Where everyone's home is a work of art

Far from the influences of the Western world, the rural Gurunsi people of Burkina Faso build homes of amazing artistry and beauty. Known for the "painted sandcastle" architecture of their distinctive villages, these West Africans create dynamic, abstract frescoes on the walls of their windowless adobe dwellings. The circular walls of their compounds on the grassy savannah in the Tibl region isolate the Gurunsi from the outside world.

A traditional family lives in a compound of dwellings set in a circle around a courtyard. The courtyard, used for cooking, also serves as a corral for cattle, goats, and chickens. Low walls in the courtyard keep the livestock out of homes. An extended family lives in a compound, everyone from parents to great-grandchildren. The family compounds, in turn, encircle a larger communal courtyard.

The fortresslike design of the villages is a manifestation of the Gurunsis' independent nature. For centuries they have struggled to escape domination, first by slave traders and later by French colonizers. Some of the houses date back more than 300 years.

Building techniques are similar to those in other parts of Africa. The men do the heavy construction; painting is women's work. Each year after the harvest, women renew the designs on their dwellings, some of which have been washed away by the heavy rains of the wet season (June to October). Using bundles of straw, feathers, or their hands as brushes, they paint centuries-old patterns. The designs are abstract representations of everyday items: cooking pots, fishnets, drums, snakes, and more. A common triangular pattern is a stylized broken calabash bowl.

The materials are mostly indigenous: clay for the walls, earth pigments for the colors. Coal tar is now used for black decoration (ground black schist was formerly used); chalk is white.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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