The practice has been involved in realising the Equiano Centre for several years. The project is named after Olaudah Equiano, who was a key figure in the abolition of the slave trade. The client is a charity called CODEP (Construction and Development Partnership) and the aim is to develop literacy centres all over Africa.
Through our work on the project and regular visits to Waterloo, Sierra Leone, we have developed a very close relationship with the charity and the local community. The first time I went out to Sierra Leone was a real eye opener. I soon realised that the architecture would have a role in making a huge, positive difference to people’s lives and provide new facilities and opportunities for the locals.
Sierra Leone faces major issues such as poverty, malnutrition and high levels of unemployment, but mainly a lack of opportunity. There is a very low level of literacy in Sierra Leone and it is estimated that just 36.3% of the population are able to read.
This is broken down into:
1. Functional literacy for men – 50.7%
2. Functional literacy for women – 22.6%
The impact of this statistic is huge: at a basic level it can affect communication, in a wider sense it can restrict people’s ability to engage with and take advantage of the opportunities presented by the outside world. The focus of the Equiano Centre is to help increase literacy and knowledge in the wider community and to help our global society.
Once we began to meet and talk to the local community and hold workshops, we realised the importance of openness and accessibility in any architectural proposal. The design of the centre aims to be open, warm and friendly, with no barriers to access. It is community-focused, with spaces that will draw people in to use the centre in a relaxed way. The centre is owned by the community, so the design tries to reinforce a sense of ownership.
The concept for the centre, which evolved through research, is ‘a journey to literacy’ that leads to the precious jewel box of knowledge. The four steps to literacy are expressed within a village-like campus, which is made up of small-scale buildings, outdoor spaces, reading areas, as well as venues to show films and hold book readings. The buildings are constructed from local timber, metal roofs and bricks.
As part of the contract, we also made sure that 10% of the labour was locally sourced and that training programmes were undertaken during the build. The buildings function as active tools for teaching and learning about sustainability, with rainwater collectors, solar power and natural ventilation.
• Step one on the journey is the community room. This provides social activities, access to teachers and a friendly, accessible introduction to books and reading.
• Step two is the adult and children’s literacy workshop. This is where people come and take classes, or just sit at the back and listen. It also allows for families to learn together.
• Step three is the quiet reading and study area, where further individual learning can take place.
• Step four is the ICT suite. This is the final part of the journey to literacy, where access to the internet and higher education is made possible.