Maridhiya - a classical Kiswahili word expressing tolerance, co-operation and compromise - all essential requirements for a Lamu builder. Our second restoration project, carried out in 2007 and 2008.
When we first saw what was eventually to become Maridhiya House it had a small wooden sign outside saying ‘Mzuri Sana’ – ‘very nice’ or ‘very beautiful’ in Kiswahili – the whole building was, however, in a fairly terrible state of repair. What was quickly obvious though, was that this had once been an exquisite one-storey Swahili townhouse, dating back very probably to the mid eighteenth century. Our challenge, very similar to that which we faced with Zuhura House, was to return the ground floor of the house to its previous magnificence, and to extend and modernize the house sympathetically – being careful to maintain its architectural integrity, authenticity and cohesion.
Very similar in size and layout to Zuhura House, it was quite now uninhabitable, with rotten mangrove beams falling out of the ground floor ceiling and the rear wall of the house bulging and listing alarmingly. The ground floor had three dark and dank galleries, with remnants of what must once have been very beautiful plasterwork friezes and zidaka niches – those which were visible were badly decayed – and when we came to renovate the interior walls we found many others that had been filled in with earth and stones and covered over with rough lime plaster at some time in the past.
In the front courtyard there were various broken-down birika water tanks and a precipitous staircase leading up to the first floor. Upstairs was a ramshackle collection of rooms – a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and store – which had been tacked on to the historic ground floor of the building sometime in the recent past.
One particularly intriguing aspect of the house was its orientation – perhaps uniquely among historic Lamu houses it faced eastwards. Almost every other traditional house in Lamu faces almost due North – towards Mecca. Another interesting and unusual feature was the large raised baraza seating area in the first ground floor gallery – this was probably used as a dining or lounging area in the house’s heyday. What also made the house very attractive was its situation in a particularly quiet, undeveloped and ‘low-rise’ neighbourhood of the old stone town, with narrow streets on three sides and views across betel nut plantations and local gardens.
Our first task would be to demolish the whole of the first floor of the house – much of which seemed to be in imminent danger of collapse anyway - and then to replace the decayed mangrove poles in the ground floor ceiling with stronger hardwood joists, and to repair and repoint damaged walls downstairs, both inside and out . This would give us a strong and authentic single storey building which we would then extend upwards.
It soon became clear that the entire rear wall of the house was really beyond repair – we considered underpinning and repointing it, but with the wall leaning about 5 degrees out of true, it became obvious that demolition and rebuilding was the only viable option.
In planning the restoration and rebuilding of the house we worked closely with the National Museums of Kenya and Lamu Conservation Department, who prepared a comprehensive restoration plan, and monitored and documented the whole restoration process as an example how best to repair and renew a traditional Lamu Townhouse.
Plans were drawn up with their approval. On the ground floor a traditional daka entrance porch would be built – either the house had never had one, or one may have been demolished in the past. The first ground floor gallery would be beautifully restored as a traditional reception chamber, the second gallery converted into a spacious kitchen and pantry, and the third gallery into a bedroom and bathroom. We would build up two further storeys, constructing a new and less vertiginous staircase in the ground floor courtyard to the first floor.
On the first floor there would be a spacious pillared living and dining area looking out across the courtyard to gardens beyond, with a bedroom and bathroom to the rear. Above the ground floor daka, a staircase would lead up to the second floor – this which would consist of a spacious roof terrace, part covered with makuti thatch, and a large master bedroom running the width of the house, with attached ensuite bathroom. Above this bedroom and bathroom would be a further walled roof terrace on the third floor – accessed by a wooden staircase from the second floor.
Work began on the house on 1st November 2007, and within a month the demolition of the First Floor and rear downstairs wall was complete, with many thousands of donkey loads of rubble having being hauled away from the site, and construction could begin of the upper two storeys. This process followed much the same pattern as that of Zuhura House – coral block walls were raised, ringbeams built and installed and robust hardwood crossbeams and roof joists laid above them. Having learnt numerous lessons from Zuhura, and by dint of employing more workers – more than 30 at sometimes, we were able to make very rapid progress.
By the time that the monsoon rains started in May 2008, the house was fully built and the outside walls very largely plastered, dried and waterproofed. With torrential rains outside and the yet-to-be plastered courtyard tarpaulined over, we continued plastering and finishing the interior, often working late into the evenings by torch and lantern light. And in late June we celebrated the end of the major building work with a feast of roasted goat and pilau rice. Some sanding and polishing and painting remained to be done, along with the final restoration of the beautiful nakshee plasterwork downstairs – this was completed by late August – less than ten months from the day we started construction.
In Kiswahili the word Maridhiya describes a spirit of co-operation, tolerance and compromise – several of the fundis suggested this as a perfect name for the house.