Houses and Housing

Houses and housing issues in Africa vary dramatically between rural and urban areas. People in most rural areas build houses using long-established methods that suit traditional ways of life. The situation is quite different in the continent’s rapidly growing cities. Increases in population density, government regulations, and the diverse lifestyles of city dwellers have combined to create a housing crisis in virtually every urban area in Africa.


Housing styles in rural Africa reflect the environment, economy, and social system of a particular place. Constructed of indigenous materials, traditional rural homes serve as both living and work spaces.

Materials and Construction

In most parts of Africa, rural settlements are small and self-sufficient, with housing that can be built by a small number of people with local materials. Because farming and LIVESTOCK GRAZING can exhaust the land’s resources rather quickly, many communities move from place to place to find fertile soil. These people generally use houses for only a few years, so they build them of materials such as wood, leaves, bark, and reeds. More permanent rural societies typically use mud or mud brick construction, and a few build with stone.

Social factors play an important role in housing construction. Traditionally, rural societies have placed a high value on equality and fitting in among its members rather than on wealth and individuality. Accumulating riches is discouraged, and displaying wealth—in a luxurious home, for example—is viewed as a threat to community stability. As a result, most rural houses are about the same size, design, and quality. A large family may have a large house to accommodate its many members, but the house should not be noticeably grander than the others in the village. Because these values also emphasize the importance of decent housing for all members of society, few Africans living in rural communities are homeless.


A typical African homestead in a rural community consists of several small buildings, each with its own roof. These units are grouped together by a surrounding wall or fence. Each building has a specific purpose, such as cooking, sleeping, or storage. In societies based on livestock herding, this traditional style of house includes a corral or stable within the walls. A central courtyard provides light and air and serves as a common area where members of the household can gather.

Most rural homes are rebuilt and rearranged frequently to accommodate changes in the size and structure of a household. As families grow or divide, buildings are added to homes and their uses are adapted to the needs of the occupants. Yet despite the nearly constant reconstruction of homes—whether for household convenience or during a community move—styles of rural housing have changed very little over the centuries.


Since the mid-1900s, Africans have streamed from the countryside into the continent’s cities. Large numbers of urban dwellers are either homeless or live in poorly built, overcrowded houses with few or no utilities. In many nations this urban housing crisis has become worse as a result of economic troubles and government policies that have made the construction of decent, affordable housing difficult.


Many of Africa’s urban housing problems date back to the 1800s, when European nations colonized the continent. Building codes in colonial towns and cities reflected European standards and required the use of expensive imported materials such as stone or steel. City dwellers were forbidden to build homes using traditional materials or techniques. In many cases colonial governments limited the number of Africans that could move into urban areas and established separate sections for Africans and for whites. Housing in African sections was often limited to accommodations provided by the government or by private employers.

After gaining independence in the mid-1900s, many African nations continued to follow the housing policies of the colonial era. However, they removed restrictions on migration to cities. The result was a new flood of people into urban areas who could not afford to build houses according to existing building codes or government regulations. At first national governments tried to take on the responsibility of providing adequate housing and utilities. However, few countries had the resources or the political will to meet that challenge. The small number of homes they built could not satisfy even a portion of the demand for urban housing, and they were too expensive for most residents.


With little or no affordable housing, many African citydwellers have built houses illegally on public or private land. In CAIROEgypt, hundreds of thousands of people have resorted to living on city rooftops, and over 3 million squatters inhabit Cairo’s famed City of the Dead, living among and in ancient tombs. In most cases, homes are made of traditional materials and recycled urban waste materials, such as cardboard, flattened tin cans, and plastic sheeting. They are crowded, with several people living in a single room.

Neighborhoods of these improvised structures, called squatter settlements or shantytowns, are a common sight on the outskirts of most large African cities. Typically these communities have no utilities or improvements such as paved roads, schools, or parks. As more people move into a neighborhood, houses are built closer together and open space is gradually lost. The environment becomes unhealthy as well as unappealing.

The shortage of urban housing has led wealthy Africans to invest in low-cost housing. Builders often construct cheap structures and try to attract as many residents as possible. These developments are frequently as poorly built and serviced as squatter houses. Because residents often have trouble keeping up with rent payments, many of them lease part of their homes to other people. This leads to more crowding and a greater strain on already overtaxed utilities.

Illegal settlements present a dilemma for African nations. On one hand they are an eyesore and could become centers of disease, unrest, and crime. On the other hand, they are the only housing available for many urban residents. Some governments have regularly destroyed squatter settlements or taken steps to prevent their appearance. However, others tolerate the settlements to avoid angering city dwellers. Because most African countries have limited financial resources to deal with this issue, urban housing in Africa is likely to present problems for some time to come. (See also Architecture, Cities and UrbanizationColonialism in Africa.)