Finally you buy the plot of land of your dreams. It is 100 x 75 square feet, somewhere in Lagos or Ibadan – anywhere you happen to be posted at the time. It is a lovely spread, this land of yours. It is a big enough architectural playground for that old friend of yours from your university days, who made his fortune converting Victoria Island residences into banking halls. Yet, you despair. The ink is still wet on the contract, you are standing in the middle of the plot, up to your chest in angry elephant grass, and you despair: where will you find the money to build a dream ‘villa’ which will fit in with the expensive piles of concrete your neighbours are building, up and down the street?
So you start where you can: with the fence. Six months pass and you manage to raise a four-foot-high wall around the plot. You are tempted to raise it higher, but the excitement takes over and you want to get started on the house itself. Your architect schoolmate is a friend indeed and he adapts for you a plan which he originally created for a retiring super permsec. It is complete with car porches and Roman-style entrance columns. Of course you will have a terrazzo finish rather than marble – and you will manage without the swimming pool – but it will do.
So you hire some labourers and sink the well in the front. In two short days they clear away the unruly elephant grass and the ferocious thickets. They chop down five or six trees and cart them away for firewood. This is when you find a small surprise waiting for you at the back of the plot: a small mud house with fat adobe walls and tiny windows! It has probably been there one or two hundred years, and the thatch roof has rotted away. You haven’t seen one of these antiquities in decades! On a whim you tell your labourers not to knock it down, for now. It is there in a corner of the plot anyway. You will probably put a zinc roof on it and store cement bags there till your mansion is finished. It will be an interesting curiosity to show friends: your very own backyard architectural museum. There is also a shade tree in front of the hut with some low-hanging mangoes. You will save the tree as well – till it ripens its fruit later in the season.
You are now ready to build, but this – of course – is the point at which reality hits you. You are just a senior protocol officer after all. It has taken you most of your career to save up for this plot of land. You have no former classmates in the building materials trade, and what you have left in your bank account is only good for a modest bungalow. You are torn by the dilemma: do you accept reality and dig the foundation for the small bungalow you can afford, or do you walk in ‘faith’ and start the imposing three-level-mansion that your children may have to finish, long after you are dead? You have only six years before your retirement, so a mortgage loan is out of the question.
While you vacillate over the decision, you hire a live-in guard and begin to mould sandcrete blocks on your plot. Your guard was a thatcher, back in his village, and he harvests palm fronds and fits a thatch roof on the mud house. This costs him nothing. He sleeps there at night. He digs fresh clay to patch and render the circular walls. This also costs him nothing. You watch him prime the clay by stomping on it for hours. He seals it in with lime. He raises a clay platform for a bed. Heck, he even goes on to acquire an earthenware pot to hold his drinking water! This loving restoration begins to rile you. This is your modern property, not some village house. But you ignore your house-proud guard and install an imposing gate. This costs you an entire month’s salary, by the way. It is five feet higher than the current fence around the property, but it is an eye-turner, and hints at your ambitions for the house to come… yet, you still cannot decide what type of foundation you want to build. For six months, you lose interest in your plot of land.
At this point, fate takes a hand in your affairs. Something happens to justify your sixty years of patience with the shambolic state of affairs in your country. You have always defended the corruption and nepotism in the system, despite its terrible impact on you, because you lived in the hope that someday it might be your turn. That day arrives in a flush: a second cousin of your mother-in-law’s school daughter becomes minister for health, and you get to supply toilet rolls to the local teaching hospital. From the staggering orders you receive, there is clearly a worrying amount of shitting per capita going on at the hospital, but you are the contractor, not the health inspector, and you address your own business diligently. In no time at all you are able to put the marble back into the specifications of your house.
When you return to your plot of land, it is with much more confidence. Your guard had been rearing goats there and the place is full of their black droppings. (You don’t like the irony of a toilet paper contractor being overrun by the faecal matter of goats, so you compulsorily purchase his animals. For some days, the aroma of barbecued goat meat overpowers the smell of goat shit.) The mud house now wears a cap of palm thatch. Your guard has polished the mud walls to a smooth finish. You walk into the adobe hut. There is not a scrap of paint on the walls, yet it does not look ‘unpainted’. You, kind of, like the earthy smell of it, the lime with which the external walls are varnished. You cannot get over how cool the interior is, despite the tiny windows, as you walk in from the blistering heat of your Kano or Enugu day. The fat walls of clay, the thick roof impregnated with dead air pockets, they all drink in the heat, leaving the inside of the adobe as cool as an egg. The last time you felt this snugly comfortable was in the womb. It will be a pity to demolish it when the time comes. Yet, it is clearly too small to shelter the cement and other stores for your mansion, so you crane in a container. You hire a building contractor. Construction begins.
Between your regular job as a senior protocol officer in your ministry and your evening job as toilet paper contractor, you have no time for your house during the week. But you never fail to visit on Sundays, with your friends who have become hooked on your weekly barbecues. You will walk around the empty site, inspecting the work done during the week, then you will retire to the shade of the mango tree at the bottom of the plot. You have set up some chairs there.
Eighteen months pass and thanks to your hard work – and the apparent epidemic of diarrhoea at the teaching hospital – your dream house is complete. Look at me! Look at me! cries your house, and everybody does. It occupies most of the plot now, an imposing, muscular building – concrete window arches, aggressive jutting balconies, and a very red, long-span aluminium roof. You can see the top twelve inches of the twenty-foot-high Greco-Roman columns of the grand portico from halfway down the street. Of course it looks like a jail-house, what with three-metre-high walls and the no-nonsense burglary proofing that ruins the views from every window. But it is an impressive jail-house, and you prefer ‘safe’ to ‘pretty’. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with all the other expensive piles on the street – nobody can mistake this for a house built from a salary. Although your children have all left home, you have fifteen en-suite bedrooms. The windows are large, aluminium and tinted; but because they are sliding windows, they will only open halfway. The house is as hot as an electric oven in the day and airless and humid at night, but you have installed air conditioners and air monitors even in your toilets and there is a generator in the backyard to cope with the regular power failures. (You have supplied enough toilet paper to keep yourself in diesel, well into retirement.)
The air conditioners work hard: the height of your fence, and the three feet between your house and the wall, means that there is precious little by way of breezes.
Your friends still come, although you now spend your Sunday evenings in the cosseted lounges of your new mansion, where you drink your beers and eat your takeaway suya while you soak in hour after hour of satellite television. There is little conversation, but when you talk it is often to reminisce about the ‘good old days’ under the mango tree. You know that this is ordinary nostalgia, another manifestation of the deceptive ‘Old-is-Best’ syndrome. Yet, as you return this evening to the rumbling hubbub of dozens of generators and air conditioners up and down the street, as you drive in and your guard locks you into your fortified dream house, as you try to decide where – as between the ground floor, first floor or penthouse lounges – to unwind with a beer, you have a sneaky feeling that in truth, those evenings with friends in front of the mud house at the bottom of your house were probably the best days of your life. You recognise that this is both silly and illogical, but it is difficult to argue with a feeling.
You reach for the beer and remember your doctor’s frightening warning. So it is the mango juice you take from your bedroom fridge as you walk out onto the rear balcony. A small breeze stirs the leaves of the mango tree. You hear it, but it is too wispy to ease the clamminess of the collar that sticks to your neck. Despite the airlessness, you will like to stay on this balcony, but over your generator, you are assaulted by the chorus of six or seven other monstrous generators that will run through the night. Generator sizes are indexed to the prestige of their owners and though you are a Big Boy now, you recognise that you are a newcomer to the league. The loudest generator belongs to your neighbour four houses away, who works for the Power Holding Company of Nigeria. You will have to seal yourself into your grand mansion to escape from this mad racket. As you turn to go in, you can just make out the thatch roof of the mud house. It is all brown now, the thatch. You cannot see your guard, but even over the generators, you can hear his uncouth laughter from under the mango tree. You feel a sudden – and very strange – stab of envy. You wonder why this is so. You still don’t know how to swim, but you decide to dig that swimming pool in the backyard all the same. The blasted mud house will have to go.