“Is this house made out of poo?” the little kid asked as I stood working near the doorway of the hut.
“No,” I replied. “But it’s supposed to look like it is. It’s actually concrete.” Such was the line of questioning that morning at the latest exhibit in the Oakland Zoo’s African Savanna. Constructed of two-by-fours and plywood with a covering of hand-patted concrete and straw, this thatched-roof structure originally served as an anthropological museum. But only recently was its full potential brought to fruition. Zoo Director Joel Parrott’s plan was to recreate an authentic traditional woman’s dwelling from the Kikuyu tribe of East Africa, where dried cow dung was extensively utilized as a building material. I was thrilled when he gave the assignment to me. Kikuyu women live separate from their husbands, in their own house along with their daughters. (I’d find female zoo visitors were often envious when I explained this arrangement.) Even the family’s sheep and goats sleep inside with them!
Following the descriptions from a book written by famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, I drew out a floor plan and began gathering the many rustic materials needed for the project: wooden poles and sticks, ecola heather, reed mats, bamboo, straw and dried leaves. Inside the hut, I constructed separate mother’s and daughter’s bedrooms for sleeping, a pen for the animals, a storeroom, a goat fattening pen, and a central kitchen with a stone hearth for cooking. According to long-held tradition, these rooms are laid out in precisely the same manner in every hut, along with a wealth of taboos about conduct and social rituals. For example, if a cooking pot should crack while food is being cooked in it, that food can only be eaten by women past childbearing age. And if an owl hoots near a homestead, or a frog or lizard falls into the fireplace, a house purification ceremony is required.
Working with these rustic materials presented a few challenges. Nothing was straight, flat or uniform. Poles arrived shorter than anticipated, heather mats stubbornly refused to be stapled in place, and before I’d even finished construction, a small family of rodents took up residence under the mom’s leaf-covered bed. But after two months of meticulous work, I had the basic structures complete.
Then I went shopping. One of the most fun days of my Oakland Zoo career was the one I spent gathering the many unique furnishings for the hut. I went to a pottery yard and found earthen jars and cooking pots. At an import store, I found baskets and wooden plates, along with plastic fruit and vegetables. And I found places that sold cow and goat hides for bedding and hollow gourds that could be used for food and water storage. I even carved a little wooden flute for the mother’s bedroom. But I wanted more than simply things that could be seen and touched. With a friend’s help I put together a multi-track CD of music and sound effects to be played through hidden speakers. And I burned some wood and leaves inside the hut to lend it an authentic smoky smell. With a series of small interpretive signs, the Kikuyu Woman’s Hut was ready to receive its first guests. An opening ceremony, complete with authentic African music and food, introduced the hut to the public, who got to experience how East African women lived 100 years ago. So if you haven’t yet seen the African hut exhibit, stop by for a visit the next time you’re at the Zoo. Just take a left at the zebras!