Namikango Mission

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Brick-making in Malawi

Oct 7, 2014

by B Shelburne

I will describe our first experience with brickmaking in Malawi. We arrived at Namikango knowing nothing at all on the subject. We needed to build a block of offices on the Mission and we hired a local crew who was led by an experienced Malawian brick-maker in our area. We told him we would need 35,000 bricks and we contracted with him for the job.

The termites in Malawi build tall anthills, 10 or 15 feet high. The clay from an anthill is the best soil there is for making bricks. It has been digested and deposited by millions of busy termites. The brick-maker selected an ant hill near the Namikango Stream so water for mixing clay would be close by. “Namikango” means “Place of Lions” but the lions were gone before our time there. The brick-maker brought a number of men who began cutting trees for firewood in the area where the brick would be made.

After firewood had been stacked and allowed to dry for a while, the day came to begin work. The brick-maker had a hole dug two feet wide and waist deep in the ground. They took a two-foot section of a tree trunk, and placed it in the hole. This made a work table for the brick-maker on which to do the molding.

Some of the crew with African style hoes began to dig up the clay of the anthill and carry it to the hole. Women carried buckets of water which they poured into the hole. Men trampled the clay by foot until it mixed with the water and reached the right consistency. The brick-maker laid a wooden mold on the flat tree surface, plopped a wad of clay into it, then scraped across the top of the mold with a straight stick to remove excess clay. Several children waited in turn to snatch up the clay-filled mold and take it to a cleared area and empty the moist brick out onto the drying area, then head back to the brick-maker with the empty mold and another trip. The newly molded bricks would lie in rows to dry in the sun. It was amazing how efficiently the water carriers, clay carriers, brick carriers, and the brick-maker worked together. They kept a rhythm by singing a brick making song as they worked.

It took several days to mold all the brick and several more days for the bricks to dry into adobe out in the sun. Obviously brick making had to be done in the dryer season of the year. Once the brick was dry enough, the next task was to stack the sun-dried adobe-brick into the shape of a kiln with long parallel tunnels where fire would later be kindled. When all the adobe brick was stacked onto the kiln, the workers plastered the outside and top of the kiln with mud to keep the heat in. They then placed a layer of dry elephant grass on the flat top of the kiln. They told us when the pile of brick was hot enough for the grass to catch fire, the brick would be “done”.

The long tunnels under the kiln were stacked full of firewood and the wood was set ablaze. Once the fire was going well, some of the workers stayed at the site 24 hours a day continuously feeding the fires with more wood. Someone advised us that we would need to check on the workers during the night to make sure they were awake and feeding the fire. Should the fire go out prematurely the bricks would be ruined. So Ruth and I set an alarm at 2am, took a kerosene lamp for light and walked the quarter mile path from our house to the brick site in order to rouse the workers as needed. The nights were very dark, the lantern lighted only a small circle, plus, we were new to Africa, so, this was a bit of an adventure.

It took a solid week of feeding the fire for the heat to make it all the way to the top layer of bricks and set the elephant grass to burning. It took another week for the kiln to cool down enough for us to handle the bricks and move them to the construction site.

This is a very efficient and economical way for people in a third-world country to have high quality bricks for home building. We used cement mortar for sturdy construction of our offices, but sadly, many of the local people cannot afford cement so they use mud to hold these beautiful brick together, and after several rainy seasons the walls can collapse.

Painting by Sidney Vaughn – “Brick Making in Malawi”