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Brown Stories: Bricks That Hold History

By Adebayo Ebenezer Mayowa 24 January 2021   |   4:00 pm

Photo credit: Mayowa Blades

Jam waali! Good morning in Fulfulde.

Waking up on a harmattan morning to catch the beautiful sunrise as the moon disappears over the River Donga. On the way back, one thing strikes one, the beautiful brick clay used on most buildings along the dusty road.

Gembu, a settlement of about 130,0000 people, is among the only settlements in west Africa sitting at above 1500ft above sea level. This places it among the few high elevated towns in West Africa and makes it one of the few towns in Nigeria where Fulfulde is widely spoken.

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Inhaling dust one particle at a time, panting and trying to get through the undulating roads, as you walk across, the houses are looking beautiful in brown colours and speak of one thing-Clay!

Photo credit: Mayowa Blades

One of the most familiar images that come to mind when Africa is mentioned is mud huts. Long before now, our forefathers built houses using clay and were very intentional. Our tropical environment requires we have buildings that suit our climate. Although clay is most common for simple one-room structures like mud huts, here in Gembu, the clay bricks are used to make sophisticated modern buildings and not just simple bungalows.

Modernisation has made us abandon most of our old ways and cultures which suit our environment. Clay has a high thermal mass, making them absorb heat during the day and release it at night, making the rooms cooler in the evenings. They also have better resistance to fire.

Gembu region has abundant alluvial soil which is filled with laterite. Laterite is very strong in binding soils. The Gembu soil, unlike every other clay, has rusty-red colouration from the high content of laterite and makes it among the best clay bricks you can ever find anywhere in West Africa.

Photo credit: Mayowa Blades

Dr Buchanan who coined the word ‘laterite’ after he visited Malabar in India in 1807 might have done the same if he had first seen Gembu settlement in Taraba. Laterite is traced to the Latin word “letritis” that means bricks.

The laterites have good water-retention ability and are products of in-situ weathering of various materials including crystalline igneous rocks, sediments, detrital deposit and volcanic ash.

All these are very common with the hilly topography of Gembu settlement. The Mambilla people have an innovative way of making their bricks. The traditional process is in four phases; digging the clay, mixing, moulding and sun-drying. They excavate the topsoil which has abundant laterite, beat it into powder and mix it thoroughly with water. The mixing is done by stomping on it manually with their legs after which it is left for that day. The second and the last day involve adding straw which is mostly spear grass, they sprinkle it on top of the mud and go over it again by repeatedly stomping and then rolled into various sizes and placed into a mould.

Photo credit: Mayowa Blades/Structuracasa Nigeria Limited

The straw’s purpose is to give the wall tensile and sheer strength, acting as natural rebar. The moulds are typically made of wood. After filling the moulds with the clay mixture, the moulds are laid out in a shaded area to dry for several days. If there is no available shade, the grass is placed on the top of the bricks, so they don’t crack under the sun’s rays. After the bricks have cured, more of the water and soil mixture is made to act as mortar between the bricks and used as a protective layer over the entire structure. Unlike other mud bricks, Mambilla bricks don’t require firing.

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