The Pride & Pitfalls of Building my own Home

THE PRIDE AND PITFALLS OF BUILDING MY OWN HOME By sarah wairimu a.k.a. Margaretta wa Gacheru It was a total fluke that got me going on building a house in Nairobi. The idea had vaguely been in my mind since, as a single mom, I was concerned that my son Mike (who was studying overseas) didn’t have a proper home of his own to return to. His dad, my ex didn’t have a permanent home in Nairobi either, so that when Mike came back to Kenya while I was studying in the States, he had to camp out with distant relations which was inconvenient all around, so I vowed it would never happen again. Shortly thereafter, one of my more enlightened family members passed on and saw fit to leave me a few pennies which came in handy when I went to visit friends who were in the midst of a land transaction that had just broken down. The prospective buyer cancelled his bid to buy, so I threw in mine. My friends thought I was joking but I was for real. Thus, shortly thereafter, I had paid in full and had a title deed naming me and my son co-owners of what would soon be choice property. The Chinese would build a major highway not far from my half acre of land increasing its value exponentially. Now came the hard part. I felt proud to now own land, but how to proceed? I’d never built a house before and didn’t know who to ask. I had heard horror stories of con-men who called themselves ‘contractors’ and architects, but who were really specialists in swindling and/or overcharging on everything from architectural blueprints and licenses to building materials and labor costs. Some charged by the hour and dragged out the construction work by months or years. And many only came along to grab people’s title deeds and then disappear leaving the former owner a squatter on his or her own land. I met with several so-called contractors who I frankly made me nervous just listening to their gamey talk. I realized the one quality in a contractor that meant more to me than any other was trust. Who could I trust? Fortunately, one close friend lent me his blueprint but it was far too grandiose for me. I wanted something simple but sturdy, so when another friend suggested I could get a free floor plan from Eco-Homes, an NGO specializing in putting up cheap pre-fabricated houses, I agreed to go for it. Now armed with a basic design, I told my in-laws about my plan to build a house for my son. They were delighted but said that a pre-fab design was totally inappropriate for the area where I planned to build. Stone mansions had been constructed in the neighborhood between the year that I bought the land and the time I was now planning to put up a place of my own. They claimed I had to build something comparable. I was in a dilemma. The only way I could possibly proceed was to build piecemeal on a shoestring budget. The inheritance was practically gone so I’d be dependent on my earnings which were jua kali minimal. Then something of a miracle took place: an in-law, husband to my sister-in-law informed me he was a contractor and happy to help. I had known him in another line of work, but I always had seen him as a resourceful ‘renaissance man’, a man of many parts and someone I felt I could trust impeccably. But before we could proceed, my son mike had to come home and offer whatever adjustments of the eco-homes floor plan that he wished. Little did I know that he and my brother-in-law James were both keen to construct maybe not a mansion per se, but a five bedroom house, with a monumental master bedroom, kitchen and sitting room as well as a veranda-patio large enough to host a crowd and still have space for grilling nyama choma. They collaborated and as I never dreamed of living in a mansion, I trusted both gentlemen to do the right thing. So I agreed for James to proceed, especially as my son promised to chip in on the costs of construction. I only realized what they had planned after James had done the complicated footwork of obtaining all the licenses and paid all the City Council fees (with funds from me naturally). Then came his first call for cash to put down the foundation of the house, which required lots of sand and cement and labor power which James assembled easily. The shock of seeing the size of my house’s foundation was breathtaking. James clearly knew what he was doing but I was just beginning to see how monumental the project was. With the first funds my son and I handed over to him, he had not just laid the foundation. He had also build a small mabati house for storing building materials. He had even built a small askari hut at the front gate to keep an eye out for prospective thieves. It would take several months before I could contemplate the next step in construction, but James was patient and understood I was working with a shoestring budget. After each phase was done, he would give me a breather and then tell me how much he required for the next installment in construction. Before I would fork over more cash, I went with him to inspect how far the house had progressed. Invariably, I was duly impressed. Awed actually! I would then take a slew of photos and send them to my son overseas, hoping to add incentive to his sending his mom a few more ‘harambee’ contributions. After erecting the basic structure with wooden beams, James asked me what materials would I like the house to be built with. We both agreed on stone bricks, although I knew they would be costly. They would also be the most enduring and impressive. I wasn’t disappointed when, after providing the required cash (in installments), I let several weeks go by and then went to see all the outer walls up and looking elegant. James had enlisted master masons to etch each and every stone with what he called a zebra design, meaning deeply cut diagonal lines in every thick stone brick. I had never seen such a design anywhere else in the city. The stones had come from a quarry in Gatunda, and the master mason had been James’ team of specialized workers whose craftsmanship was splendid. The first disagreement I had with my son was over the roofing. He wanted clay tiles but I could only afford forest green mabati (corrugated iron) sheets which I insisted had to have several skylights built into the roof to ensure the home interior would be drenched in light. My affinity for light and fresh air is also why I had insisted on the front windows being big. Mike and I were in accord on this count, and he forgave me for not roofing with tiles since he didn’t sent me funds for this phase of our project. The pitch of the roofing was also a major issue since I wanted it to be sharp like one of my friend’s roofs in Runda which I thought looked super cool. In fact, I had countless amateur ‘consultants,’ advising me on how to construct my house. I hadn’t told many people about my plan, but the few that I did were more than pleased to inject their opinions, some more forcefully than others. James was ever-flexible and ensuring that I have the last word on every aspect of the task. Well, the last word on almost every aspect. The exception was the window grills, which I despised but he claimed were non-negotiable. I had to have them, he said. Otherwise, the word would go round to all the thieves in the vicinity and my big bay windows would be shattered in no time and my home ransacked. He could not allow this to happen to me, but we quarreled. So did Mike since he was just as idealistic as I. Ultimately, we relented, of course, and listened to James who let me go around town viewing which grill designed I’d prefer in my house. I didn’t know at the time he’d already done his own survey of my neighbors’ homes and chose to replicate the exact wrought iron square frames that they all had. When we finally went to inspect the window work, I was stunned and nearly screamed with shock. “Now I’ll be living in a prison,” I blurted out. “The place looks just like a jail,” I complained, not caring to hide my disappointment and my rage. “This is not what we had agreed on,” I told James, practically in tears. The windows had cost a small fortune so there was no thought of tearing them out and starting all over again. I had to settle with James’ explanation that the grills were for my protection and security. What was more, if I ever wanted to rent the place, I would never find a tenant since they’d be afraid to stay without adequate security. Eventually I calmed down, especially as I saw that James had also installed metal doors both in the front and for the garage. I knew I would want hand-carved wooden doors in good time, but I was slightly placated with the knowledge I was that much closer to moving into my own house! I’m told building a house is a never-ending process—and cost, and I have already seen that to be true. Fortunately, I got the right man to assist me, one who was patient with my shoestring budget and the weeks that would often go by before I could begin the next phase of construction. There are too many more ‘little’ things to do before I can actually move into my new home (which I had claimed to be for my son, but it’s where I will soon stay until who knows when). There’s the smoothing and finishing of all the interior plaster work, the installation of electricity and water and of course, my bookshelves with which I want to line the walls of my study (the fifth bedroom). Then there will be the problem of the loos since James and Mike designed four loos to be installed in my house! Four? No, we will have to make an adjustment on this count, but they calculated: one near the sitting room for guests, one for the master bedroom, one for the other children’s bedrooms and one for who knows who? After that will be the garden which currently is covered in potatoes and arrowroot plantings. It looks lovely and I am glad the watchman was so resourceful, but when the time comes, I will plant lots for fruits and vegetables, everything from sikuma wiki and spinach to pumpkins, carrots and tomatoes too. Finally, the day can’t come too soon when I start hanging all the Kenyan art that I have accumulated over the years. It’s been stashed away in storage for years, but I look forward to filling my mini-mansion with the works by local artists who I have admired for many years. When that day arrives, I will be happy to invite friends and family to an open house. Until then, there is still so much to do because it’s true: building a house is a process that is never ending.


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