Mabati iron sheets


Mabati (Swahili, plural)
Corrugated iron sheets (English)

***** Location: Kenya
***** Season: Various, see below
***** Category: Humanity


The Swahili word "mabati" is one which every newcomer to Kenya learns within the first few days, as mabati are everywhere. They are the walls and roofs of houses, they are fencing, they are easily demolished, carried, and re-erected elsewhere. Even slum dwellers have mabati, which they may buy sheet by sheet, in order to build or extend their homes, to surround themselves with a protective wall, or to subdivide the interior of a house. Mabati are easy to erect (you just need some building timbers and suitable nails), and if they are used for housing, they keep off the rain, but magnify the heat or the cold -- and if the owner of the iron sheets moves, the mabati move along too.

Mabati fence

In the rural areas, they are fast replacing what remains of the traditional thatch. They have the advantage of being more easily available nowadays than the thatching grasses are, and they are clean enough to provide run-off drinking water, filling buckets, basins and tanks during the rains.
On the other hand, they have the disadvantage of poor heat insulation. City dwellers who stay in traditionally thatched houses for the first time, usually comment with pleasure about the very comfortable temperatures and the softer noise levels generated by the thatch.

The din of the mabati during heavy rains must be heard to be believed. During the hot dry season, on the other hand, they often emit tiny crackling sounds as they expand in the heat.

Video of mabati under pouring rain

Kenyans often use the English "iron sheet" as a translation of mabati -- this is not correct, as only corrugated iron sheets are normally mabati. Newcomers to Kenya usually switch to the Swahili word with great ease, as mabati are such an intrinsic part of modern day Kenya, whether urban or rural.

Mabati are usually left metallic and unpainted. Nowadays, painted mabati are also available in an array of colours, and they may be bent too, so as to form the roofs of bus shelters (e.g. the Country Bus Station in Nairobi) or markets (e.g. Muthurwa Market in Nairobi), where they project good modern design.

Old and new mabati used to build a slum house

~ Text and photos : Isabelle Prondzynski


The most common use of mabati is to construct housing in informal or slum areas. Mabati do not as such have any seasonality, but they provide a number of kigo for the dry and rainy seasons.

During the two rainy seasons, they rust and turn brown. Therefore, mabati rusting can be a rainy season kigo. Most importantly of all, mabati roofing is very useful during the rainy seasons for harvesting rainwater for domestic use.

During the hot dry season, the heat shimmers from the mabati roofs; this shimmering is quite visible, although it does not have any direct use or application to humans and animals. What I know is that the shimmering roofs are used to dry cereals such as maize, millet, etc, etc.

What I like most about mabati is that during the cold dry season dew collects on them and drips. This can be harnessed as water for domestic use in places where water is scarce, such as Ukambani.

~ Patrick Wafula

Worldwide use

Things found on the way


sunrise --
light through the mabati
wakes me up

sleepless night --
water drops from the old
iron sheets

~Isaac Ndirangu


windy August night --
wet shoes on the mabati
roof rumble

World Cup --
they drum the mabati walls
celebrating Ghana

mabati roof...
gently pattering drizzle
in the blossoming dawn

sunny days --
the blue iron sheet's paint
peeling off

iron sheet roof --
the sound of raindrops
swallows our voices

~ Caleb Mutua


mabati sheets
play a lullaby rhythm --
soft rain

~ Elung'ata Barrack

A church built and roofed with mabati


evening downpour --
a row of basins below
the rusty iron sheets

~ Hussein Haji

cracking iron sheets
interrupt my study --
I take another shower

~ Anthony Njoroge

sunny afternoon --
iron sheets shine exposing
sun rays

~ Vivian Adhiambo

windy morning --
a noisy iron sheet swings
to the beat

~ Scholastica

leaking raindrops
from a rusty iron sheet --
rainy season

~ mwasia

from iron-sheet roofs --
sunny afternoon

~ Benard Nyerere

jua kali artisan
modelling an iron sheet --
a young jiko

~ Martin Kamau

early morning
rain drops fall heavily on
the iron sheets

~ Kelvin Mukoselo


cold drizzle
on our mabati roof --
grey morning

April rain --
the spattering on the
mabati roof

~ Patrick Wafula


first sun-
the cracking sound
of mabati

Otinga Andrew
January 2012


a bird shelters
under the iron sheet -
scorching sun

Jesca Auma
February 2012

Related words



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