Allegory 1001: Another House of Hunger


May 28 - Outside the "house of horror' in Springs, east of Johannesburg

Imagine a man has inherited a house from his brother.  He has lived in this house with his brother for a long time.  They had inherited the home from an older brother, who in turn inherited it from the pater familias.  Before that, the old man had taken the house back from unpleasant neighbours, who had squatted in the house for the longest time and treated the occupants with disdain.  It was known widely as the House of Hunger, then, but just before the end of the last century, things changed, for the better.

That man lived in the house for a quarter of a century with his father and older brothers.  Together they attempted to wash the blood stains on the bathroom floor, repainted the walls, replanted the garden, and even went so far as to make substantial renovations to the structure of the house.  They were the custodians of the home, and as they worked, continued to make additional promises to the other occupants. 

To their sisters, aunts, sons, nephews, nieces, daughters, older uncles and grandparents, they promised better furniture, more comfortable beds, more chairs, a better table from which to eat.  They went about fixing some of the broken taps and attempted to provide better light fixtures – some of the younger nieces and nephews wanted to read, after dark, and needed better light. 

But beyond these promises, the man and his brothers were known to go to the local drinking halls and church meetings to boast about how much work they had done on the house.  After all, they said, the house had been allowed to fall into neglect, and the occupants were too often banished or abused by the former squatters.  They were dedicated to the task, and invoked their father’s name to show how committed they were to improving the home.

But some occupants complained that their rooms were terrible.  They complained that the water was not clean in the kitchen, sometimes, and that the supply of electricity to their section of the home was not reliable.  Others complained that they felt abused by one or other of the older cousins, who took up too much room, insisted on eating more than the rest of them.  But one brother said these complaints only reflected how much progress they had made in renovating the house.  Relatives could be so ungrateful, he said.

Whereas the first brother was seen to be aloof, the second was happy to sing with the family, though the happy times had to come to an end.  After all, some of the aunts and uncles said, the second brother seemed to be more interested in his own room, and in friends he had brought to the home, than in the people in the backrooms.  The fourth brother would bring new times, they said, and so organised for him to take over the reins in the family home.  Good times would be back, they said, though some of the distant relations in the backyard who had to make do with cast-off material to shield themselves from the elements wondered when and where these good times were, because they had certainly never seen them.

But the fourth brother, who had also worked away from home for a while, professed to be shocked at the state of the home he had known for a quarter of a century.  How had the dry rot set in so fully?  How had the rising damp gotten as far as the ceiling?  Where was the plumbing the family had paid for?  Why had lead pipes been installed in the children’s kitchen when copper pipes had been asked for?  What corruption had gone on here?

One of the sisters was incredulous at this profession of surprise.  Really, she thought, those brothers had a knack with words and were consummate performers.  How can a man be surprised at the state of disrepair in the very home he had lived in with all of them for all those years?  Had he not heard the complaints from the uncles and aunts, the cousins in the third and fourth rooms?  Did he not sign the documents the municipality sent him about the substandard work contractors were doing? 

Where had his eyes been focusing for that entire quarter-century, she and others wondered, if he was only now waking up to the rotting ceiling, the flea infestation in the living rooms, and the theft of food from the kitchen, medicines from the bathroom, and bedding from the children’s and old people’s quarters?  She could not believe his profession of surprise, no more than she chose to believe those who complained were ungrateful, or that their complaints measured the success of the brothers’ efforts.

Yes, they had changed much, but, she reckoned, they had also stood by when people complained of having the light bulbs from their rooms stolen.  This fourth brother smiled and made non-committal gestures for most of the time that the second brother was in charge.  New times?  For some, definitely, but this profession of surprise at the state of disrepair in the family home he had lived in for a quarter of a century did not inspire her with confidence. 

‘Just imagine.  Shock.  Of all people, of all things,’ she said to her aunt. Then they got on with cooking food for the children, using the meagre scraps left over from the last visit of the marauding cousins who had moved into the north-facing upper floor’s western wing.