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The first principle of building in the context of a resource-constrained country such as Ethiopia is to accept the reality of resource-constraints – including raw material, tools, infrastructure, power, and even shared language – and to understand what advantage it confers. Perhaps this is an obvious observation, but I have noticed that this is one of the greatest failed opportunities of Western support mentalities in Ethiopia.
For a little context, imagine some of these everyday scenes from the street. Some minor acts of resourcefulness seem to make sense to the foreigner, whereas others leave one wondering – how could such an absurd thing come to pass?
Photo by C. Lippuner
When we paint the picture a little more vividly on the construction site, however, one begins to understand the story that accompanies each creative solution to resource constraint:
One of the few power tools absolutely integral to this construction is a 2000 BIRR hand grinder, used to cut all of the edge and arch-closing bricks for the vault structure. In the event of the [generally daily] loss of power, the crew must improvise to cut as much as possible during the window of power, without burning out the motor from over-use. When the grinder is broken, it is necessary to fix it, a tradition of informal hand-craft ubiquitous to Ethiopia – a knack for fixing things is a useful and common skill no doubt developed through use.
Nevertheless, whether is it power loss or tool failure, the most reliable improvisation becomes the hand-tool – oddly at times even more efficient than the power tool. These simple acts of ingenuity typically seem ludicrous to the outsider, where in Ethiopia they are integrated into the fabric of creative subsistence.
In fact, tools are all too often broken – typically by overuse or simply by virtue of environmental conditions. The repair, modification, or simply invention of a tool constitutes what I fondly call the MacGuyver Methodology, a state in which a creative manipulation of limited resources becomes the only skill towards manifesting or materializing a goal. Thus, the most robust tools are often the least technological extensions of the body: simple hand tools, a string tied to a shovel to reduce labor – even the body itself becomes employed for problem-solving. The Ethiopian proverb, “Yala bala bet-u, eine dim-a satu” (“The tool is best used in the hands of its owner”), expresses at once this relation of tool and body, and perhaps also the impulse to protect one’s own limited resources.
Zegeye Cherenet has noted that the constraints within Ethiopian culture have allowed Ethiopians to boast a very uncommon skill: “I know how to use little. I know how to not consume.” It is this informal improvisation – a culturally embedded outcome from lack – which Ethiopians do best; and it is this skill which should be understood as a means for achieving a truly local, economically and environmentally sustainable praxis in Ethiopia. Rather than understand this skill merely as an abstract philosophy, however, we will attempt to understand how it may be harnessed as a design methodology.
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