoned in favour of iron sheets. Imperialism was about westernism. That was a reality at the basic level and it was expressed through a new architecture. We should always be alert to changes taking place and what it is that informs and underpins those chnges.
For example, at the built environment level, we have experienced the substitution of the circular design with the rectangular one. The village outline has undergone alterations to assume a rectangular design to the demise and detriment of African aesthetic designs that are underscored by the circular design.
It is what we inherit from the past, from our ancestors, that is transmitted through the process of intergenerational transmission. The built environment is a case in point. The structures and their circular designs were perpetuated through intergenerational transmission of heritage.
However, long ago the circular design and its interpretation were dually understood. Circularity was artistic and engrossing. Art has that characteristic. It is captivating, gripping, enthralling and absorbing. It allows for effortless learning. Art facilitates learning. We learn as we enjoy. What was then lost in the thick mists of time was the meaning behind the circular design. Only the design endured through its aesthetic characteristic/attribute.
In the northern part of the Matobo District in Matabeleland South there is a program known as My Beautiful Home-Comba Indlu Ngobuciko. The women paint the walls of their huts with exquisite designs and these have been improving annually since 2014 when we initiated the program. However, it is futile to ask the women crafters/painters the meanings behind the decorative motifs that they so expertly execute. What they inherited from their mothers were patterns or decorative symbols minus their meaning.
This is the case with African traditional or vernacular architecture, the built environment. The circular outline for the cattle byre could not be interpreted.
The cone in the roofs could not be interpreted, nor could the circular (actually cylindrical), grass grain bins (in the case of the Ndebele people). The hearth was equally circular. The meanings for the designs were lost.
Towards the end of the Neolithic Age in England, hearths began to assume rectangular and fireplaces began losing the central location. Where such changes do occur, we should know the sources or origins of ideas behind the changes at material level. People build and use as they believe. In the case of the Stonehenge, a new culture associated with agriculture was brought to England via the eastern part of the English Isle and the western Mediterranean Sea. As I have said before, a built environment is a mirror of the underpinning thought, cosmology, worldview and perceptions.
In Zimbabwe, there were comparable aspects of the built environment. This was to be expected as the communities once shared a common thought, a common worldview and a common cosmology. Through history, these formative elements were transmitted down the ages.
It is important though to appreciate that a San hut that is informed by the dictates of their mode of economic production is not, in essence, different from the Shona cone-on-cylinder hut. Both share a circular design informed and underpinned by cosmic traits. The ages- old African adage, “As above, so below.” The cosmic traits influenced the culture, in terms of thought, philosophy, and worldview.
Equally, a Zulu beehive is not different from the cone-on-cylinder hut of the Tonga or the Venda.
In both instances, the central design is the circle as long as we appreciate that something hemispherical is as circular as a cone-on-cylinder. Similarly, we should not read too much into the supposed differences between Old Bulawayo and Great Zimbabwe. Yes, one made use of stone while the other used wood. Building materials differ from place to place. It is not materials used that count. Rather, it is how those materials are arranged in space. What characterizes African architecture is not materials. Rather, it is the design as depicted in the new Parliament of Zimbabwe at Mount Hampden and the Victoria Fall international Airport.
Later, when I worked on African Cultural Astronomy, I crafted the reverse of the adage, and said, “As below, so above.”