A Masai homestead near the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania.  The grass hut is perfect for the climate.

By Terry Wieland


A Good Night’s Sleep

Grass, mud, and (ugh!) corrugated iron


Fifty years ago, I found myself in the southern Sudan, in a small camp of Anyanya — the guerrillas who’d been battling Khartoum since the country’s independence in 1956.  The camp was sparse:  A dozen grass huts, a fire pit with some benches, and a communal table with more benches.


A friend and I had crossed illegally from Uganda after an odyssey, mostly on foot, that took us from the fleshpots of Kampala, to a refugee camp near the Mountains of the Moon, and then north across the Albert Nile to the tiny village of Lefori, west of Moyo.  We carried with us a letter of introduction — a piece of notepaper with a few lines in splotchy ink — from one of the Bari tribesmen we met in the refugee camp, to an uncle or cousin or friend or something who lived in Lefori.


The note asked him to get us across the border so we could meet with the Anyanya, and I could gather information for a newspaper article.  It would help the cause.


We were treated very well, very politely, although my camera was immediately confiscated.  They put us up in a grass hut with two beds, also made of grass, one on each side of a pile of ashes where, obviously, a fire was built.  It all began to make sense when, as the sun set, the temperature plunged.  At 4,000 feet up (1220 metres), the plateau reached 90 F. (32 C.) during the day, but dropped to the 40s (5 C.) at night.  As the communal fire burned low, the women who formed the camp staff took pails of coals into each of the grass huts, then dragged in some logs and set their ends on the coals, along with smaller branches.


I watched this with considerable trepidation, since in my experience nothing burns much better than dry grass, and the beds, walls, and roof were like tinder.  We retired to our beds, which were shaped much like a gondola made of grass sheaves, tied together.  The small branches caught and the flames leapt four feet in the air.  Lying there, looking up at the roof in the dancing firelight, I saw some house lizards who’d gathered to enjoy the warmth.  If they weren’t worried, why should I be?


We lived in that hut for the better part of two weeks, by which time we were so used to sleeping in a fire trap that we woke up in the night, groggily dragged the logs deeper into the flames, and went back to sleep without thinking.  The hut was reasonably cozy at night, comfortably cool if you wanted to lie down during the heat of the day, pleasantly bright from the sunlight filtering through, and altogether absolutely ideal for the climate.


This was a stark contrast to the European-style shed we’d lived in during our stay at the refugee camp at Ibuga.  It was the standard stucco-ed concrete with a tin roof, two iron bedsteads with bare springs, and a solid wooden door and shutters for the two windows.  Either it was open to the elements — not wonderful there under the Ruwenzoris, where it rained every day promptly at three, and the deluge routinely carried off mangos and pawpaws if the vendors in the market did not get them up off the floor in time.  So regular was the rain, there was an alarm that sounded at five minutes to three, to warn people.  It could go from clear sky to black clouds to pouring rain in minutes.


At any rate, our hut at Ibuga was less than comfortable — cold at night, hot during the day, and either pitch-black or soaking wet in the rainy afternoon.


I think of those times whenever I talk with a missionary or aid-agency do-gooder intent on moving, for example, the Masai out of their customary mud-walled huts.  I have also slept in a mud hut, and found it only slightly less delightful than my grass hut in the Sudan.  And the Masai huts that I have been invited to enter — a great honor by the way — have put most suburban American dwellings to shame for being neat and meticulously kept.  They have even included intriguing features like shelves around a pole, like a spiral staircase, made of a central pole and twigs to hold the mud together.  The mud is then smoothed to an almost wax-like polish.


Hence, I have trouble keeping my temper when the do-gooders refer to “squalor” in traditional African dwellings.  Granted, I‘ve seen some African townships outside the big cities, like Johannesburg or Nairobi, that were not everything a housing activist might desire, but that doesn’t mean they are all dreadful slums.


In 1992, I spent a couple of nights in a low-rent neighborhood on the edge of Francistown, in Botswana, in company with my Tswana professional hunter who parked me there while he visited one of the nine mistresses he kept stashed away around the country.  The building I was in was constructed on the pattern of European houses, but the windows were all gone — just gaping holes in the plaster — and we dragged a table across the door to keep the wildlife at bay.  A water tap on a pipe sticking up from the ground, two or three houses down, constituted the amenities.


In those days, I was known to take a drink now and then, and a bottle of Irish whiskey kept me company through the night.  When Patrick finally returned, looking rather haggard, around mid-morning, some new friends and I were passing the bottle and discussing world affairs.  I realized then that I could learn to live this way and be quite comfortable.


In fact, on reflection, all the memorably uncomfortable nights and days I’ve spent in Africa have been in conventional European houses, not in mud huts, grass huts, tents, lean-tos, or a sleeping bag under the stars.  Wait a minute:  The exceptions to that (it happened twice) involved a leaky tent on a mountainside in the rain with no bedding whatever, and the prospect of hunting Cape buffalo in the morning.  And if ever one needed a good night’s sleep…


But those were the exception.  In a past column, I wrote about tents and tented safaris in Africa, so I won’t repeat it here except to say that I’ve noticed a progression of ever-increasing discomfort as one moves farther and farther away from living the way our cave-dwelling ancestors did.


By “discomfort,” I don’t mean I would like to do without indoor toilets and running water, only that there is a psychological discomfort that comes from feeling closed in.


On various occasions, I’ve slept under the stars in Africa — in the Rift Valley, the Okavango, the Kalahari — and always found that when I moved back inside, even something as flimsy and open as a tent, it felt claustrophic and unnatural.  Of course, you quickly get used to it again, but it shows just what an unnatural way of life it is.


The same thing happens with socks.  I long ago abandoned long pants, socks, and boots in favour of shorts and bare feet in moccasins.  After a couple of weeks of that, putting socks on again for the trip home feels very confining.


At various times in my life, when I’ve had the privilege of living like a millionaire even though I’m not, I’ve stayed in some extraordinarily luxurious accommodation, including the Plaza Hotel in New York, and the old Piccadilly Hotel (circa 1906) in London.  The Norfolk in Nairobi’s no slouch, either.


While I have pleasant memories of those times, they don’t begin to compare with the nights I spent, looking up at the velvet sky above the Kalahari with the stars pressing close and getting bigger and closer the longer I looked at them.


Granted, such accommodation is not the best when the rains come, but for that I will happily take a grass hut like we had in the Sudan, lying by the fire on my bed of grass sheaves, and sipping hot water mixed, with scorched cane sugar, that we drank in place of tea.  A volume of Hemingway — any volume, but preferably A Moveable Feast — and what else do you need?


My favorite memory of sleeping under the stars, or in a grass hut, or a wide-open tent?  Feeling the breeze in the night.  Of this simple ancient pleasure has modern life and air conditioning deprived us.  It’s a memory to bring back from a safari that’s worth every bit as much as the finest set of horns.