My new old house

After a two-month absence (3 weeks leave followed by 5 long weeks of sick leave, mostly in London, back and forth to the GP and Hospital for Tropical Diseases), I eventually returned to Kalemie, where my “new old house” was awaiting me.

When an Iraqi colleague announced a rather sudden departure in August, shortly before my own departure on leave, I was advised to “jump” and take over his house, given the shortage of suitable accommodation. Cue initiation into the weird world of “Filtisaf”. Filtisaf is the name of the former Belgian company that owned the big cotton mill on which the UN compound now stands. The company built a whole estate of large, one-storey villas with spacious gardens for its employees in the 1940s and 50s on the large tract of land at the top of the hill behind the mill. As far as I know, the estate was mostly inhabited by Belgian colonials, enjoying what was then a rather charmed existence in the pearl on Lake Tanganyika that Kalemie was then. Some of the villas have a splendid vista over the lake (not mine sadly). Following the turmoil of independence, almost all the Belgians were forced to leave and the company disbanded. In lieu of any kind of severance pay, the company decreed that the Congolese inhabitants of the estate could remain in their houses. Today there is an eclectic mix of Congolese locals, either political elites with their generators or ordinary folk in often derelict conditions, and UN and other ex-pats like me trying to reverse the dereliction, living side by side in a sprawl of mostly detached or semi-detached Belgian houses built in the 1950s. A remnant of Filtisaf still exists, run by a clique of Congolese out of the huge old mill with its high-ceilinged offices, rows of crumbling yellowed box files and black (brown) and white photos of a bygone era, intent on squeezing as much money as possible out of internationals like me in return for as little maintenance they can get away with. All executed with bureaucratic pedantry the Belgians would have been proud of. Granted, the rents are low compared to places like Goma, which makes investing in renovations for one’s own basic comfort seem less foolhardy.

Not without a certain sinking feeling, due to the lounge and kitchen being quite dark, I agreed to take on the house, which entailed coughing up a ridiculous amount for my Machiavellian Iraqi colleague’s belongings he left behind, including his action man DVDs and a washing machine that apparently had never worked (admittedly the TV and DVD player work, and the mattress from Uganda is comfortable).

I quickly realised it would take up inordinate amounts of time and energy to induce Filtisaf to renovate the ramshackle windows, doors and broken mosquito netting all around the ample perimeter of the house, so I commissioned a team from MONUSCO Engineering Section to carry out the works in my absence and at my own expense. I was satisfied to find the windows, outside doors and netting repaired to a good standard. The bathroom in the annex, where one of my security guards lives, had also been transformed with new toilet, shower and lick of paint, and they had replaced the dilapidated security gate. But as I expected, the myriad other internal jobs were mostly far from satisfactory, if done at all. I cursed as I scagged my clothes on nails and roughly hewn wooden handles sticking out from cupboards, and winced at the still grotty kitchen with its manky old wooden worktops and leaking sink – and non-functioning cooker with its original bulky 1950s Belgian plug. Still, despite the tiny ants marching across the walls in the bathroom, I felt grateful for the newly installed toilet, shower with pump (sheer luxury here), my bedroom with its lovely light and the luxury of a dressing room and another spare bedroom. Not the most practical of design with all three bedrooms leading into each other and the bathroom in the middle. But as I live on my own, it matters not! I have some decent beige linen curtains in the lounge and bedrooms and I can replace the other hideous, pink, flower-patterned fabrics with beautiful coloured materials in the local markets, which I will get round to doing one of these weekends; along with the scores of other jobs still to do…. And Filitisaf gave me the go-ahead to purchase a new cooker to be deducted subsequently from my rent (done and working fine, despite its weedy Made in Turkey stature) and new lounge furniture (not done).

Despite the fact that it’s semi-detached and I often hear my Congolese (politico) neighbours next door if I’m in the lounge/kitchen, and people randomly decide to play amplified music throughout the night, it’s my own private space and bolt hole and mostly quiet, so I am really not complaining. And I have a huge garden with a defiant solitary pineapple in the middle – a source of great mirth and rejoicing! (on the other hand it takes some getting used to having a dug-out hole in a corner of the garden as my bin – Veolia, all is forgiven!) I expected that with the onset of the rainy season from end of September the garden would burst into an oasis of luscious green, but the torrential rains just seem to get sucked up into the unforgiving sandy soil. However, as the rainy season lasts for not far off 8 months, there is hope yet for my dusty land. One of my guards turns out to be eager to transform it (and earn an extra buck). He has been turning over the soil and planting maize. This weekend I went with one of my other guards to a rather rough area of town, on a mission to buy gardening tools and seeds for celery, spinach, carrots, peppers, aubergines, onions etc. Frankly I’m not holding my breath (if you’ve read “The Poisonwood Bible” set in this part of the Congo?!), but it’s a fun project for someone who has never gardened in her life. Mission accomplished. I never dreamed this time last year that I would be bumping along a potholed road in the Congo with a wheelbarrow bouncing around in the back of a “seen better days” UN vehicle.

On leaving the dodgy part of town, we got caught up in a rather ugly scene, where some local policemen, having tried to arrest one of the myriad motorcycle taxis, were being roughed up by the locals. I felt sorry for them, knowing that the chances are they haven’t been paid in months! I closed the windows and locked the doors, hoping that the crowd wouldn’t turn on us. Eventually we were able to pass through and on our way. But it reminded me why I don’t go to that part of town on my own. In fact, the numerous conflicts all over Eastern DRC seem to be escalating at the moment. It’s kind of hard to take in that people are killing each other with poisoned arrows and burning people alive in their houses. But then how is that worse than a smartly-uniformed soldier under orders to press a button and eject bombs from a sophisticated aircraft onto innocent civilians below, knowing they will be incinerated in their homes and schools? For another time….

Back to my house: it’s quite big and rambling and a bit grumpy and grouchy for having been neglected for too long, but I am slowly coaxing it to yield its softer edges. I’ve promised it to replace the synthetic, leopard-skin covered furniture with some more dignified bespoke pieces, and grace it with some softer lighting. When I’m next on leave, I will commission some painting and tiling and get a few rugs and lamps/coloured baubles. Oh and rip the kitchen out (Filtisaf said they would do it, ha ha). This is the plan. In the meantime, it’s good ole candle-light, lying on the leopard-skin couch watching Poldark of a dark evening. Or sitting in an ancient but comfy deckchair in the long, covered veranda, garrisoned by the impressive new netting against the mosquitoes and a myriad other creatures that appear in sheer joy with the rains. What do they care if the electricity disappears with each spectacular storm? Thanks to my friends Liz and Pete, I am super-equipped with solar lights and charge. Annoyingly, a lot of the “before” photos got deleted when I synched my phone with my computer (I’d deleted the photos from the phone thinking they would remain on the computer). But there are plenty of snaps to give you a picture of my “new old house” and neighbourhood.

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5 thoughts on “My new old house

  1. Hello Julia good to hear from you. Sorry that you e not been well and that we haven’t caught up with you when you were in the UK. AND missed your birthday.
    You have our emails and mobiles?
    Catherine xx

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  2. Julia my dear friend. It’s fascinating reading all about your home and life at present.
    I think the fact that you lived in Sham will have probably helped the present escapades.
    Hope you have made a full recovery. Sorry we didn’t get to catch up.
    Take care and I send you my love Annabel x

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  3. Dear Julia,I’m glad to see you looking much better than when we last met. I do hope that the interior of your beautiful house will soon feel like a home.
    Take very good care,keep all the insects at bay and remember that you are not forgotten in London.Lots of love,Laura xx

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