Being an architect in Africa is not easy. And being a woman architect in a mainly Muslim country like Niger makes it even harder. But Mariam Kamara fought against all odds to pursue her dream: «To give the people of Niger a sense of identity and pride through architecture». And now, as winner of the Mentor and Protegé Rolex prize, she will work with David Adjaye for two years. This is her story
«I’ve always dreamed of being an architect», says Mariam Kamara. It sounds like an obvious sentence. But, when one hears the story of the 38 years old architect from Niger, who won the Mentor and Protegé Rolex Award 2018, it appears clear that it definitely isn’t.
Because it is neither easy nor obvious, when you come from Niger, to pursue a desire like the one she expressed as a young girl. «To improve the places where my people live by revisiting our history, and accompanying our lifestyle, without mimicking the western one».
It is by virtue of this decision that David Adjaye has selected Mariam Kamara (who already has a studio well established in Niger, Atelier Masomi), as architecture winner of the Rolex award. Thanks to which the two will not work together for two years, on a jointly developed project.
Together, Mariam Kamara and David Adjaye will take care of the design of a cultural public space in Niamey, the capital of Niger. «There’s no real talk about architecture in Africa, but she’s trying to do it», Adjaye said at the Venice Biennale awards ceremony. And Kamara confirms.
«Architecture is politics and identity»
«On the continent, studios are scarce, the profession is not considered seriously. People do not understand that says Kamara, «because architecture is politics and identity». What does this mean? «The inferiority complex of Africans towards the West has been translated into homes made of materials that are very expensive for us. Because they do not take into account the climatic problems (with tragic consequences in terms of energy consumption). Nobody considers the fact that Niger people, traditionally, live, cook and find themselves outdoors. And they need flexible homes, where hospitality and privacy must cohabit».
Studying architecture in Africa is considered a waste of time
Kamara comes from a privileged family of univerity educated. But her parents’ opposition to her studying architecture was firm. «My father was the youngest manager of uranium mining facilities in Niger. As a boy, the people of his village raised funds to make him study in St Etienne, at the Ecole des Mines. My mother is an engineer, aunts and uncles are all doctors. «When I explained that I wanted to become an architect, they were hesitant because there was no clear path to success, which was true at the time. And from those who study abroad, it is expected that upon returning home they will be able to contribute to the development of the country».
«To the Africans who dream of being architects I say: do not give up. You will be the game changers»
Thus Kamara goes to study in the US but not architecture. She becomes a Software Engineer. But a degree course and a seven years long career in startups and big companies didn’t killed her dream. «I knew that I could help my people much more as an architect than as an engineer and I was determined to try it. So, at the age of 30, I dropped everything and enrolled at the University of Washi and then at the University of New York for the Master’s».
«I wanted to work in Niger, for Niger people»
When she graduated, at almost 34, she immediately opened her own studio. «It made no sense to mess with a big company when my job was to work in Niger and Niger. I have always remained faithful to my line. Building houses by designing them tailored to the climatic, economic and social conditions of the Nigeriens. Using local materials, at low cost. Taking advantage of the natural qualities of eliminating heat. And designing these homes to respond to people’s real lifestyles». Nobody, however, believed in Kamara’s dream. And so she put all she had on the table.
«I took a risk and it was worth it»
Her parents had given her plot of land when she had graduated many years before. And Kamara decided to offer it free of charge to construction companies provided they built a social housing complex she had designed following her architecture philosophy. Which was an alternative to the western one. The project was called Niamey 2000.
«Along with the free availability of the land, increasing density in the building helped me convince investors», says Mariam Kamara. «I explained to them that the gain would have been assured: on a land where 2 houses were usually built, they would get 6». It sounds like condo speculation but nothing could be further away from the truth…
A design that stems from local history
«I studied the architectural history of Niger in depth», says Mariam Kamara. «Two-storey houses were the norm before colonization. It was the Westerners who made us believe that the quality of life could only be expressed in stand alone houses».
The complex that Kamara has built with fellow architects from the united4design collective is made of compact dwellings on two levels, connected to each other by common areas sheltered from the sun. There are outdoor terraced kitchens and “living rooms”. «When I was young, sleeping under the stars was the norm and now it has become impossible in cities», she recalls. And, inside, small rooms for guests that are a corollary to the shared environments. The material used – which has become the signature of Mariam Kamara – is the bricks in the local land with a small addition of cement. «They are perfect for retaining the cool and repelling heat and at very low cost».
From homes to urban shelters
The success of the housing complex gave Kamara the notoriety and courage to try projects on public land. «Sometimes I have the opportunity of focusing on gender equality in the social context, which is often denied in Niger. It’s ok for a man to sit outdoors with friends, for example, but not for women. So I created shelters covered along some paths that the girls travel – to go to the library, the market, to shops. Public meeting points, with free access, located near existing facilities, where they can feel comfortable sitting and talking. In some of these environments, women can also place their small craft workshops. The City of Niamey has expressed a keen interest in the idea and two of the paths have become reality. Hopefully others will follow».
An award that Africa needs
The Rolex Mentor and Protegé award to Mariam Kamara will undoubtedly have an impact on the Niger architect’s career. «But, I hope, even on African architecture in general. The continent desperately needs to redesign its cities. It is a journey that began thanks to the success of colleagues like Francis Kéré and David Adjaye. A journet to which I am now honored to contribute. As a woman and, above all, as an architect».