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The Boy Who Built A House

The people of our neighbourhood watched Jamiu build the house. It was a passion to him while it lasted; something beyond mere desire pushed him on. It was a mission that had to be accomplished, and he put all his resources into it, physical, spiritual, mental and financial. He also refused to contact any member of his family while building the house.

Reasons: His grandfather, Baba Janta, never built a house of his own; he remained a tenant of one of his brothers, Baba Sali, all his life. He lived in Baba Sali’s house since from the age of twenty till the end of his life some sixty years after. He married in the house and had all his children there – these were Jamiu’s father and all his siblings, eight of them altogether. Three of them were female; they left the house when they got married. The five male children lived on and off in the house till almost the ends of their lives too, with their wives and children. None of them built a house of his own or purchased one.

The children of Baba Sali, the uncle who built the house had left the house at various times to build or buy their own houses too. Some of them were not even based in Nigeria anymore; they lived overseas in United Kingdom and Canada. But the descendants of Jamiu’s grandfather seemed to have been cursed: they lived in near penury; they struggled to make ends meet, those who attended schools ended up as dropouts. They earned their livings under an oppressive atmosphere, working for meager payments in people’s gardens, driving run-down cars to ferry passengers across the hostile city, helping bakers to clean their tins and loading their ovens for stipends, but Jamiu was determined to break the family curse, especially that of being tenants for three generations.  

Jamiu’s initial decision to leave the house was hatched when he was barely ten. He had never enjoyed living in that house where Baba Janta lived and died, and where all his children, Jamiu’s father and uncles and all their offspring took residence. It was an old mud house, built in the nineteen forties. However the outer walls had been plastered in the nineteen seventies to cover the mud facade, and to strengthen the already weakened walls, by one of the children of the man who built the house. If not, the whole house could have fallen while the indigent clan that lived in it watched helplessly.

When Jamiu was growing up in the house, most of the walls were still standing, but the rafters made of the planks of coconut palms were beginning to weaken, and the roofing sheets were already leaking all over. When rain fell, puddles were made in different parts of the house unless bowls and eating utensils were dispensed here and there to collect the dripping waters. If the rain was heavy, everybody and everything ended up dripping wet. Jamiu’s immediate clan was so diabolically deprived that maintaining the sprawling house seemed to be something they could not pool the resources of their large number together to do.

Their problem was not only dearth of money; they never ever came to a single decision in all their deliberations. Their house was a hotchpotch of disorderliness and rancour, of one brother fighting another brother, of cousin clutching another cousin’s throat, of an uncle lambasting another uncle, of aunts trading invectives with one another. It was a bewitched house of endless swearing, sweating and quarreling.

It was not only the rancorous characteristics of the house that made up Jamiu’s determination to leave the house as soon as possible, the other reason was a new boy named Adams, who had recently been brought to his school. The boy was a distant cousin; he was a grandchild of another brother of Baba Janta (not the one who built the house his clan lived in).

This new boy often picked fights with him, and whenever this happened, he would not only beat Jamiu black and blue, he would also tell whoever cared to listen that all members of Jamiu’s clan were parasites living on other people’s largess, and that Baba Janta and all his offspring were accursed to poverty, and that none of them could ever come to any good in life. He had even said it in public one day after he had felled Jamiu in a fight, and had pinned his hands to the ground with his knees and was frantically attempting to feed him some handfuls of sand, that Baba Janta was not originally part of the family but that he was a freed slave, given abode out of sympathy.

Jamiu cried for hours that day. Afterward, he became a truant, going to school only occasionally. And whenever he went to school, he always felt uncomfortable as he was a very sensitive boy. He often thought the stigma of inferiority which the bully Adams had once pinned on him publicly had already been permanently affixed on him.

He made up his mind after this public humiliation that he must build his own house, though he was still a minor; just approaching twelve. He would no longer continue to live in that ancient house where his whole clan had been branded parasites and leeches by Adams, his bully of a distant cousin.

He was barely twelve when he eventually left school. He told his father he had no head for books. He could have had the head for books if his father had got the money to buy them, and if Adams had not made him dread going to school like going to a battle front.

“And what would you do?” his father had asked, twitching his nose in sneer.

“Bricklaying, I want to learn bricklaying,” he told his father, casting his eyes stubbornly to the ground.

His father shook his head. “Will you be able to cope? Bricklaying is a tough profession, and it is usually very daunting to apprentices. They do the most difficult parts of the job. You will suffer …..”

“I can do it. I can cope…” he said, not allowing his father to conclude.

Some of his siblings and cousins heard his discussion with his father. They trooped to where father and son were having their talk. The house was a public place; nothing there was ever done in secret. The assemblage had no decorum, they started clapping their hands and singing to taunt Jamiu, not minding the presence of the father.

“Nibise birisoke
Olorun ni o yoyin
Oga o nii ba o ja
Pon-un pon-un ni o le o lo”

The father shouted at them, “shut your stupid mouths. Fools!

But the insolent cousins didn’t even pause in their derisive song until the father took a slipper off his foot and flung it at them. They yelled and flew away in different directions like a perturbed colony of weaverbirds. Very soon, one could hear their mischievous banters somewhere else in the sprawling house. Together with their diminishing clatter came other secondary dins from different parts of the homestead.

“But why do you want to learn bricklaying of all the crafts in the world?”

“Baami, I want to build a house of mine, I’m tired of living here,” was his flustered reply.

“You? Tired of living here?  I have been here all my life…. like my father  …… and all my brothers, five of us  …”

“I know father. That’s why I don’t want to live here anymore. I don’t want to live here forever like you.”

“Hmm  ….” the father stared long at him. He stood there pensive in his shorts  and torn vest, his face ravaged by pimples, but his look very determined.

“Adams also said Baba Janta, your father, was a slave. He said that’s why we live in this old house. He said we had no money to build our own because we were slaves. I want to prove him wrong. I want to work hard and build a house, and I think being a bricklayer will make it faster and easier  …..”

“Who is Adams?”

“He’s a boy at my school. He said his grandfather was a brother of the man who built this house. He said your father was a slave. He’s very lousy; he doesn’t give me any breathing space.”

He didn’t tell his father that Adams often beat the living daylight out of him. Something told him no father would be proud of a weakling like him.

“And is that the reason you want to leave the school? Fear of a fellow pupil, isn’t it? “

“No Baami, it is because I want to build my own house the soonest.”

The father laughed now. He looked at him again. A mere twelve year old boy, talking about building a house. Did he think building a house was as easy as eating bean cakes and corn pap?  Then he stopped laughing and said, “building a house isn’t a plaything. Moreover it’s a God given gift. It’s a gift to those who are destined to build them, not everybody builds a house…”

The boy didn’t believe him; it was in the silent defiance of his eyeballs. “How could God have destined some people to build houses and some not to?  Does he want them to live on trees, like birds?”

“God does not give things equally to people.”

“And people of our family, since Grandpa’s time are never destined to build houses -because God didn’t give them, every one of them. What did they do to God?”

“No, you don’t understand. Building houses don’t have to do with families or clans, it is an individual thing. Even I can still build one if it’s destined for me. There is also time for everything, what’s destined for tomorrow cannot be today …” the father plodded roughly through the terrains of explanation.

“Why has it not been any of you and your brothers’ time?”

“Only God knows.” 

The boy sighed now. He couldn’t believe his father. He actually didn’t understand him well and he told him pointblank:

“Baami, what are you saying?  You want to tell me that God does not want you or them to build a house and you want me to believe you too….”

“You don’t understand. You are still a child.” But deep in the boy’s heart, he believed he could build a house if he actually wanted it too. But still, he wanted to believe his father. Fathers are supposed to be oracles in comparison to their children. He stared up at his father again with a puzzled look, his eyes besieging him to make him understand.

The father was lost. He didn’t know how to convey his belief and knowledge about destiny and mystery of time to human actions and accomplishment. He also didn’t know how to convince the inquisitive boy that his inability to build a house of his own was not because he didn’t want to. It was complex. What did the boy understand now of working and earning a living and saving out of it to do something capital intensive?

How could he tell him that getting rich was not always a matter of choice, that there were a million and one factors working for and against becoming successful in life? How could he make this boy to understand the overbearing power of witches who could engineer many accidents in the workings of destiny, or the affective influence of evil eyes of near and far relations who would not want you dead but would not want you to be more successful and affluent than they were, either?

How could he make this boy understand that two plus two might not always be equal to four in the mathematics of life? He concluded that the boy could not understand all these intricacies now. And as much as he strove he could not find an appropriate answer to quell Jamiu’s curiosity. He decided to bluff his way out of the stalemate. “You have to own a land before you could think of building a house. We don’t have any…..”

“But people do buy and sell land. Why couldn’t you buy?”

“It is always costly. It costs big money.”

“But people do get the money to buy land. Moreover, Baami, all the money you and my uncles use to buy drinks and cigarettes could have been better used to buy lands….. Plots of lands even,” Jamiu said, excitedly.

But now, the father thought the boy had overstepped the boundaries of respect. He shouted at him, “Shut up!  Do you think we are stupid? That we don’t know what we do?”

His anger could not be easily suppressed any longer. “Any child that calls his parent a never-do-well let him grow up and see how difficult or easy it is to become rich. Go away from me!” he bellowed at him.

Jamiu ran from his father’s presence. In the night he dreamt of working as a bricklayer and saw himself labouring to build his house. The following morning, he didn’t prepare for school. He was determined not to go to school again. Jamiu went to his father and prostrated himself in greeting to him, his belly and chest touching the ground.

“Good morning, Baami.”

“Good morning, this boy,” the father mumbled. He was still smarting from what he considered the affront of yesterday.

“I’m sorry for what I said to you yesterday. I didn’t know it would make you angry….”

He stared up at his father, full of remorse. The father looked down at him, deliberating within him to either accept or reject his plea. After a prolonged perusal, the father spoke down at him.

“You better learn how to put a rein to your lousy mouth. You don’t say anything that occurs to you as it comes to you. You have to sieve it like one sieves yam flour to remove unwanted grits and specks that might be lodged in it. Then stow away those grits and specks. Then speak out that fine powder, the harmless remnants of your ideas. But if you decide to say anything that occurs to you as it occurs to you, one day you will speak out swords that cut necks and not ordinary words.”

“I heard you Baami. Thank you Baami.”

“Stand up and go.”

Jamiu stood up but didn’t leave. He lingered in his father’s presence, thinking of how best to say what he wanted to say so as not to hurt the father again. He was determined to take to his father’s latest lecture of weighing what he had to say.

“You can go or is there anything else?”

“Yes Baami. I want to ask you for something but I don’t know how to say it so I won’t offend you.”

The father smiled. “Say it anyhow. If it hurts me, I’ll hurt you in return. It is better at times to learn through trials and errors,” the father urged.

And Jamiu said it anyhow. “I want you to take me to Akanmu’s place. I want to learn bricklaying.”

“You still insist on learning bricklaying?”

“Yes Baami. Reading is not for me…”

“Don’t go there. It is because you want to build a house of your own at a very young age, and you think learning bricklaying would give you greater leverage.”

“Yes Baami,” he replied staring at the ground like a thief caught in the act.

“But bricklayer builds houses for people.”

“And they also build for themselves, Baami.” He still did not look up.

“Perhaps, if they have the means of doing it. They don’t need only their skill; they also need land, sand, gravel, bricks and cement – plenty of them. And they have to buy planks and roofing sheets, and they have to pay carpenters to put them together to make their roofs. They just don’t wake up one happy day and start building houses…”

“Yes Baami, take me to him.”

The father took Jamiu to Akanmu, the neighbourhood bricklayer. For six years, he learnt the skills by working for him, following him to building sites at Oshogbo, Ibadan, Abeokuta and Lagos, and even sometimes to Abuja and Port Harcourt. By the time he was sixteen, four years after, he had learnt all the complexities and tricks of the craft.

And another four years after, when he was twenty, he had built his own house. But building the house took away the marrow of his life. When the building was in its near completion, he had become ulcerous and anaemic, and was also battling with high blood pressure. He had half starved himself those four years. He had worked himself to mere skeleton and membranes. He had exiled himself from the company of his people. For four years he was a slave of his passion. But now, he didn’t have the money to give the house those final details that would make it stand out.

I watched Jamiu build the house because he built it in my neighbourhood. My neighbourhood was a new one, like many that were just springing up all over the countrysides of Ibadan, annexing those virgin lands into new metropolitans. Here, the rich and poor built their houses side by side, but the rich were quickly buying out the poor ones. My neighbourhood was a beautiful one, it perched over a deciduous highland from where a large part of adjoining neighbourhoods could be seen faraway like scenes from a picture book. Moreover, it was not very far from the city’s water corporation; this made it easy for most of the residents to install pipe borne water in their homes, something that was not easily accessible in a city that was growing at a very great alarming rate.

Jamiu came to the site usually on weekends, when he was not working on other people’s houses. Only two of them worked on the house: he and another young man who did the unskilled aspects like fetching water from another nearby house, mixing gravel and sand with cement, and carrying the mixed mass in head pan to him, as he arranged the bricks and stuck them together. And whenever I looked at him throughout those four years I didn’t see a living being, but a wraith sacrificing his shadowy existence to create a living edifice.

We belonged to two different classes. Our differences were  conspicuous, like we belonged to two different races; the races of the haves and the have-nots. I was everything  he was not; everything he forever wished to be; everything he forever prayed to be. He told me that himself during our many dialogues. I was a university educated chap in my mid-twenties; I have told you about him. My father was dead, but what he left for me and my five siblings is enough to see us to the last days of our lives even if were to live up to the ripe age of one hundred each. He was a top ranking politician and a business mogul; he was in the senate for four consequent terms. I am not employed yet, but I plan to move over to Lagos very soon to join one of my father’s companies and work my way up, like the rest of my siblings, and it was then  my money which was being held in trust for me by one of our family’s attorneys would be released to me.

At the end of the four years, Jamiu’s house sat gloriously in its lair, roofed but unplastered. Fitted up with beautifully cut wooden doors and windows, Jamiu thought it was habitable now: It was already a hundred times more accommodating than the ancient contrivance his clan lived in. He was ready to go home and urge his folks to move in to something of their own — the house he had built.

He went to the riotous enclave, not as a hero that he already was if they knew what he had accomplished, but as a worn-out and deflated bloke: his eyes were sunken in his pallid face and his ill fitted oversized shirt billowed in the air, (he couldn’t spare the money to buy any fitting clothes). The whole clan was happy he was alive; they had thought he was dead all these absent years. Yet they were unhappy he was hardly living in his superlatively impoverished appearance. While they gaped and gawked at him, he gave his father a newly minted bunch of keys.

“I have built the house I promised to build when I told you I wanted to learn bricklaying,” he told him.

He didn’t look like he could have got the money to conveniently buy a new bunch of keys let alone build a house. Therefore the family didn’t jubilate in half proportion to what he had accomplished. Most of them leered at him with misgivings and pity. There were sudden tears glinting on many a furrowed face. They knew he had given his life to build them a house, but he was happy he had broken a curse of three generations.

“You’ve built a house, Jamiu, but you’ve unbuilt yourself. This is not how a young man should look,” his father said.

“But at least a member of our family can build a house,” he replied.

“But at what cost?”

“I’m just happy, Baami. I have lost nothing, instead I have gained something,” he replied. There was an amused twitch on his lips, but he looked more like a scarecrow. Grief gripped his father’s heart. He blubbered as he patted his head saturated by white scraps of dandruff.

“My son, just take good care of yourself. Eat good food, buy good soap, take a good bath, scrub plenty of lotion into your skin, buy good clothes, wear them and become young again, you are too old.”

“Thank you Baami.”

“Jamiu, it’s what you eat and what you own that’s truly yours, not what you save and spend on projects. A bird soars with the stamina it gets from insects it eats, not the uneaten ones.”

Jamiu nodded his head. He agreed with his father that he should take care of himself now; at least, he had fulfilled his destiny. Though the father said he looked morose, he was triumphant within.

                                                        ***

Two days later Jamiu decided to return to Ibadan but he had no idea what evil awaited him there. He arrived late, at 10.00pm.  As he was passing through a deserted street that led to his home, four policemen accosted him. He was bundled into their waiting jeep. There were three haggard looking young men in the jeep. They made faces at him. One of them slapped him. The policemen were silent; he knew he was in trouble.

“You ran away Chattu! You left us to suffer. Idiot!” The man who slapped him howled at him.

“I’m not Chattu. I don’t know you…” he half pleaded for fear. The three young men were obvious gangsters – arrested by police for some crimes, and being taken all over the city to identify those of their comrades still at large.

The young man lunged at him and held his throat. “I’ll kill you Chattu. Now and forever! Say you don’t know me again and die!” The young man tightened his hold on the throat.

Jamiu gasped helplessly and his assaulter pushed him away. He cringed to the ground and peered at the young man like a mouse suspecting the presence of a cat.

“Chattu! Do you know me?” the young man howled again.

Jamiu nodded his head in fear. “Stop nodding like a lizard. Talk! Do you know us?”

“Ye-s, yes!” he stammered. The three young men roared.

“Bastard! What are you called?” 

“Jamiu.”

“Are you mad or madness is maddening you?  What did I call you a few minutes ago?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“Fool! Are you doing this because of the police?  You are Chattu! If you say any contrary thing again, I’ll kill you! What are you?”

“I’m Chattu!  I’m Chattu! I’m Chattu!” Jamiu said in sing-song. The three young men laughed and clattered. The policemen didn’t say anything. They kept their faces bland and trained their guns at him.

The following day, he was paraded for armed robbery along with the three young men. They were supposed to belong to the same gang. While the other accused men stared defiantly at the world they had often tormented, Jamiu was morose and cowered. He prayed for a magical whirlwind to fly him out of this world.

I didn’t know of this, likewise was everyone in our neighbourhood. If anybody had seen him when he was paraded on television with the notorious robbers that had implicated him, nobody ever told me. But three weeks after Jamiu’s arrest and parade, four men came to my house. They looked worried as if their world was at the brink of disintegration.

“Can we get a buyer for that house?” The one who later identified himself as the father asked, pointing to Jamiu’s house.

I glared at them with hatred. If anybody had known how much Jamiu suffered to build that house, he would never ever dream of selling it.

“Who are you?” I asked them.

They told me they were Jamiu’s father and uncles.

“And why do you want to sell the house? Where is Jamiu himself?”

They told me. They also added they needed a sum of five hundred thousand naira to get him released.

“Look for money from other avenues. You can’t sell this house. He built it with his blood and sweat, not with his money.”

“We know, but if he lives, he could build a better house. His life is at stake. The policemen in charge of these armed robbers can do anything. People say they kill suspects anyhow. Jamiu is not a thief.”

I was aghast. I blamed fate and the police. I blamed the armed robbers the most for being instrumental to this unpleasant occurrence. Fate was blind, the policemen were callous, and the armed robbers were selfish. Jamiu should be given the freedom to enjoy the fruit of his labour, but the inconsiderate fate acted to the contrary.

I had a little money with me then, since my money was still being held in trust. Moreover, I had no mind of buying a house because I had no need of a house at that particular time. Why would I want a house? My late father had six houses of his own scattered all over the city of Ibadan, and ten others at Lagos and Abuja. Then, the house I lived in here in the neighbourhood where Jamiu had built his house belonged to my mother, who was my father’s second wife. I also happened to be my mother’s oldest child, and her only son, so the house was more or less mine.

I told them that I would inform prospective buyers. And if anything positive turned up, I promised to contact them. The men’s eyes betrayed them. They were half closed with disappointment. Deep in their hearts, they had wished me to go inside the house, ransack my safes, and bring out the sum of eight hundred thousand naira they wanted for the house immediately.

I couldn’t help their grief, but I comforted them by taking their phone numbers and promised to call them when I found a buyer.  They dropped their heads to their chests and filed away in silent agony. I was not spared the agony myself; Jamiu was a person I respected for his determination and hard work.

Coincidentally, my uncle Daniel called me from New York the following day.

“Lanre, I want to buy a modest three bedroom bungalow. Very urgent. Can I get one in your neighbourhood?”

I was happy for Jamiu. Happy that he could sooner than expected get the money for his release.

“Yes Uncle,” I replied. “There is even one being put up for sale not far from my place. Just about four plots from me.”

“How’s it? A little description will do some good Lanre.”

“Okay sir, I’ll take some photographs of the house and send them to you in thirty minutes.”

I immediately got down to Jamiu’s house with my iPad, and snapped some photographs of the house from different angles both outside and within. I quickly sent them to my uncle.

My uncle called back in another thirty minutes and said: “This is good enough. If I give you some extra money after you’ve made the payment, I believe you can effect some changes to make it really habitable. Cozy and comfortable. Can’t you?”

I said I could.

“How much does the house cost?”

“Eight hundred thousand naira.”

“So cheap. Can we trust these people?”

“No qualms, uncle,” I assured him.

Uncle Daniel sighed from New York. “Okay. I’ll transfer the money into your account tomorrow.”

“Alright, Uncle,” I replied.

I wanted to call Jamiu’s people and tell them, but I was apprehensive. Uncle Daniel was a miser; he couldn’t spend a naira if he was not certain it would fetch him ten in return. I knew he would even be more cautious now that the response to his request was never delayed; he might think I was about to defraud him. Therefore I wavered between telling Jamiu’s people or not. But the urge to comfort the people was stronger and urgent. I called them despite my misgivings and explained things to them in detail. They were elated and grateful to me; they called me the savior of their clan. I prayed Uncle Daniel would eventually make me a true savior.

Twenty five hours exactly, I received an alert. The sum of three million naira had been transferred into my account.

I called Uncle Daniel.  “Uncle! Uncle!  You sent three million naira into my account. “What f-or? Do you want me to do any other thing for you?”

“Yes Lanre…” my uncle began. I became more attentive. I truly loved the man despite his stinginess; he was my father’s carbon copy. I would like to do exactly what he wanted now that he had exhibited this unexpected generosity. I won’t like to disappoint him.

“Go and pay the people the amount required. Okay? Ask them to make all the necessary documents in your name. The house is yours. It’s your twenty fifth birthday gift. Congratulations!”

It was only then that I remembered my birthday came up in three days. With all the chaos in Jamiu’s family, I had forgotten what month it was. I was short for words. Was this truly Uncle Daniel or was I dreaming?

“But Uncle, this is too much. I don’t…”

“You don’t what?” he cut me short. “You don’t want my gift?”

“No Uncle.”

“Then what? Now listen. Your father told me he wanted to give you a house when you were twenty five like he did for your half-brother, Felix. But unfortunately he’s late. The least I think I can do to honour him is to do his wish for him. I want to make him really happy wherever he is. As for the remaining amount of money, use it to make the house as comfortable as possible. Happy twenty fifth birthday bash in advance!”  Uncle Daniel hung up before I could say anything again.

I remembered Jamiu and shook my head. I could see him in his scanty and dirty clothes, his hands cuffed behind him, his legs chained as he huddled up in a corner of the police cell awaiting whatever fate had in store for him. My eyes shed hot tears. What Jamiu had used all his life and total endowments to build I had acquired with just a phone call. What an oeuvre of a prince and a pauper.

But Jamiu was not supposed to be a pauper. He deserved his house and his freedom. I would see to it.






Kamarudeen Mustapha is a teacher and a writer of short stories and poems based in Ibadan, Nigeria. His poems and short stories have been published in Setu online magazine, Our Poetry Archive, Kreative Diadem and Africanwriter.com. He has also published some children books, including The Magic Bird, Winners Never Quit, Zinari The Golden Boy, I am a good child and Wayon Bana (which is written in Hausa language).

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