Moving to East Africa as newly weds years ago, meant that all we had to ship from England was our John Lewis wedding list stuff. The usual – Denby ‘oven to table’ wear in the overly popular blue and white (all my friends married in that era have the same), stainless steel cutlery, a magi-mix, a camcorder, a microwave, a cool box on wheels, a mirror, a tv. We didn’t choose any glasses, especially smart cut glass, for fear of it breaking in transit, on the way to Africa. Curtains were made from lengths of fabric from the second hand market where we found designer names like Cath Kidson, Ralph Lauren and Designers Guild.
The upshot of our situation was that when we moved into our first house, we didn’t have any furniture and as a result now all our cupboards, beds, tables, chairs and sofas are a hotchpotch of items ‘made in Africa’ often by ‘jua khali fundis’, literally translated as hot sun workmen, or rather carpenters who operate from a shack on the side of the road or work out in the open under the hot sun.
Our first buy was a large low pine varnished bed measuring two metres by two metres made in Tanzania. The dimensions were chosen so that we had plenty of space and didn’t crowd one another in the stifling, humid climate of Dar es Salaam. Finding a mattress was tricky though.
We’ve got a pretty chest of drawers, carved from top to bottom with safari animals (giraffe, hippo, lion, buffalo, zebra etc) made by Tanzanian Mkonde carvers, the top is a bit wobbly as nothing balances on the carved surface. We have a large solid wood hippo whose ears were chewed off by our first Alsatian puppy. We’ve got a tv cabinet that had to morph into a file cabinet as it ended up too small for the tv (I gave the carpenter measurements of the tv and he translated them as outside measurements of the cabinet itself. Then a second attempt at a tv cabinet whose doors don’t quite meet in the middle as the wood shrank after it was made.
Our dining room chairs are a bit wobbly as they were made on the side of the road which is just dirt and dust in dry season, mud in wet season and so it’s hard to find a properly flat surface there on which to judge the length of the chair legs. There’s also one chair that squeaks like mad every time you made the slightest movement because the joints have all got loose and unglued, the kids love sitting on that one!
We have some funny Zanzibar stuff, a couple of side tables with drawers, too low to get your legs under, a standing mirror, round occasional tables and a brass studded chest that is impossible to get shiny. There are some bits of old furniture; desks and shelves that were being thrown out from my husband’s office that I snapped up, then tried to get creative for hours and hours by doing DIY colour washes and white wash effects. They never turned out very well, the clear finishing varnish I used has all gone yellow but they are still in use.
The kids have pine ‘sleigh’ beds painted gloss white with huge bolts poking out of each end and the ‘copy of a Mothercare top seller’ cot has just survived the third child who is now nearly out of it. We never really got the sliding mechanism right for the cot’s lifting/adjustable side which has always been stiff and unwieldy but that’s not surprising when it comprises a botched attempt at a roughly hand cut out metal plate and screw head that fits inside, sliding up to a wobbly notch and down again.
In a fit of creativity and when we heard we were moving to cooler climbs, I ordered from the friendly ‘Mohammed – Carpenter’ an Edwardian style bed copied from a photograph in ‘Homes and Gardens’. The result was not an exact replica, it came out a bit bigger than I’d expected and there are still protruding bolts, but to be fair it’s not a bad attempt at a copy. We left our original 2 metre x 2 metre pine bed behind and disassembled the ‘mninga’ (local hardwood) ‘Edwardian’ one to freight to Nairobi. The bed dwarfs our now smaller bedroom but since we’ve found a much worse, more distracting problem. It ticks!?!?
Night after night I’m woken by our ticking bed. The slightest movement or roll by my husband sets it off and there it goes; ‘tick, tick, tick, tick, tick’ right next to my ear.
I’ve tried banging it, then shaking the headboard; first I thought there was some weird ticking beetle in it, or ticking worm. Now we’ve narrowed the problem down to a loose bolt possibly – but it seems strange that that should ‘tick’. It’s been periodically ticking for four and a half years now. Occasionally it stops for a few months, then starts up again. My husband is threatening to get rid of the bed as with three children and four dogs we have enough night time disturbances without a ticking bed, but now I’ve got all sentimental about it and don’t want to my copy of an antique bed featured in ‘Homes and Gardens’ and made by Mohammedi to go. I love our quirky, handmade furniture, each piece has a funny story to tell.