In 2014, a Boko Haram attack on the village of Ngarannam in North East Nigeria decimated the community. In the past, local government has responded to incidents from the militant Islamist terrorist group by applying Band-Aids to deep wounds; people are given poorly constructed housing, leaving them susceptible to future raids, or, as was the case with Ngarannam, sent to refugee camps.
But now, more than eight years after that attack, Ngarannam has just celebrated the ribbon cutting of its brand new village that’s designed with a vision for prosperity. Designed by Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo, it includes a health clinic, a community center, an elementary school with instructor quarters, a police station, a large marketplace, and a system of roadways. (It will also eventually include a a mosque, though Oshinowo won’t be involved with that element.)
Behind the innovative effort is the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Nigeria’s resident representative of the development organization, Mohamed Yahya, who sought something more permanent for the people of Ngarannam—something beautiful and fortified that could empower and sustain them for years to come.
"Normally, government builds homes quickly because they’re thinking about speed and getting people out of refugee camps," Yahya says. "They just build a box and put something on top. But for any nation to develop and overcome challenges, it needs a psychology of progress. It needs to engage creatives to help construct and imagine a better future."
The best person to respond to the needs of a community, and in doing so instill in them a sense of pride, he thought, would be an architect. A social media search brough Yahya to Oshinowo, who heads up her Lagos firm, cmDesign Atelier. "I first saw Tosin’s work on Instagram and was eventually introduced by a friend," he says. "In thinking about cultural awareness, I was attracted to the idea of working with her on this: She’s a woman, she’s Nigerian—I knew she’d use her design skills to bring sensitivity to the rebuilding of her own country."
Oshinowo began her design process by visiting overflowing internally displaced person (IDP) camps, essentially long-term waiting rooms for refugees, where Ngarannam villagers had been living since the 2014 attacks. "I couldn’t believe what I saw," the architect says. "There were five-year-old children who didn’t know any other living condition. There were tents with ants crawling everywhere. It was just very humbling."
Oshinowo also took notes on traditional building types and how people live in the region which, compared to the wealthier, more developed, and predominantly Christian south where she’s from, is largely Islamic and impoverished. "It was important to see what they needed, how they live, the culture of how they cook, and how they use communal areas," she says. "The social interactions of someone who lives in northern Nigeria are very different from the way we interact." In a traditional Islamic home there, for example, there’s a reception room where male visitors are received. "It’s very fundamental and it’s a program that needed to be accommodated," she says.
In designing residences for Ngarannam, Oshinow wanted to create a sense of familiarity for the villagers. The 387-square-foot, two-bed homes feature a mixture of cement and soil for the exterior siding in a shade of pinkish brown. "It’s traditional here, so I thought it important to replicate this for them," she says. In a small departure from the local typology, and perhaps symbolic of a better future, the architect selected a brilliant shade of blue for window shutters and doors that offset the more muted tone of the walls.
Comfort was also critical. The homes that stood previously featured aluminum roofs, which caused heat buildup and didn’t allow for ventilation, a design flaw in a region where daytime temperatures can reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit. "The typical roof here is made from aluminum, which doesn’t allow for any air in or out," Oshinowo points out. "By putting small holes in the front and rear facades beneath a gable roof, we created air flow that makes the space much more livable."
"For any nation to develop and overcome challenges, it needs a psychology of progress. It needs to engage creatives to help construct and imagine a better future."
—Mohamed Yahya, UNDP representative
She similarly wanted to improve the conditions of the marketplaces, which previously consisted of roadside tables with makeshift shade, or no shade at all. "Because it’s so hot, I wanted to create an organized, shaded structure that would give people the opportunity to find a stall and kind of populate themselves," Oshinowo says. "I didn’t want to dictate how they work, but instead draw inspiration from what already existed."
So for the marketplace, and the new pavilion-like community center, Oshinowo designed a colorful triangular roof system in the likeness of a Borno cap. "It’s a beautifully patterned piece of male attire that comes specifically from this region," the architect says. "People learn how to make them at a very early age and you see them across Nigeria and even in parts of West Africa. The patterns are so mathematically technical and they’re all different—they’re like fingerprints because they don’t repeat them. I wanted to use this cultural element in a different context."
Yahya, the UNDP, and Oshinowo hope that the new village, for all its considerations in providing a more resilient home for the people of Ngarannam, will inspire hope and pride that lead to systems of self-reliance. "It’s one thing to give people money, but it’s another to give people a foundation to build for themselves," Oshinowo says. And that foundation, argues Yahya, can combat future acts of terrorism, including Boko Haram’s recruitment efforts in communities like Ngarannam, where people who historically have had very little are enticed by the promise of something better.
A host of countries pitched in to fund the design and build of the new village, including Germany, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands, and the European Union. "They bought into the idea that to defeat terrorist groups, we need to create developments that provide basic services as part of the overall response," Yahya says, pointing out that billions of dollars are spent yearly on IDP camps. "When you compare that with what it costs to give people dignity and self-reliance [by building them better homes], it’s not even close," he says. "I can’t help but think how many villages we could build with a billion dollars."
There are no guarantees that Ngarannam won’t see more attacks, but the police station, security surrounding the perimeter of the village, trenches, and a military checkpoint provide at least a few measures against them. "We also put in more than 1,000 solar-powered streetlights," Yahya says, explaining that should anything be destroyed, they have plans to rebuild quickly. "All people need to do is maintain their home," he says.
The task is sure to be a welcome one after eight years of residing in IDP camps, where villagers heard talk of a new village without any evidence of action. "Eventually, you stop believing because so much time has passed," Oshinowo says. "But when I told them that on-site construction had started, the community applauded. I got in the car with a stone in my throat."
Architect of Record: Tosin Oshinowo / @tosin.oshinowo
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