Book ID 803
Susie Steiner From Suffolk to the Serengeti, April 3, 2004
Extract Author: Susie Steiner
Extract Date: April 3, 2004
There was no blueprint or grand design for this house in northern Tanzania. Instead, the British couple who built it adopted what they called 'a daily plan' - put it up and see what it looks like. Susie Steiner reports
'It would have been much easier," says Nick Fisher somewhat mournfully, "to own a house in France."
Each winter, he and his wife Jo Jordan leave their farmhouse in Suffolk to board a plane for Nairobi, then travel five hours by rough road across the Kenyan border to the northern Tanzanian town of Arusha and beyond, to a hill on its outskirts.
Here, their wood and stone house, with chimney-like observation room, looks out towards the dormant volcano of Mount Meru to the east and the sweeping plains of the Masai to the south. Beyond the Monduli mountains, to the west, lies the Serengeti.
It takes about a day to open the house out once more, after months of lying empty. All their furniture has been in store - locked up in the 20ft shipping container that forms the centre of the building. "It's like having a mammoth metal safe on site," says Jo. Indeed, the container determined the site of the house, for once it had been lugged (with some difficulty) up the hill and deposited on the couple's land, it could move no further and the house was built around it - the bulk of the living areas laid on top of it like a giant chessboard on a too-small table.
Jo and Nick began building on their two-acre plot in the summer of 1997, without any kind of plan. "There was what the workmen called a 'daily plan'," says Nick. "We sort of said, 'Let's try this and see how it looks' - it just evolved. It was also dependent on the materials we had."
There was lots of pine, originally destined for a matchstick factory that went bankrupt, allowing the couple to buy it cheap. This wood formed the main struts of the house on which the 60ft veranda would sit. Then they discovered there was a quarry on the land, which gave them the mawe, or rock, which was incorporated into the walls after being broken up with a sledgehammer by a local farmer. The roof is tin, the floors concrete.
The lack of building regulations in rural Africa gave free rein to Nick's organic construction process. "Whereas here, the kitchen is the hub of the home, out there, the veranda is the hub," says Jo. "You get this incredible sweep of vision. The view is like the sea - it'll change the whole time, depending on the time of day and the weather."
Brian Benson, who photographed the house in December, remembers the tropical storm that greeted him: "On the second night of our stay, after flashes of light in the distant savannah, the rain came. This was tropical rain on corrugated iron - a fantastic sound. We sat around, drinking our way through a bottle of gin and shouting above the hammering noise."
The house's water supply relies on the rain, and 2003 proved a very dry year. "We rushed out with every container we had to supplement the rooftop drainage pipes," remembers Benson. But even the deluge wasn't enough to fill the water tank and a neighbour's well had to assist. "Many evenings, we would bump our way up the hill with eight or nine jerry cans swilling in the back of the Jeep."
The interior fittings are mostly old, borrowed or reclaimed, shipped out from the UK. "We've got a friend who has a business sending secondhand trucks out to Africa for the local market, so we could send things out in the back of them," says Jo.
The pink bathroom suite, for example, is a British art deco number (pink being very out of fashion in the bathroom world). The door to it is an Indonesian "rice store" doorway that was bought in the UK. Nick made the four-poster beds himself. "The expression 'I'm just making the bed' takes on a new meaning," says Jo.
And so the house is a jumble of Ikea throw-aways, car-boot sale lampshades, and artefacts from Jo and Nick's many travels. They have been Africaphiles since the 1970s, when they met on an overland truck journey shortly after Jo qualified as a lawyer. For a decade they organised expeditions across Africa for travellers, and the Tanzanian house bursts with souvenirs from these journeys, which have made their way back to Africa via the couple's home in the UK. The rugs, for example, are Moroccan, the paintings Ethiopian, the mud cloth from Mali, the masks and carvings from Ivory Coast and Ghana.
These days, Nick's primary work in Suffolk is as a farmer, while Jo practises law. They spend two months of the year in Africa, mostly working on the house, planting the land around it with climbers to make the building merge sympathetically with the landscape, and entertaining friends on their veranda. "Jo's ideas expand whenever we're there," says Nick. "So we're always building shelves or cupboards." The travel bug, it seems, has given way to putting down roots.