Why do we feel that everything traditional is bad?

I have just finished reading a fantastic book titled: "African Traditional Architecture" by Susan Denyer :

This is surely an amazing book. I have always been sceptical of non-Africans writing about Africa, and always hesitant of imminent disappointment.

However, Denyer did more than justice to this subject and has proven herself to be an incredible and worthy author of the subject.

Reading this book has led me to ask the following question, which is also the title of my post:

"Why do we (as Africans) feel that everything traditional is bad?"

Denyer at the end concludes that this should not be the case, and in all honesty, before reading the exact same words at her concluding chapter of the book, I have always felt that this is the case.

There is much to be proud of, but we don't celebrate our own.

Understandably, from decades of neglect and colonisation that has reinforced the hierarchy of (mostly) European methods over African, the effects have become lasting, however this is no excuse.

The feeling of inadequacy permeates through practically everything I see whilst in Nigeria. Actors and actresses adopting American or English accents during interviews, dressing styles, movie production styles but most relevantly housing styles.

When I started this blog 4 years or so ago, I remember being frustrated at the lack of resources I could find for Nigerian architecture. I was disappointed not to even find a definition for such. Surely a people who have existed for thousands of years would have some sort of coherent style that they can truly call their own? Surely?

I understand that the term Nigerian is artificial and pre-colonialisation there were people and tribes, there wasn't a Nigeria as such - not in the way it exists today at least.

It frustrates me to read such an amazing book filled with inspiring photographs of skillful construction methods and the use of materials that respect the planet, yet we discard all of this for concrete. A material which I am sure you are all aware of by now, I have a strong distaste for.

I am a masters student at a UK univeristy, and Iam constantly studying ways to reduce the CO2 emissions of materials we frequently use in construction, trying to prove that the methods of construction are sustainable and such, and yet we choose to ignore everything we have been doing for thousands of years to import a cold and unrelatable concrete architecture.
This is really frustrating for me because like the question begs, I do believe that modern day Nigerians have developed a genuine embarrasment and shame about their traditions. About our Gods, about our people, about the way we just are, our traditions. I can hear it in the tone, the shake of the head at a tradition mud or clay (or whatever you choose to call it) hut/house, but jump in excitement at the new concrete skyscraper.

I understand that indigeneous people living in the forest areas of Nigeria aren't exactly celebrating the most comfortable of lifestyles, but have you ever thought about developing something relevant and authentic to the climate. Quoted from Denyer's book, many people prefer the soft feel of a clay floor to the cold and hard feel of a steel re-inforced concrete floor. The materials have great properties but we have allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into thinking otherwise.

It is possible to build outstanding and long-lasting affordable houses with clay. It is possible to retain traditional characteristics and still live a modern life, nobody is asking anyone to throw away their shoes and to wear loin clothes and sit by a fire at night. I just want to prompt a bit more thought and innovation, coming direct from Africans. From Africans for Africans, or more specifically, from the person living in that zone for the people living in that zone.

If you are reading this and you are in a position of influence for any part of design, please think twice, it might take a bit more research, but believe me, your work will stand out, it will last longer and the people will be happier, because it respects their heritage, it makes more sense to them, and it is real architecture.
Why do we feel that everything traditional is bad? Why do we feel that everything traditional is bad? Reviewed by NG on 4/29/2012 09:00:00 am Rating: 5


t said...

other day, I read of a housing development, some 5-star thing for the Ibori's of this country (pre-jail, obviously) and the advert said that ALL the house finishings were imported, hence it's of the highest highest class of house. I nearly cried. You could easily define the highest class of house as one that uses the best local materials, local talent/craftsmanship, appropriate technology, custom design etc, but these Europe-worshippers went the other way. In this day when we need employment. So helep me an tell dem :)

Anonymous said...

@the above. you make a good point, however, as the blog owner asked, let us examine our own action (or inaction) first before we hastily point accusatory fingers at others. no offense intended. just thought i'd mention that.

great post. very valid and gives me plenty to think about.

NG said...

Thank you t and anonymous for your comments.

In response to t, it is more so the wording of such a statement that bothers me, and we should be bothered.

It is ingrained in our psyche that 'traditional is bad' and to some extent even some people believe that 'African is bad', this is definitely not the case. There are several valid designs and attributes to African traditional methods that deserve more recognition.

Please see the TED.com talk on African Fractals at:

We do many things out of tradition because tradition has been a series of processes which over thousands of years and 100s of generations, has been refined over and over again. Of course the world's move towards modernism has put a strain on many traditions (not just African), and many ways of doing things have been neglected for modern ways of doing things.

Because Nigeria as a whole, is not known for its modernity we are not really known for much within the building world - please look at the posts I did on wayfinding in Lagos, Abuja.. at:


This issue isn't limited to Nigeria, but the majority of countries across the world.

Without digressing too much, I think that there is definitely something wrong with the way we view our traditions, particularly within buildings.

Do you know that it is a requirement in my course in the UK to produce work that supports environmental sustainability?

This means that whilst our designers and planners are trying to compete with the world's high tech and concrete and fossil fuel driven modern cities, those of us currently living in these 'modern countries' (outside of Nigeria), are working desperately to do the reverse. We are penalised for over use of concrete, and non-renewable resources. I see colleagues everyday proposing new ways of using plant material in construction, methods of building less linear and rectangular forms, the use of straw and earth within walls for insulation etc..

This IS African architecture, of course we are not the only ones using these materials, but in our rural villages, methods of construction of our clay (not mud) dwellings (not huts), we practice these methods of construction everyday.

We have figured out the best ways of using natural resources for the construction of traditional and indigenous homes, what we need now is to find a way to bridge the gap between that lifestyle and the modern one.

In response to anonymous, this is the perfect place to point fingers, the 'three that point back at you' can be used to further analyse and refine our culture, our ways of thinking and of course our architecture.

Thank you.

Which one matters the most to you?

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