The Kunuku Homes of Curacao
We’ve always been collectors. However, as long-term travelers we carry all our possessions with us and our collections are now confined to friends and experiences, memories and digital pictures. And what fun we have as we find the things that make each place we visit unique. On Curacao, we’ve explored many roads around the island and we’ve noticed simple homes with slanted sides scattered about the countryside. As we’ve hopped out of the car for a better look and perchance a photograph we’ve occasionally been met by the family dog, for the most part in good humor, or occasionally by the proprietor perhaps curious as to the workings of the foreign mind. And we’ve been counting, notating and reading about these houses as collectors are wont to do.
To our great delight we saw that one of these structures, called Kunuku houses, has been lovingly restored and is now a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Kas di Pal’i Maishi (Sorghum Stalk House) has been turned into a small museum dedicated to educating people about the lives of the slaves following their emancipation on July 1, 1863 and the homes in which they dwelt. During our tour of the grounds and house our guide was extremely patient and answered all of our questions as we struggled to assimilate this intriguing information.
Prior to gaining their freedom the slaves lived in makeshift shelters on the land near the plantation manors using native materials for their crude dwellings. Posts, poles and stalks provided the walls while a hipped roof covered with thatch provided protection from the scorching sun and torrential downpours during the rainy season. After the abolition of slavery some of the 7,000 people previously held in bondage were given plots of land upon which they could build a permanent home and raise a few staple crops. For many of the former slaves, emancipation was just a word; a sharecropper system soon developed which tied them to the land and left them indebted to their previous owners. However, from these private holdings grew the Kunuku homes, some of which survive and are still in use throughout the island.
The permanent homes retained the same basic style as the improvised shelters. They were symmetrically rectangular with a centered doorway, a style recalling dwellings in West Africa from which many of the slaves had been abducted. Windows on each side and the high hipped roof took advantage of the frequent island winds to cool the home. The measurements were not exact but homes commonly would provide roughly 500 square feet of living space. The daub and wattle walls were tapered on the outside to provide greater stability. The interior of the walls were filled with compacted rubble and covered with a plaster made of clay, crushed coral rock and aloe vera which gave it a whitened and durable finish. The dirt floors were treated with a mixture of cow dung and clay which, over time, developed a reliably sealed surface. The peaked roof with rafters and supports provided a stable platform for the thatched roof composed of five layers of sorghum leaves.
The cooking was performed in a separate small building to reduce the chance of fire and the homes were divided into two rooms. The larger room was used by all the family for their daily gatherings, meals and, at night, by the children. The parents slept in the much smaller room which many times contained a bed with sloping sides and a patchwork quilt.
Outside might be an open aired privy screened by a cactus hedge and the house could also be surrounded by a pillar cactus fence of two to three rows to keep out roaming animals and define the property boundaries.
Many of the Kunuku homes still in existence are occupied although, of course, in the 21st century the floors are tiled or finished concrete and modern amenities have been installed. The roofs, while still steeply pitched, are no longer made of hand-hewn logs with covered thatch but are corrugated metal or synthetic roof tiles. Some of the dwellings have additions or have been joined together but the original tapered walls and distinct symmetrical shape remains.
Here and there throughout the countryside are crumbling ruins and abandoned or damaged houses and these allowed us to view the interior of the walls showing the compacted rubble that lent strength to these structures.The history of Curacao is not solely in the Dutch architecture of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or its centuries old, imposing plantation houses. The simple and time-tested Kunuku homes with traces of their African roots have also been recognized, reclaimed and preserved as part of the rich heritage of the island and give an additional depth of character to the people who live here.