On Huts and Palaces


Coming to live here, on the fattest curve of the West African coast, has made me think, about my environment and about my home and about the person that says she is me. I think about what I have and don’t have, about what I want and what I need and about what is right and just.

Today I wrote a list of all the things I would change if I could, starting with poverty and world hunger and working my way down to a set of curtain poles and a new toilet seat. I dwelled for too long on all the furniture I would buy if I had the money and then I cried about not having the money and about feeling shabby and about the stupidness of it all anyway. How long can a new look stand up to the challenge of small children, Sahel winds and tropical rain? Why spend energy on changing rooms when I need to clear the clutter inside? It’s the internal makeovers that keep me going.

I think that expecting children not to play with one’s objets d’art is rude (and stupid).

Later I allow myself to dream of a time when someone might do it all for me; create a palace for and present me with the key to the door. I see myself walk inside this dream, enjoying the light and space, the softness and colour, the sparkle and the smell of peace. I make myself coffee in a shining kitchen where everything works and nothing crawls.  I sit on a leather sofa with plump linen cushions and admire strategically placed bric-a-brac. I lie on a four poster bed, gaze out of the window and absorb the landscape. But somehow I can’t decide if this palace is really for me.

I think that giving birth to children and not providing them with palaces is rude (and largely unavoidable).

I brush up against the extremes of wealth and poverty in ways that I never did when living in London. Here I’ve experienced palaces and even been invited inside for lunch. Pleasing to the senses? Absolutely. Do I need to live in one? I’m not sure. Sometimes a single round hut in a compound seems preferable in the way of being more honest, more loving, more social, more free, more earthy, simpler and far (far) less pretentious. Whether the people who live in huts are themselves more honest and less pretentious I have no idea. Possibly not, but they’re easier for me to hang with. So what if the chairs are battered and the decor has given birth to itself without a thought? So what if the sponge mattress is on the floor and the water tap is hanging off? Do we honestly imagine that domestic aesthetics rank high on the scale of what matters?

I think that erecting a palace around oneself while people outside live in huts is rude.

But desire has no manners and I still I ponder a palace. Besides, who’s to say that my austerity helps anyone? Is it possible that the problem is ultimately, more psychological than political? That my lack of a palace is more connected with my personal neglect than any commitment to socialist principles? That I simply can’t be bothered?

I’ve been invited to lunch by an Ambassador’s wife. Once I’ve negotiated the security guards and the long drive, the double doors, the expansive foyer festooned with art, I’ll brush along the grand piano and tramp the Persian rugs and out head out towards the sun terrace where I’ll take my pick of easy chairs and rest my glass on whichever table is to hand and I will end up asking myself, at least once, who I am and why am I here. What kind of world is it that I inhabit? What kind of world is it that I would choose?

Moving has challenged the limits in which I’d made myself comfortable and cracked the lid of a box containing possibilities that I didn’t know existed. Like Pandora, I’m a little afraid to look but looking makes me more alert to the different worlds inside me and the fractious and ongoing dialogue that they have with each other. I am an earth warrior running barefoot, a socialite drinking capuccino in stilettos, a priestess singing in her single room and the princess who wants a room for every colour of the rainbow and then some. I guess we’ll work it out in the end.

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