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The extraordinary world of Kenyan poet and author Khadambi Asalache

Khadambi Asalache, poet and pioneer of modern English Kenyan literature, lived an extraordinary life. Now, more than a decade after his death, the public can view his stunning estate, which he left to the National British Trust. The estate is exceptional because for more than 20 years he decorated it extensively with Moorish-influenced fretwork which he cut by hand from discarded pine doors and wooden boxes.

Born in 1935 in Kaimosi, western Kenya, as the first child of the local chief, Khadambi Asalache received a remarkable education. He went to the Royal Technical College in Nairobi to read architecture but was diverted while at a students’ conference in Tunisia and spent the next few years in Rome, Geneva and Vienna, where he studied fine art. He moved to London in 1960.

The Calabash of Life, his first novel, was published in 1967 and went into 10 editions worldwide. It was on the reading list in Kenyan schools, cementing him as an author of note in the 1960s and 1970s. His poems were published in literary journals and his collection Sunset in Naivasha was bought by Eothen Books in 1973. His best known poetic work, “Death of a Chief”, appeared in the Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry in 1995.

575 Wandsworth Road, London

In 1981 Asalache bought an unassuming Georgian home on London’s Wandsworth Road. What started as a dilapidated two-up, two-down house previously occupied by squatters, with a basement and a small garden, became the author’s greatest work. For 25 years, Asalache spent evenings and weekends single-handedly covering walls and doors with an intricate reticulated fretwork in a style that is “eclectic, reflecting Islamic and rococo influences, as well as those of his native Africa,” says The Telegraph newspaper.

“He lined it with never symmetrical or repeated fretwork shelves, arches, architraves and friezes, delicate as cobwebs, the motifs including birds, geometrics, dancers, flowers and leaves, Africans going to market and animals (though not carnivores).”

In February 1989 Asalache told Ena Kendall of The Observer newspaper, the first journalist to notice his work, “Some Arab designs are very elegant but repetitive. Most African shapes are self-centred: to do a continuous shape with them is not easy, so for linkage I looked to Morocco and India,” reported an obituary on the website abeingo.com.

His extraordinary home found its way into the publication The World of Interiors in July-August 1990 and Sunday Telegraph Magazine in February 2000. By the 2000s it was well-known to the influential architectural historians John Cornforth and Tim Knox, director of Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Knox wrote about the house in the interior design magazine Nest, in the autumn 2003 issue: “It is an extremely serious and carefully worked out exercise in horror vaccuii [the filling of the entire surface of a space or an artwork with detail. The literal meaning of the phrase is “fear of emptiness”], taking its inspiration from the Mozarabic reticulations of the Moorish kingdoms of Granada.”

Follow this link for pictures of the interior of 575 Wandsworth Road

The National Trust’s acquisition

Asalache, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 71, left his lifelong pet project to Britain’s National Trust that they may open it up for the consumption of all who wish to view it.

According to The Telegraph the restoration cost more than half a million pounds. Aside from the introduction of necessary measures of security and proofing, the house’s authenticity has been honoured. “There is no set dressing,” Susie Thomson told the publication. “If Khadambi walked in now, he would recognise absolutely everything was just as he left it.” The National Trust also estimates that it needs to raise £4 million to preserve the house and to make modifications necessary to open it fully to the public.

The National Trust estimates that it needs to raise £4 million to preserve Asalache’s house.

In the meantime, most of the house can be visited by small parties, strictly to be booked in advance via the National Trust’s website.

Read: The Evolution of Traditional Yoruba Architecture

Writingcities.com described the majesty of the house after one of these guided tours: “Asalache created a completely different world of shadow and light and wood, maximised every last glimmer of sunshine in this often grey and gloomy place through glass and porcelain, through subtle and hidden touches of gold paint.”

Also on display are some of his written work, including a letter he wrote on the subject of ‘Ujamaa’, which translates as “togetherness” or “community”, in response to an article by one of Kenya’s great minds, Tom Mboya.

In the letter Asalache wrote, “Once I thought Socialism was a political theory of society but now I hear the African brand is being adapted from our traditions of Ujamaa. Producing ‘African Socialism’ from Ujamaa is chasing a wild goose: poor wazee (old men) in the villages will no doubt be flattered when they are told that their humanity and friendliness arising from Ujamaa is the ‘twentieth century African socialism.’”

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