Every Nigerian knows this. We may find something to eat, or secure a place to play, or embark on a rambling ride for work around town or from town to town. But one thing we must not escape, cannot escape is where we want to lay our head, the place with a roof, with a proprietary space, the place called home.
The mighty and the small, in whatever state or estate, covet it. Yet the concept of home was for ages taken for granted until civilisation kicked us in the face, when the city sprouted out of our desire to strut out of our rural rut. The home before then was a mud and thatch and meals and family and joy of the simple. Poverty was defined differently in terms of the plenitude of barns, the size of harems and the stoutness of farms and expanse of compounds. The architecture of homes was tame, relative to today. But they never described their lives as simple even if we do so today retrospectively.
Enter the city, and the throng of people from the rural reaches. Crowds became material to prosperity. The cash replaced cowries and other standards of currency, and roads had to be cleared for factories. Then the city met inventions, and the cars, the trucks, the trains, and the machines and the flavour of different cultures and peoples merging in one metropolis.
Welcome to the modern world. All of them needed to have shelter. Just before feudal life collapsed into a capitalist half-light, workers slept in dormitories, coddled, curdled, huddled, the picture of a jumbled life. But they lived for the day, for the wage.
Sounds familiar? If you live in any city in Nigeria, whether Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Kano, Kaduna, Enugu, Owerri, Warri, Benin or Ilorin, you know the story. People want a place they can call their own. In the west, the concept of the condominium, now called condos, has become one of the three Cs of capitalism – cars, condos and credit cards.
The city is the place for the strangers, either from far or near. And they need two things from the city – a job and a home. But if they don’t have a job, they need a roof over their heads. Upon this depends their health, their pride, their launching pad for family. But, more than jobs, it throws up the greatest challenge. It is one of the triumphs of the western world that they have built sprawling condos that unleashed the middle class, especially in the aftermath of the Second World. The United States created the suburbs.
To do this, you did not rely on the measly income of the average worker who could not buy his house even if he saved from here to eternity. So the genius of the mortgage system came to be-[I ing, and with that hope for the homeless.
Well, the governor of example, Babatunde Raji Fashola, launched a programme that must be seen as the first in this part of the world, but also a domesticated version of it. To qualify for a home you must not have had one, must have paid taxes in the past five years, will fall into the trap of the law if you had a home while you applied, must pay 30 percent down and pay the rest in ten years, must be resident in Lagos. You don’t have to be an indigene, must not sublet it or rent it out in the period of the contract.
It is a paean to vision and ambition. Pictures of all Lagos homes and their owners are in a data base, so you cannot lie that you don’t own a home if you do. Recently, a residency registration happened to document where you live and what house you own, and you must have a number to even qualify.
The Lord also once lamented that birds had places to sleep but the son of man had nowhere to lay his head. Challenges abound though. It won’t be easy for those who want a bed-room apartment to fish out 30 percent of N4 million, or even the so-called middle-class to ferret out about N10 million for three bedroom flat of N32 million. But this is the skein of dreams. It means not all who are first time owners or those who have paid their taxes in five years can necessarily have the financial heft to own the home.
But it is a start, and it is revolutionary. It is bold leap into a place where the cost of cement, iron rods, sands, etc is no longer as accessible as when Lateef Jakande built his. Owning a home for anyone is an act of will and ambition of a life time. Hence those who qualify know that it is not an opportunity to let slip. That is where the dream of a government meets the hustle of the citizen, and that is the beauty of the programme unleashed by Governor Fashola last week.
For them, it will be Fashola’s castle brought down from the air. Before now, this kind of programme was like a castle in the air. People imagined it, caressed it, wedded it. Now they can own their castles.
“Castles in the air,” mused Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, “are so easy to take refuge in – and so easy to build.”
I recall the story of the man who once asserted that in the early 1970’s, he hoped that when God took over the earth he would be one of the righteous ones left to pick the goodies. He exclaimed that he would inherit the UAC House and his fellow church members picked other big mansions in Lagos. That is the imagination of the poor, what Ibsen in his play, The Master Builder, saw as the human capacity to build rooms after rooms. The poor always seek a way out of their penury, and what other way than the home.
When governments turn plebian phantasies into reality, they become dazed. The city dweller often comes to the city and finds it hard to find a home. It is like the novel by Franz Kafka titled The Castle when a stranger enters a city and cannot find whom he wants to see in the city castle. Bureaucracy, language, a serpentine row of rooms and offices and other barriers frustrate him. How do you get a land without bribe or frustrating agents, or certificate of occupancy, or survey or buy that room without loan or how do you get that loan without knowing somebody, or how do you buy that condo if you speak a different language from the owner, agent, etc. It is an irony that just as Kafka’s character never got what he wanted, Kafka never finished the novel before he died. “Illusions are more common than changes in fortune,” he wrote in the novel.
The programme, with its inevitable drawbacks, provides a platform to temper dreams with experience.