Thursday, August 8, 2013


Seni's family needs a new house.

Home to seven children, two adults, one infant, and one pregnant bride, the brick walls of Tia Anabella's cement-lined four-room brick house are being stretched to their limit.  Seni, Basta, and Verdiano share a nook at the edge of the porch.  Alzira, Gilda, and Etelvina lay out on blankets on a straw mat in the living room.  Pascoal and his adult brother, Amilcar, share a room inside the house, while Tia Anabella sleeps on the couch, caring for her orphaned infant granddaughter.  And now that Amilcar's new wife has come to stay, the house has finally become tight and unnavigable.

So how will Tia Anabella obtain her new house?  

In the most logical and efficient way possible, of course.  She will be build one.  From scratch.

Kids play at building a house in Zobue, Mozambique

House-building and brick-making, it turns out, are actually delightfully simple.  

Location is the first determination and, in small towns and rural areas, this is generally not an issue.  Most new houses are added to existing family compounds or squeezed between other, established properties.  In the case of Tia Anabella, the new house will lie directly adjacent to the original house.  In what was once a small vegetable garden, there is now a large pit and the outline of a new, house-shaped rectangle.  

After the location has been determined and marked on the ground, the dimensions of the house will be calculated, followed by the estimated total number of bricks.  Then, the digging can commence.

In Mozambique, bricks are made from mud.  Clay soil, lying just inches below the sandy surface, is mixed with water and churned by foot.  The mixture is churned and stomped, then packed by hand into double-brick molds.  The mud within the molds is shaped, smoothed, and released in careful rows.  The new bricks are aligned and dried over the course of several days, first on their side, then turned on end to dry completely.  Once dried and firm, the bricks are stacked and set aside.  

To complete the brick-making process, the bricks need to be "fired" in a make-shift kiln.  Stacked bricks are rearranged to form a messy ziggurat, with tunnels underneath.  The tunnels are stuffed with branches, and the stack is smoothed with mud.  When the bricks are packed, organized, and sealed, the kiln is ready to burn.  

Seni's family, in particular, has already made over 6,000 bricks from the pit in their backyard. Stacked and dried, the bricks now form a tunneled, flat-topped pyramid.  The family has started collecting firewood and are preparing to add the final layer of mud. The bricks will burn for 24 hours, and then be disassembled, ready to sort and use.  

From there, it isn't hard to build a house.  Most houses are built in the original location of the mud-hole, where the ground can be easily shaped and flattened.  A brick foundation is laid in the shape of the new house, and the walls are built upwards from there.  Houses are generally economical and thin-walled, which means they are never taller than a single story.

Once the bricks are laid and mortared and the walls of the new house have dried, different fixtures can be amended. Floors are padded with dirt or shaped with concrete.  Walls are coated with mud or cement. Roofs can be built with sticks, grass, or metal.  

Put together in this way, the houses of Zobue rise out of the land.  They lie comfortably askew, never more than ten feet tall, wedged along the winding paths.  And as new houses are built, old houses are starting to fall.  Some walls will crumble back into the ground, and others walls will be reused.  And thus the cycle of mud, fire, and brick continues.

Shaping bricks with a mold

Stomping mud (photo courtesy of volunteer Jamie Randol)
Bricks drying in the sun
Bricks stacked and ready to burn

Preparing the make-shift kiln
Bricks and firewood
A victim of the brick-burning season
A kiln with mud-coating
A kiln, after burning
The entire brick-building process: Chopped tree, open pit, stack of bricks, and brick house.  

Burning bricks in the kiln

Adding firewood to the tunnels beneath the kiln
A brick house under construction
Under construction.  Note the thinness of the walls.
A nearly-completed house 
A finished house with grass roof
A finished house with sheet-metal roofing
A finished house with mud-and-brick walls
Painted mud-daub
A finished house
Mud-daub and a new brick porch
Adding a new roof-- wooden framing, a black plastic tarp, and grass
A brick house with mud spackling and a sheet-metal roof
Smooth cement spackling on an old church in Zobue
A brick house, covered in painted cement
Brick and cement
Brick and cement
Brick and cement
Brick and cement
Brick, cement, and metal grates
An old house on the outside of town.  Brick, covered with a layer of cement.
Crumbling walls.  Eventually, all of the houses in Zobue will revert back to soil.

So are you interested in making your own bricks at home?  It's surprisingly easy.  There are ten basic steps to creating bricks at home:

How To:  Brick-Making

Materials:  Soil, bread pan, water

  • Check your soil.  The best brick-soil is about 75% clay (to make it sticky) and 25% sand (to reduce shrinkage).  If the soil feels sticky and good-for-building, then it will probably work just fine. 
  • Dig a hole.  In the area with good clay soil, dig a hole and loosen the dirt.  If you want to make a lot of bricks, dig a bigger hole.  
  • Add water.  Add water to the loose soil, and begin to stomp around.  Stomp until the soil is thoroughly mixed and muddy. 
  • Mold your bricks.  Use the bread pan to form and shape your bricks.  Smooth out the top of the brick and, slowly and carefully, turn the mold upside down.  Deposit the brick on flat ground to dry.  Make sure that the bricks retain their shape. 
    • Are your bricks flattening?  You've added too much water.  Add more soil to your mud and make the brick again.  
    • Are your bricks crumbling?  Your soil has too much sand.  Try digging deeper to find some sticky clay.
  • Repeat.  Make a bunch of bricks.  
  • Dry.  Let your bricks dry in the sunlight.  After three or four days, they should be ready to stack.
  • Build a pyramid.  Using your new, dry bricks, build a flat-topped pyramid.  Start by arranging the bricks in a square, leaving space for three or four long tunnels. Remembering to build around the tunnels, continue to add blocks until the pyramid is done.  
  • Coat the pyramid.  Make some more mud, and then coat the sides of the pyramid. You want the bricks to be completely sealed in this make-shift kiln.
  • Light a fire.  Stuff the tunnels with firewood, and start a controlled burn.  You will need a lot of wood, and you will have to pay attention.  Leave the fire going for about 24 hours.  Make sure that the fire is burning all the way through the tunnels, and not just on the outside.  
  • Build a house!  You will need about 500 bricks to build a doghouse, or about 800 to build a playhouse.  A typical house in Mozambique takes between 5,000 and 10,000 bricks.  But with just 50 or 60 bricks, you can make a nice little garden, or footpath, or low-lying wall.  

1 comment:

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