“ZOMA MUSEUM is a dream inspired 25 years ago by the timeless and structurally sound vernacular architecture of Ethiopia and other parts of the world. It is named after Zoma Shiferraw, a young artist who died of cancer in 1979.”
The museum acts as a bridge between artists and architects from around the world to create cutting-edge ecological art and architecture. In this context, Zoma Museum is built using ancient yet still existing construction techniques. The building materials include mud, straw, stone, wood, and cement.”
I recently had the distinct pleasure of attending the inauguration of the first of many bridges made in collaboration with The Italian Culture Institute and Zoma museum, where I met the Co-founder Meskerem, an anthropologist and curator of art. The bridge was designed by Eugenio Tibaldi, who is responsible for the whimsical design executed by Elmi Olindo Contractors. This bridge symbolizes and celebrates connection with the ones around us and the child in us all. This collaboration named Anthropogenic connections is inspired by the constant but conflictual interaction of the city and nature. The project includes a collection of drawings that are the outcome of Tibaldi’s journey and observation of Addis Ababa. But my first visit to Zoma was a few weeks before that, where I met the ever-so-charming project manager, Benedetta (Bene).
To get to Zoma I had to pass through ‘old Addis Ababa; buildings reminding me of a time I had never known yet somehow assure me of its existence. I took a taxi from Mexico to the direction the map on my phone directed me. When I got to my destination, the first thing I noticed was the gentle slope in the landscape, I felt the land leap forwards, giddying my walking with the rushed clacking sound of my shoes.
“Meskerem and Elias set out to build a place like Zoma initially with the idea of creating a space where they could showcase the beauty and sustainability of traditional vernacular architecture techniques, this is why you see mud constructions, dried stacks of retaining walls, the whole idea was to find a place where, first of all, this knowledge be preserved and passed on since we are rapidly going into new modern design and construction techniques. Secondly, to showcase the concept of conservation yet not just for the sake of conservation but for the sustainable intrinsic properties that these techniques have but are overlooked. Last but not least, The beauty and malleability of these constructions, it was important for Meskerem and Elias to show the artistic values of this method and show that even though, in peoples’ imagination mud constructions could be quite humble, they can be artistic and stunning.” Described Benedetta, the project manager at Zoma Museum.
Before any construction took place, the two founders traveled across Ethiopia conducting an extensive amount of research, trying to understand what works in certain environments and what doesn’t. So essentially, going into Zoma they had a bulk of data backing them up. Eventually what they have done is, they collaborated with workers from all across the country to come here and to use this beautiful technique; the incredible contemporary artist and co-founder Elias Sime had a key role in giving the aesthetic imprint of these buildings, at the same time he has trained the workers to use these artistic techniques in their ventures. How to sculpt the mud, how to mold it, he has taught them everything.
Concerning the garden, it’s certainly hundreds and the garden is extremely varied, there was the conscious decision to focus on edible and medicinal plants. So, Zoma’s garden is supposed to be a garden that feeds people, nourishes them, it’s not just a beautiful rose garden that caters to the eye. The product of the effort is used in the restaurant and eventually sold in the produce market. In my question about their use of agricultural methods, Benedetta answered, “We only use organic agricultural methods, we don’t use any artificial fertilizers or pesticides. We use a former agricultural technique called Companion planting, which means that we plant different crops in proximity for reasons such as, pest control, pollination, providing habitat for beneficial insects, maximizing use of space, and to otherwise increase crop productivity. This mutual collaboration is what is in the heart of Zoma so it reflects our philosophy. For Irrigation we use gravitational irrigation; the decision to keep the natural slope of the land was made to take advantage of that slope for water to sort of trickle-down and filter through the whole compound, and we have different channels that provide sufficient water for the plants with the aid of our gardeners.”
Zoma isn’t just a museum and a garden, it consists of a school containing kindergarten and primary school, with an integrated teaching system method, namely the Montessorie method, inspired by Maria Montessori’s work in scientific pedagogy, which focuses on mixed-age classrooms. This allows the children to learn from one another and experience a peer-to-peer process of learning as opposed to a teacher talking down to them. This method not only allows the younger kids to aspire to the level of the older ones but also teaches the older kids a sense of responsibility. The curriculum also varies from other schools in our linguistic classes; providing Geez, Amharic, and sign language, including gardening and primary cooking classes, and the idea behind this is to engage and stimulate children in their education.
Afterward, I invited myself into the massive garden with my little green notebook, noting every detail that would help me capture or at least summarize the experience of Zoma. The architecture of the buildings expressed the Zeitgeist of Ethiopian design while being set apart with its originality. Although Zoma provided the gesture of tradition and vernacularity, it is also mentioning the hazards of this modern age and the detachment of humanity and nature, because the ambivalence I felt made me question what one needs to enjoy in life, and I found that nature in its NATURE has quite the room to wander in for the questions in hand.
I left with an acute sense of contentment, a sense of leisurely quietude I somehow have felt I’ve earned. I will leave an extract from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: Leaves of Grass to do my dirty work,
A child said What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord, A scented gift and remembrancer designedly drop, Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation. Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic, And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones, Growing among black folks as among white, And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.