In her novella Kalasanda and its sequel Kalasanda Revisited, Ugandan writer Barbara Kimenye recounts humorous tales of country folks in a fictional Buganda village called Kalasanda. The tales focus on characters so eccentric they remain imprinted in the reader’s memory for ages.
Nigerian writer E.C. Osondu in his debut novel This House is Not for Sale, takes us to a place similar to Kalasanda. However, in Osondu’s case, the setting is a coastal town in West Africa. His characters are nonetheless as colourful and as eccentric as Kimenye’s Nantondos.
This House is Not for Sale tells the stories of the inhabitants of a huge mansion called the family house, which was passed down through generations. The owner, an elderly man, is the young narrator’s grandfather. He is a shrewd and enterprising patriarch, who is generous enough to play new LP records on his Sanyo stereo at full blast so that passers-by — and neighbours without stereos — can listen as well.
The family house swarms with activity and events there draw mixed feelings from those who live inside it and the neighbours around it. To its inhabitants, it is a blessing; a place of refuge from sins, poverty and despair.
“He knew that there was only one place on this earth where no arm, no matter how long, could reach him, and that was the family house,” we are told of a murderer who seeks refuge in the family house.
Much as neighbours dislike it for the patriarch’s exploitative nature and the misfits it harbours, they still show up whenever a chance to benefit from the house presents itself.
The stories, told through the eyes of a young narrator, are cleverly interwoven with humorous asides from anonymous voices. This enables the writer to slip in bits of information that would have otherwise been left out because of first person narration. Osondu, a seasoned storyteller, draws heavily from the African traditional oral storytelling — introducing other voices to fill in gaps left by the naïve narrator.
Some reviewers have argued that it is not a novel but a collection of short stories. This feels true as one reads it because each of the stories can stand alone and even sell separately. Osondu obviously draws from his strength as a short-story writer. (He won the Caine prize for African writing in 2009 for his short story, Waiting).
Each brisk chapter shines light on one of the many eccentric characters in the house. There is Ibe, the narrator’s cousin, who is a know-it all child. Ibe has a wild imagination and is stopped by nothing, not even death. Then there is Tata, a childless woman branded a “soul snatcher” before an encounter with the river goddess changes her life forever.
How does Osondu, himself a foreigner, remote from us in geographical distance, in culture and in local expressions, manage to talk about things that are important to us? The answer must lie, I suppose, in the fact that the writer is not merely a thinking brain; he is a feeling body, a sensitive heart, thus as we read This House is Not For Sale, we feel it draw upon the whole being, not merely a select part.
Some terms are Lagosian, the food too. There is jollof rice and fried akara and suya. Yet I do not think that the book is exclusively Nigerian. For in, say, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Kigali and Kampala, we witness reality and superstitions sit side by side.
The dusty streets of our childhood are laced with daredevil little cousins like Ibe, and faithful believers who sell their earthly belongings because they believe the end of the world is nigh. Our cities house jobless PhD holders, the mentally ill and abandoned husbands like Abule.
We, too, have witnessed city buildings marked with X because they lie on road reserves and we later witness their demolition as the owners throw curses at the authorities.
This House is Not for Sale tackles serious themes like alternative sexuality, patriarchy and corruption. Yet it does so beautifully, turning clichés on their heads. And the book is funny, very funny. It teems with yarns so ridiculously out of this world, humour so dark yet so real it lodges itself indelibly in the readers’ memory.
Nothing is more refreshing, nothing serves more to sting and revive a reader than the spray of fresh words, little colloquialisms and tart green words that spring from the pages of this book.
This article was first published in The East African.