Swahili Architecture

The Swahili culture has produced one of the most distinctive forms of architecture in Africa, if not the world. Once considered a stepchild of Arabic building styles, Swahili architecture, while owing some of its aesthetic to the Middle East, is more accurately a reflection of African design, partly influenced by the Arab (and Persian, Indian and even Mediterranean) worlds.

One of the most important concepts of Swahili space is marking the line between the public and private, while also occasionally blurring those borders. So, for example, you’ll see Lamu stoops (semicovered doorway areas or porches) that exist in the public arena of the street but also serve as a pathway into the private realm of the home. The use of stoops as a place for conversation further blends these inner and outer worlds. Inside the home the emphasis is on creating an airy, natural interior that contrasts with the exterior's constricting network of narrow streets. The use of open space also facilitates breezes that serve as natural air-conditioning.

You will find large courtyards, day beds placed on balconies and porches that all provide a sense of horizon within a town where the streets can only accommodate a single donkey. Other elements include dakas (verandahs), which again sit in the transitional zone between the street and home and also provide open areas; vidaka (wall niches) that either contain a small decorative curio or serve a decorative purpose in their own right; and mambrui (pillars), which are used extensively in Swahili mosques.

Also note how the ‘front’ of a house tends to face north. This may be because of the Muslim concept of qiblah, the direction towards Mecca in which Muslims are supposed to pray (a Swahili term for north is upande ya kibla). Or it may be for sunlight protection.