Traditional African Architecture

Nothing is more evocative of this continent than the vision of a cluster of African tribal huts baking in the blazing sun against a backdrop of scraggly thorn trees. In fact, many visitors to South Africa express their surprise at their arrival in gleaming cities filled with high-rise buildings.

You can view traditional African architecture everywhere in roadside villages as you drive around the country, but you have to know what you’re looking for as each tribe has its own distinctive style.

Zululand is located along the eastern coast of South Africa. Here you will find the traditional ‘beehive’ dwellings of this tribe − layers of grass covering a wooden framework. These huts are laid out in a circle around a central cattlekraal, a similar layout to the Xhosa huts in the south-east of the country, although Xhosa huts tend to be made of painted mud.

In the 1800s, Shaka Zulu sent a warrior, Soshangana, to conquer the Tsonga people to the north. Instead, the warrior was very taken with these peace-loving people and their round, patterned huts with thatched roofs, so he made his home with them, and they took his name to become known as the Shangaan.

The Venda people live to the South of the Limpopo. Their houses are traditionally circular, surrounded by deep verandahs. These are similar to those built by the Tswana, Pedi and Tsonga, but their plastered ceilings are painted on the inside with concentric patterns known as ‘the eye of the lion’.

Visit Sotho villages in the southern Highveld and in Lesotho − although these days you’d be hard-pressed to find the traditional snout-like entrance to the dwellings.

Any round-up of South African tribal architecture would be incomplete without a visit to an Ndebele village − north-east of Pretoria − with their unique polychromatic wall art.

If you don’t have the time to visit all the different regions, at the Lesedi cultural village, just north of Johannesburg, you can take a tour of representations of Ndebele, Zulu, Basotho, Xhosa and Pedi villages.


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