Owning a house in Lagos is the dream of many residents of this restless city. Landlords are the proverbial shylocks, what with needless rent increases at the least notice or when a tenant buys a new piece of appliance or a car, or the landlord wants to marry a new wife or his son or daughter wants to get married or when he wants to feast his friends in the many owanbes he organises. Indeed, tenants have many unsavoury tales to tell about some landlords; many tenants toil hard to get their own homes even if at remote, far-flung suburban areas in neighbouring Ogun State, just to get away from the clutches of some Lagos landlords.
However, the tables often turn. When this happens, the story isn’t so different for most landlords, as their tenants almost run them out of town. In fact, tenants are known to have dispossessed their landlords of their property. More often tenants take landlords through long, disconcerting legal tussles to avoid paying rent or vacating property.
Author and editor, Adewale Maja-Pearce, was one such hapless landlord, whose tenants nearly ran him out of town. In fact, a rent-free tenant, once his ally in his eviction saga, almost had him killed. The tenant who entered the house when his father was still alive had begun to see himself as the landlord; many who knew him regarded him as such. It only became obvious who he really was when Maja-Pearce began proceedings to evict him and finally succeeded in doing so after six years of frustrating legal battle.
This experience which some Lagos landlords face just to get rid of an uncooperative tenant, and they are many in Lagos, forms the heart of the matter in Maja-Pearce’s new book, The House My Father Built (Farafina Kamsi; Lagos; 2014). He’d been willed a house by his late father in Surulere, Lagos, but he could not lay claim until after a 10-year moratorium. When the 10 years elapsed and Maja-Pearce was ready to claim his house, the tenants, led by the Alhaji, who rented a flat from his father, refused to see him as the rightful owner. Bolstered by Alhaji’s boldness, the two other tenants also refuse to pay their rents or vacate.
Maja-Pearce’s breathless narrative in this book is full of many twists and turns of life as lived in Lagos city. Indeed, The House My Father Built, although a factual narrative, reads more surreal than even a fictional account; sometimes, it’s just so incredulous the extent a tenant would go just to remain in a property he can neither afford to pay the rent nor be willing to vacate.
When the Alhaji refuses to vacate the property, Maja-Pearce is forced to resort to the law courts to evict him. But his job as editor of a magazine makes it impossible for him to appear in court at all times, as he could manage limited time in Lagos at a stretch. But more importantly, the crooked legal system makes it hard for him, an outsider trying to get a grip on how Nigeria works, to get quick delivery of justice. The lawyers he employs are too worsted by the system that it becomes a rollercoaster case without an end in sight. Coming from outside, Maja-Pearce does not reckon with the convoluted, corrupt system and plays along nicely until he begins to see red.
He had to go to the police station a lot, as confrontation with the tenants become inevitable. Maja-Pearce’s experience with that arm of the law, with its corrupt-ridden officers, is an eye-sour. But he quickly adjusts to being the Nigerian he didn’t become from childhood. He learns the hard way how to become a Nigerian, as his tenants stretch him and his resources to breaking point.
While trying to get a foothold on things in Lagos, he happens upon a man known as Prince, who becomes his ally in his battle with his tenants. Prince is a man of no fixed income, but soon proves effective in taking Maja-Pearce through the dark alleys of Lagos’ ways of doing things the wrong, crooked way. His desperation to get his property back from his uncooperative tenants does not give him room to protest too much. Yet he struggles to retain his humanity as the system sucks him in. Often, Prince rubs it in by saying he’s too soft; Lagos is hard; it takes those who are hard to get by.
When he finally gets rid of Alhaji after six years, he turns to the other two tenants –Ngozi and Pepsi, who also employ every known underhand measures to stay put. Ngozi would rather pay a lawyer N300,000 as legal fees to fight her landlord than pay her rent. It’s the classic Lagos case. She pays police, notorious in the 1990s’ dreaded military era, to remind Maja-Pearce in custody. When the court eventually throws her out, her property is strewn on the streets; a heavy downpour gives further verdict against her.
Pepsi soon follows Ngozi out of his property, but without a fight. Then Maja-Pearce’s battle to reclaim a property bequeathed to him comes closer home. But Prince, his ally in the eviction saga of Alhaji, Ngozi and Pepsi, whom he allows rent-free in the house, is next tenant on cue. By the time Prince leaves, Maja-Pearce is well exhausted from his many legal and sometimes street-wise battles to reclaim his property.
Maja-Pearce’s The House My Father Built is told with a hint of irony and humour. There was no love lost between him and his father until his death because he refuses to study a manly course like medicine, but chose literature instead because he wants to be a writer, which created schism between father and son. But the father graciously bequeaths him a house, which allows him the luxury to muse, “The irony was that Nigeria was all that engaged me as a writer, which was why his gift was so apt, even if he hadn’t imagined it that way.”
The House My Father Built is an exciting, humorous read. It unearths the underbelly of a city in a flux, with its many imperfections and joys. This Maja-Pearce’s memoir will resonate with many a Lagos resident.
Source: Anote Ajeluorou (The Guardian)