9. Changing Hats

Somehow time passes very fast and very slowly at the same time in Ilha. I went away from Ilha for a week and missed at least three big seminars or workshops on various forms of community development and culture. Delegations from UNIDO, UNESCO, UNDP, various international NGOs and national directions came by. Right now everything is at a standstill because the president is coming next week, and today a large convoy with the governor came by to inspect whether everything is in order for this momentous event.

In the bairros the house transformations continue as always. Organic material walls are slowly replaced by cement blocks (see previous post). Maybe most obvious is the characteristic changing of the roofs capping the houses. 

1. Macuti

The rich macuti palm frond or other plant material covering the houses, used to be what marked the architecture of Ilha south of the hospital. This is partly because it was – and still is – the traditional building material of the countryside around Ilha. The colonial government also prohibited local peole from building in permanent materials, meaning the population was forced to construct roofs in plant materials. The large macuti roof is great at giving shade and protecting against the rain as long as good quality materials are used and the work done well. The ventilation of the house is taken care of, and the style of the roof ensures the traditionally thick mud, lime, stone and mangrove stick walls are well protected against sun and rain. Traditionally goods were stored under the high canopy of the macuti roof as well, on a ceiling of mangrove sticks separating the roof space from the living rooms below.

2. One slope

In the 1960s, there begun a fashion of constructing a high facade with a roof of one slope covered with the industrial fibrecement sheet material Lusalite, apparently from a factory in Beira. The industrial material signified status and a new form of modernity available to more peopole due to the economic boom, increasing industrialisation and more jobs for local Mozambicans. Still only the few were allowed to use permanent material for house construction. Only local people with a certain status in the colonial machinery could own a house. These were people who had good jobs and who had been allowed to make the pledge to give up “indigenous” ways and live in European style and thus considered assimilated colonial citizens, as opposed to the indigenous person with no rights to construct in permanent materials or own land.

The colonial records for the part of town south of the hospital which still exists in chaotic, dusty shelves at a municipal office (I have still not found the maps that go with them), is called “the registry of palhotas“, ie straw huts, as opposed to “casas” or houses. There was thus a stigma to living in the plant leaf covered houses, even if many of them in Ilha, today sadly in an advanced state of disrepair, appear as spacious, elegant and beautifully constructed houses much more urban than rural in character. The registry for the stone town was burned ceremonially by Frelimo at independence when the Portuguese left and the houses nationalised. The straw hut registry was just forgotten…

In many instances this type of transformation to a one slope roof was done by changing the plant material roof with extending the wall towards the street upwards with cement blocks, placing the blocks directly on the old wattle and daub construction. In places you can see how the organic material is not responding well to the cement blocks walls placed on top of it, with deep cracks appearing in the walls. Some people had the means to construct a cement house with a one slope industrial roof in one go, because they worked in a bank or another important place where they could borrow money from the employer. This roof style seemes to have been dominant until some time in the 1980s, when the construction of cement block houses with more than one slope roof took off.

3. Three slopes

Today the fashion is to build with three slopes in different directions. This is the type of roof is seen all over Mozambique from Lichinga in the North to the bairros of Maputo. When studying this housing type in Maputo, Luís Lage of the Eduardo Mondlane Architecture Faculty in Maputo called it the “windmill house”, as the roof turns in four directions like a windmill.

In Ilha, the modern house of “conventional construction” as a cement block house is called, may be slightly different and has three slopes which often are adjusted to the traditional house plan of the area. Two slopes form a gable and one slope is at a direct angle to the gable of the two other ones. A house with the Swahili type plan of a makuti house can be given a roof of tree slopes by giving it a new “hat” of concrete blocks like the one slope roof of the 1960s. The material for the “3 àguas” type of roof is zink sheets, now as cheap as plant material but at the same time not more durable – and with the consequence of heating up the houses to the intolerable if an insulating ceiling is not put in. Three slopes are considered much better than one slope. The people who have one slope roofs say that was what they could afford with the means they had at hands at the time. Now they prefer three slopes if they manage to get the money.

The reason given for changing the roof is generally, “it was destroyed in the cyclone”. However, when asking more specifically, the roof may have been partly destroyed in one of the three large cyclones in 1986, 1994 and 2007, the last one causing great damage to the fortress of Ilha. However, the roof may have been repaired in the original material and the transformation of the roof style may have happened much later, when the family after saving and buying a couple of bags of cement or sheets of zink at a time have accumulated enough material to call the builders.

The macuti houses are disappearing. UNESCO and others are calling for some form of conservation to keep the authenticity and integrity of the World Heritage Site. However, the voice of the people has chosen the three slopes.

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About Silje

Architect and PhD Candidate based in Copenhagen, Denmark, but working mainly with heritage conservation and urban development in Ilha de Moçambique 2011-13. You can contact me on macutiblog at gmail dot com
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One Response to 9. Changing Hats

  1. Pingback: 10. … One Two Three Gone! | Macuti

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