What started as the 15,000 Bottle Caps for Africa concept just a few months ago is now an actual built computer learning center and library thanks to architect Charles Newman and the organization Under The Acacia. The Kenya-based project revolved around Newman’s inclusive approach to design, which made it imperative that he work closely with the local Maasai people and give them ownership over the build. More than an architectural feat decorated with colorful bottle caps laid out by Maasai women according to traditional jewelry patterns, the project also creates social cohesion and introduces technology in a non-intrusive way. Newman explains, “In a community that has historically resisted western influence, allowing them to create something unique to their tribe helps them understand that while computers might be foreign, it is an opportunity to further enrich their own culture.” Read on for Inhabitat’s exclusive interview with this revolutionary architect.
Inhabitat: How did you get involved in development work?
Charles Newman: After working in New York City architectural offices for a few years I began to grow tired not only of the office politics, but also of the fact that I was not reaching my true potential by picking out throw pillows and chandeliers for the wealthy. I was happily laid off in 2008, and started volunteering most of my time with Engineers Without Borders and a few other organizations.
Inhabitat: Were you trained specifically for this kind of work or did you learn as you go?
Charles Newman: No, I was not trained specifically for this work beyond architecture school. However, in the long answer I can point to volunteering with Habitat for Humanity as a youngster, as well as a few weekend workshops on working with under privileged communities. Village Earth stands out as having provided some valuable lessons.
Inhabitat: What’s your connection to Kenya? How did you find Under the Acacia?
Charles Newman: My connection to Kenya grows with every passing day. My first project through Engineers Without Borders brought me to Kenya, and my heart has never left. The genuine hospitality of the people, paired with the unending challenges of life there has helped me settle into a profession that fulfills the feeling of purpose that my time in NYC could never provide.
My connection with Under The Acacia boils down to the cliché “It’s all about who you know.” I met Jess Teutonico through a friend, and within minutes I realized that I had found an organization that was focused on results – lasting results. About a month later, we teamed up to help create a project that was unique in design and would create seemingly limitless opportunities for the Loita community.
Inhabitat: Could you explain the role cell phones and internet connectivity played to help the Community Learning Center project gain momentum?
Charles Newman: The community in Loita Hills only received cell phone access about a year ago. However, Under The Acacia learned that many of the community’s younger generation had well over 1,000 friends on Facebook within months of receiving cell phone access. This embracement of connectivity showed that the community was ready for such a leap to full internet access.
Inhabitat: Did your Facebook and YouTube efforts to raise awareness prove worthwhile?
Charles Newman: Absolutely. I originally put together the Facebook page to help get the word out to friends and family that I needed them to help collect bottle caps. That helped a little – then I made the YouTube video. Soon after, I began receiving caps from people all over the country – we even reached people in Nairobi and some of the young community members in Loita.
Inhabitat: How much will the Community Learning Center cost and how is it being funded?
Charles Newman: Under The Acacia has done an amazing job securing funding for Loita’s projects and its other initiatives within a short time frame. The Greystone Learning Center was made possible by Greystone Aviation. Their single donation of $20,000 provided all funding for labor and materials. For the solar power, computers and related technical aspects, UTA applied for and was awarded a grant from the Internet Society for $12,000. The society’s grant aims to bring internet access to rural communities for the benefit of people worldwide. For the books, Adele’s Literacy Library has committed to raising the funds for reading materials, which is still being estimated and raised.
Inhabitat: What have been some of the greatest challenges in managing a project in a remote environment with a completely different type of infrastructure and culture?
Charles Newman: This different type of infrastructure is no infrastructure. Working in Maasai land is difficult because of the lack of roads, making delivery of materials extremely difficult – often cost prohibitive, and the use of local materials is even more important. Further, with no source of water, construction is largely reliant upon the rains and effective water catchment systems are invaluable. Happily though, this remote location provides beauty that is unmatched by other parts of the world. There’s really nothing like working while a herd of wildebeest graze upon the horizon.
Inhabitat: In terms of design, how do you attempt to fuse indigenous Maasai materials and design with standard building techniques?
Charles Newman: Upon learning of Under The Acacia’s completed projects, I noticed stone being used as the primary building material. Stone is an excellent choice, but stands in contrast to the surrounding manyattas and bomas (homes). In the design of the Learning Center, I strove to blend standard stone construction with a new method of wall construction that modernizes that of boma construction. We had hoped to incorporate cow dung into the design, though with most cows having migrated to greener pastures at the time of construction, our design simplified to a ferrocement method. Most commonly used in the construction of water tanks, the method still resembles the waddle and daub method used in boma construction.
Inhabitat: Please speak a little to the inspiration you draw from Maasai jewelry and how it is evident in your design? What role did Maasai women play in the construction process?
Charles Newman: Maasai jewelry is unique throughout the world, and can be recognized as such because it follows a distinct set of rules. There are primary colors and secondary colors, each color has a symbolic significance, and different pieces of jewelry are worn for different occasions. Here we have a unique cultural art form that if incorporated into the design of the building, could instill the ownership so necessary to the success of such a project.
Being a white man, I realized early on that there was no way I would be able to design in such a language. The only people qualified to do so are the women themselves. Extremely organized and hard working, the women drafted the construction documents through scaled versions of jewelry that they designed specifically for the Learning Center. In the last days of construction, the women worked alongside the team of masons to install almost 50,000 colored bottle caps.
Inhabitat: Sustainable design is a buzzword these days. How would you define the term and where does your project fit into the picture?
Charles Newman: Sustainable design is a buzzword because it is overused. Making a project financially sustainable is extremely important, but explaining a project such as this one as simply “sustainable” falls short of the community’s goals. This project aims to improve quality of life on so many levels that promotion, advancement, and inspiration are much more fitting terms.
Inhabitat: Is there a lot of local input and involvement in the project? What is something unexpected you have learned from the experience so far?
Charles Newman: One of the reasons that it has proven so difficult for organizations to work with the Maasai, is the tribe’s historic resistance to western culture. This has preserved the social structure, the way of life, and their beautiful Maasai aesthetic from dilution. The introduction of education and information, which is so craved by the younger generations, is much more of a delicate matter when considering the historic values of the Maasai people. Working with the community leaders to move the project forward could not have been done without Under The Acacia’s long standing relationship with the village and our respectful, community driven design process.
Inhabitat: What is next for the Loita community? And what is next for you?
Charles Newman: The Learning Center isn’t entirely completed yet. We are working with Voices of Africa For Sustainable Development towards the installation of the electrical equipment, after which there will be a monitoring phase to make sure the programs run smoothly. Under The Acacia has also been working with another community run school in Esoit, so there are still many things on the agenda.
As for me, I have accepted a position in The Democratic Republic of Congo as a reconstruction manager with the International Rescue Committee. I will continue to volunteer from the DRC with various organizations and projects abroad, though I have particularly high hopes for UTA and the Loita community.
You can follow Charles on Twitter @Afritekt.
Images courtesy of Charles Newman