The thatcherless years

May 22 2009
Putting decent thatch down is harder than you'd think.

Putting decent thatch down is harder than you'd think.

Just time for one last bundle of thoughts before the plane leaves. Plenty more to write up later, but for now, this will have to do.
It’s as easy to play armchair politics as it is to be the world’s greatest football manager from the comfort of your couch. All the same, it’s impossible not to get frustrated when you know there’s a really simple solution to a major problem.

One thing about Simakakata has been bugging me, and asking a few questions has left me wanting to scream.

It goes like this: there’s no point anyone sending money to fund a school building that’s going to crumble away or lose its roof in a few years. Certified, permanent structures need to built now, or when the time comes for the government to take on the school properly, they’ll simply need to start construction from scratch again.

Building materials here are expensive, largely because the transport network is so poor. Getting metal sheets to Simakakata for the roof is going to be hard work and will require a decent truck. That it should be a sizeable part of the overall cost makes sense.

My question was that if the community can hand craft 60,000 rough bricks and fire them, why can’t they do the same for roofing tiles and save even more money? No-one seemed able to give me a decent answer: that’s fair enough. I don’t know enough about construction to know if it’s even possible: roof tiles may require a more accurate mould or a different type of slate. No-one really uses them in Africa anyway, so there must be some reason.

I asked Haakon, the Norwegian facilitator at Response Network who drove us around a bit, about it. He shrugged, unsure himself. Then he sighed. Then he explained one of the most teeth-gnashingly stupid situations here.

During colonisation, he said, houses were built to European designs and many traditional skills were lost. That meant a lot of buildings going up using entirely inappropriate materials, in entirely inappropriate designs. Like using metal for the roof – there’s barely a worse fabric for keeping temperatures stable, especially keeping the heat in at night. It corrodes quickly in the harsh climate, and is far too expensive for the communities to buy in.

One thing Zambia has in abundance, though, is grass. Great big savannahas-full of stalks that tower over your head. Why, then, can’t the school be thatched for free?

The very basic schools we saw in the bush were. The problem is, that when the villagers build their huts and these rudimentary structures, they just layer dried grass on roughly hewn timbers for the roof. As anyone who’s live in rural England knows, real thatching is a highly skilled, difficult and expensive affair. The two schools near Zimba already had holes in the roof after just a couple of years: when it rains, children have to huddle together near the blackboard to stay dry.

Apparently, no-one here knows how to create and layer thatch properly. It’s a skill which has been lost, and never reintroduced. If just one person in the community at Simakakata could be trained, the school could have a good roof which would last for many years for free. They could train others, and sell the skill on. There are obstacles: getting a trained thatcher here, finding a place to train, finding people to train, but surely it’s worth the effort?

I’m going to suggest it to George, the headmaster, as one of the evening classes he holds once the new schoolhouse is built.

4 Comments
Nimrod
May 24 2009 @ 10:18

Just searching a bit on the subject, it seems to me that Thatching is a tricky technique, which if they can actually learn and master, can bring in a lot of work and money to the community. But then I thought – if the only reason they’re not making tiles is because they are used to seeing buildings with metal roofs, perhaps it’s another solution that they need to think about. Just as you said, if they can make all those bricks, why not roof tiles?

David Powell
June 5 2009 @ 15:47

I know that buildings called Rondavels are built in South Africa, and they have have thatched roofs, it is fairly common. It may be easier and cheaper to get someone from there. Some research would have to be done. It may be worthwhile to check out

June 15 2009 @ 22:44

Good point. As you’d expect, the rondavel-style chalets in Zambian game parks are well thatched and built to last. Thinking about it, the backpaker’s hostel we stayed in had thatched chalet’s too. Being cynical, I’d assume that foreign contractors are often used for those sorts of places though.

April 8 2010 @ 01:22

You have to wonder why no one else is talking about this. Glad you are. Great post.

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