Dji­bouti. Flex­i­bil­ity and tribal val­ues

Domus - - TRAVEL -

In the Horn of Africa, the idea of the home of­ten takes the form of an open space; the house is a place of col­lec­tive ap­pro­pri­a­tion Text and pho­tos by Ilaria Bol­lati

When you land, Dji­bouti hits you with a fur­nace of sand and gusts of hot wind. In these sear­ing, gru­elling tem­per­a­tures, the land looks co­matose. Tiny and arid, but strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned at the mouth of the Red Sea, it ap­pears to grav­i­tate wearily around its har­bour, com­merce, the hal­lu­ci­na­tions of qat, arms traf­fick­ing, swarms of street chil­dren, glue-sniff­ing and the ex­po­nen­tial growth of mil­i­tary bases. This is a com­plex, dif­fi­cult coun­try, jug­gling life with drought, dust, heat and the desert. Nat­u­ral won­ders, like Lake As­sal, the low­est-ly­ing de­pres­sion in Africa, are as fas­ci­nat­ing as they are sub­tle, par­a­disiac and deathly at the same time. The Repub­lic of Dji­bouti is a scrap of land cov­er­ing just 23,000 square kilo­me­tres, hemmed in be­tween Ethiopia and So­ma­lia. It is in­hab­ited mainly by no­madic tribes, swarms of sol­diers of dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties, a tiny ur­ban pop­u­la­tion and a sparse net­work of small villages. Apart from the cap­i­tal, there are few real towns. The peo­ple mainly lead adapt­able, wan­der­ing lives, and this af­fects the ar­chi­tec­ture. If the home and the way of dwelling are deeply rooted in the cul­ture of a peo­ple, a prom­i­nent role here is en­trusted to “com­plex” or so­cial build­ings that, in mon­u­men­tal form, serve as places where they can con­gre­gate. By con­trast, the African tra­di­tion, es­pe­cially that of the Horn of Africa, is per­me­ated by an ev­i­dent “tribal” qual­ity and a re­cur­rent flex­i­bil­ity in re­sponse to the vary­ing needs. Build­ings re­flect the ne­ces­si­ties of the cli­mate and ma­te­ri­als, as well as re­spect­ing the hu­man scale. For Africans and their fam­i­lies, the idea of a home of­ten means an open space, whether it is a clear­ing or a court­yard. Houses are spa­ces ap­pro­pri­ated col­lec­tively. In Dji­bouti this par­al­lel is ev­i­dent. On the one hand, the no­madic habits of the in­hab­i­tants pre­vail

and the villages are dot­ted with tukuls (hemi­spher­i­cal huts cov­ered with colour­ful fab­rics). On the other, the land­scape is tamed into more sta­ble struc­tures, from raw earth dwellings to schools or a few ma­sonry and con­crete build­ings in the cen­tre of town. At Ali Sa­bieh, the co­hab­i­ta­tion of these two souls is even more ev­i­dent. The town lies in parched and hilly ter­rain. On the one hand, there are solid, clean, square ed­i­fices, of­ten be­long­ing to the mis­sion­ary cen­tres or colo­nial build­ings. Their plans are rec­tan­gu­lar, sur­rounded by walls en­clos­ing court­yards and they have flat roofs. They con­trast with other light­weight, tem­po­rary dwellings, that can eas­ily be dis­man­tled and trans­ported, of­ten com­bined with com­pounds for live­stock. These struc­tures con­sist of a frame­work sup­port­ing arched poles, cov­ered with hides, fab­ric, wo­ven mats or plant ma­te­ri­als and, in bolder ver­sions, with sheet metal or coloured plas­tic pan­els. An anal­y­sis of the dif­fer­ent spa­tial con­fig­u­ra­tions re­veals what the in­hab­i­tants con­sider a home: a place that, with­out any rigid or­gan­i­sa­tion, spe­cial hi­er­ar­chy or sep­a­ra­tion be­tween in­te­rior and ex­te­rior, serves to solve the prob­lems and meet the needs of dwelling, sat­is­fy­ing both the spon­ta­neous re­quire­ments of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion and the de­mand for su­per­fluities prompted or im­ported by its in­ter­na­tional in­hab­i­tants, in a del­i­cately poised equi­lib­rium. Ilaria Bol­lati, ar­chi­tect and PhD in De­sign and Eco­nom­ics of Cul­ture, is a re­search fel­low in the De­part­ment of De­sign at the Mi­lan Polytech­nic.

Above: Ali Sa­bieh — note the con­trast be­tween the tukuls and colo­nial-style build­ings; be­low: view of the cap­i­tal Dji­bouti Op­po­site page: pri­mary school at Ribta

Clock­wise, from top: de­tail of Dipta pri­mary school; daily life in the com­mu­nal out­door spa­ces; de­tail of a wall at Tad­joura, the coun­try’s old­est city, on the Gulf of Tad­joura; vil­lage in ma­sonry at Ribta, north of Dji­bouti

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