Skip to main content

How does architecture differ in ethnic groups split by country borders?

Have you heard about Africa before? Not the Africa you see on TV, but the real Africa. Contrary to the conventional view of Africa as a homogeneous entity, it is the continent with the highest number of countries, and it is highly rich in ethnic diversity as shown by the map below.
Map of the World’s most and least diverse countries | Source: Washington Post, Data source: Harvard Institute for Economic Research. 

So what if you found out that most country borders aren’t physical walls but a figment of our imagination? You’d probably look to maps to prove that borders exist. But before maps of Africa with country borders were produced, there were people - people with different languages and cultures. There are about 2,000 languages spoken across more than 3,000 ethnic groups in Africa. Numerous maps have been created to illustrate just how diverse the continent is. If you’d like to explore other facts about Africa’s diversity, this article is for you.

Map of ethnic groups & country borders | Source: National Geographic
When contemporary country borders are overlaid on ethnic boundaries as illustrated by the map on the left, it is easy to see that ethnic groups transcend borders. Because of their multiplicity, major ethnic groups are characterized as having 10 million people or more.

More maps such as this one can be found here: Harvard's AfricaMap project

Some of the major ethnic groups include but are not limited to:
  • The Akan of Ghana and the Ivory Coast
  • The Abyssinians of Ethiopia and Eritrea
  • The Fulani of West Africa (Cameroun to Guinea)
  • The Igbo of Nigeria
  • The Kanuri of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroun
  • The Oromo of Ethiopia
  • The Shona of Zimbabwe and Mozambique
  • The Yoruba of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone
  • The Zulu of South Africa

Map of language families | Source: National Geographic
Remember the 3,000 ethnic groups that together spoke about 2,000 languages? These languages fall mainly across the Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, Khoi-San and Austronesian language families. This map on the left shows that the language families transcend country borders as well as ethnic groups. For example, the Berber group of the Afro-Asiatic family, with a population of about 5-9 million, cuts across the borders of Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Other ethnic groups in this family are the Hausa, Oromo, Amharic, Somali, Songhai and Tachelit, which are widespread across Northern Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region.

The Bantu, which is also the Niger-Congo group, is another major language family. "Bantu" in the ancient Niger-Congo language referred to "human-being". Most of the languages commonly spoken in Southern Africa, Central Africa and Niger Delta regions today can be directly linked to the Bantu language or are a mixture of Bantu and other indigenous languages.

Another question would be who got to decide what the limits of a country were? Simple - colonial masters divided Africa into countries without regard for ethnic boundaries. The map below shows Africa in 1880 with its kingdoms and empires, before it was divided into colonies by Europe.

Scramble for Africa Map | Source: davidjl123 / Somebody500 via wikimedia
Now that we've established that ethnic groups exist beyond country borders, is it possible to identify an ethnic group based on its architecture? A good guess would be that identifying an ethnic group's architectural style would require an understanding of its predominant way of life, aesthetic expressions and manipulation of building materials and forms to suit its people's needs while responding to climatic conditions. For example, although the Hausas, Igbos and Yorubas of Nigeria mostly use earth for their buildings, their treatment of the material, the building forms and aesthetics set them apart. Another defining feature that sets them apart is the roof structures. Whereas Hausa architecture mostly favours flat roofs due to lower amounts of rainfall in the Sahel region, Igbo and Yoruba architecture favour pitched roofs. The pitch of the roof, however, is influenced both by weather conditions (rainfall, heat, and so on) as well as cultural status.
Within Nigeria alone, Hausa architecture varies from place to place. The building layouts and principles typically remain the same with major elements always present such as the 'zaure' (entrance hallway), inner courtyard, high walls and the 'zankwaye' (significant horns at the top of the parapet). However, construction techniques and the treatment of building materials vary across regions.
Variations of Hausa residential buildings in Nigeria 
Variations are mostly due to environmental conditions that determine the colour and make-up of the earth used for construction, the durability and type of trees used for reinforcement, as well as the type of thatch, organic binder or impervious coating used for the walls. Social factors like status, nobility, and wealth also influence the appearance of Hausa buildings across Northern Nigeria in terms of building size, wall decorations, reliefs, motifs and colours. This is more easily distinguishable across the palaces of the emirates across Northern Nigeria. Below are some images of the emirates to demonstrate their uniqueness.
Kano Emirate

Zazzau Emirate 

Jigawa/Dutse Emirate 

Bauchi Emirate 

Katsina/Daura Emirate

Yet, we could also wonder if the architecture of an ethnic group would vary from country to country based on other influencing factors. These factors could be the interactions with other ethnic groups and colonial masters or the enhancement of a particular feature to make it unique to a particular country or geographic region. Looking at the Hausa group which cuts across Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Ghana, Cameroun, Chad and Sudan, it is more difficult to set the buildings apart from one another based on country.

However, examining the popular eternal knot symbol associated with the Hausas - the 'Dagin Arewa' or 'Tambarin Arewa' (meaning 'emblem of the north'), which is a star-shaped motif commonly found across buildings, we can see differences in how it appears between regions.

'Dagin Arewa' - Eternal Knot symbol on Hausa building in Nigeria
In Northern Nigeria, as seen in the image on the left, the knot is mostly represented with its points aligned across vertical and horizontal axes. Its intertwining parts are also easily distinguished from one another by the voids present between them. This particular representation of the symbol is largely widespread across Northern Nigerian Hausa buildings with very little variance.

'Dagin Arewa' variation on Hausa building in Niger

On the other hand, the same symbol appears in a different manner in Hausa buildings of Niger where it is not restricted to one style. The intertwining parts are more closely linked with little to no voids in between and the orientation of the symbol's points is also not strictly on the vertical and horizontal axes. This can be seen in the image on the left where the symbol above the building's entrance has been rotated to have its curved edges aligned to the vertical and horizontal axes and the symbols on the side of the building retain the original orientation.

It stands to be seen what other elements vary between the Hausa architecture of different countries as well as the elements that are retained despite these 'virtual' borders. Likewise, a similar enquiry could be done for other ethnic groups in Africa. 

For now, find some more links below to help quench your thirst for knowledge on the Mother Land - Africa:


  1. Wow! Great deal of work done.
    Keep it up Arc. We are inspired.


Post a comment

Disclaimer: Your opinions expressed in this comment section are of yours alone and not of CPDI Africa.

Popular posts from this blog

NOW OPEN: CPDI Africa Heritage Architecture Competition 2021

Introduction: Have you ever imagined what the architecture of Africa would look like today, if the great civilizations of Egypt, Timbuktu, Mali, the Dogon, Zulu, Yoruba, and thousands of other African empires had continued to develop and evolve in their own unique identity? Imagine the transformation of the African landscape into sprawling metropolises filled with architectural masterpieces celebrating new interpretations of traditional design elements, portrayed with all the comfort of modern innovations and technique. The Community Planning & Design Initiative Africa (CPDI Africa) 2021 culture-inspired, research-based design competition aims to promote the development of new architectural languages for the African Diaspora that are culturally and environmentally sustainable. What Africa would you build if given the opportunity to develop African skylines in her own image? Eligibility: The CPDI Africa 2021 competition is open to both students and practitioners of architecture and

NEW COURSES: Global Studio for African Centered Architecture

  The CPDI Africa Global Studio for African Centered Architecture: an Academic Platform for Teaching a New Pedagogy in African Architecture. The CPDI Africa Global Studio for African Centered Architecture provides architects and designers an African centered academic platform for learning technical solutions for problem solving in their communities, while preserving culture and heritage through design.  The global studio is organized by CPDI Africa - the Community Planning and Design Initiative, Africa. Our Global Studio Faculty are leading professors and architects, renowned for their pedagogy in teaching African centered architecture.  Tenured at distinguished universities around the globe, our professors understand architecture is not separate from the lexicon of creative arts, but an integral part of the full human experience. CPDI Africa faculty is interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and represent a diversity of world cultures, languages and heritage. The CPDI Africa Global Stu

ilé ọrọ ̀- Yoruba Resort & Cultural Center: CPDI 2020 internship Design by Adelaja Fawaz

Ilé ọrọ ̀ is a Yoruba translation for “house of wealth” and in other translations “house of riches”. Every time culture is a subject of discussion, we all try to express how rich our individual culture is. The truth is words alone cant express how rich any culture is. Adelaja Fawaz is an African (Yoruba) architectural designer, he preferred to express the riches of his yoruba culture in this design with a statement noticeable from miles away. One that speaks the native language… a cultural landmark that beats the test of time. The ilé ọrọ ̀ resort. Play video below to watch the design Quick Animation. The resort concept is from a cowrie shell and Yoruba divination tray. Cowries were used as currency for centuries in west Africa, it is viewed as a symbol of wealth and well being and are commonly used in jewelry and other decorative pieces. They are also used during divination by casting them down on a divination tray to reach out to the  ancestors. Doing this in this design, Fawaz ide

Elements of Traditional Hausa Architecture

Emir's Palace Kano. Image:  ⓒ Hauwa Mahmoud Hausa architecture, as dictated by culture, is traditionally designed to be inward-looking in order to maximize privacy. Residential architecture is characterized by high walls with openings few and small, large courtyards, and entrance porches meant to welcome but keep out strange male visitors from the inner private quarters. These features usually have the double function of ensuring privacy, which is an important consideration in Hausa architecture. They also aid temperature regulation which is vital in the hot and arid regions of the West African Sahel where the Hausas are predominantly located. Plan and layout of Emir's Palace, Kano    Dmochowski 1990 The layout of a traditional  Hausa residence rarely takes a defined shape. This flexibility allows for expansion as needed as most households tend to be polygamous. However, there are certain features that are consistent in any layout no matter how big or small.

CPDI Africa Global Studio: The Premiere Academy for Teaching African Centered Design & Architecture!

CPDI Africa Global Studio, the Premiere Academy for Teaching a New Pedagogy in African Centered Architecture. Virtual certificate programs. Culturally diverse curriculum. Distinguished professors. Study abroad in Africa. Scholarship programs. Available now: courses in History & Critical Theory, Design Studio, CAD, BIM, Sustainable Design and Design-Build practicals during our summer Study Abroad sessions in Africa. To learn more visit us online, and do inquire about our Scholarship Programs.  CpdiAfrica.Org Global Studio for African Centered Architecture: A CPDI AFRICA INITIATIVE. #AfricanHeritageArchitecture #CPDIAfrica #AfricanArchitecture #CulturalArchitecture #Architecture

The GIDAN - HAUSA RESORT AND CULTURAL CENTER: CPDI 2020 Internship Design by Hauwa Mahmoud

The Hausa Resort and Cultural Center aims to capture the essence of Hausa culture at a glance given the visitor an immersive experience at one location. Drawing inspiration from the layout of a typical Hausa city, and more specifically inspired by the Emir’s Palace in Kano, the resort has been laid out as a mini gated city that captures various activities that highlight Hausa culture and architecture. Play video below to watch the design  Quick Animation. Conceptual Statement The Gidan Hausa Resort and Cultural Center is designed to give the visitor an experience of Hausa culture from the large scale i.e. the city with its robust activities to the small scale of the home with its intimacy and privacy. Play video below to watch the full design Presentation. 15 elements of Hausa architecture incorporated into the design of the resort Illustration of the main entrance  Illustration of a villa entrance View from within a courtyard in a private villa Read also some of Hauwa research wor


CPDI Africa is PROUD to Announce our 2017 African Architecture Competition Winners: Our Geniuses Have Emerged!! We Celebrate architect Aisha Aminu, 1st place with INARA House; architects Olalekan Afolabi and Olalekan Ileola-Gold 2nd place, with The ITAN Complex; and architects Chitani Ndisale, Kouyate Toure and Muhammad Shehata 3rd place, with The EKYANZ House! Congratulations to all of our Honorable Mention Winners, we look forward to Celebrating your Genius with our Upcoming Awards, Exhibitions, Internships, Consultancies and Publications. Thank You CPDI Africa Distinguished Jury Members, Partners, Sponsors, Team Members, as we continue to Celebrate Africa's' Voice in the Global Built Environment! Nmadili Okwumabua, Founder, CPDI Africa!


The language of our Continent is Beautiful and Spiritual. Africa is connected to the realm of Her Ancestors, for the cycle of Life is never broken in the Motherland! On the way to Mastering the architectural language of his culture, the IGBO of Nigeria, Ikechukwu Godspower, better known as 'Zhinche' unearthed the building blocks upon which technology, aesthetics, spirituality, materials and design philosophies were transferred into architecture and community building of the Igbo Nation. His goal was to specialize in speaking the architectural language of his Culture, a skill he intends to Master in his professional journey to becoming a Master in Igbo Modern Vernacular Architecture. Play video below to watch the design Quick Animation. Nnukwu Nmanwu was targeted at restoring the traditions of igboland gradually fading away. The mmanwu were effective in keeping/restoring traditional norms and values in the communities. They are performed only by males in exclusive secret societi