Real estate


Life 18 miles from a paved road

Alexander Vidal for The Boston Globe

My first home came to me free — in a way — in 1982. As a newly inducted high school teacher for Peace Corps Kenya, my contract with the school included, in addition to my $200-per-month salary in local currency, housing furnished with a bed, a mattress, a water source, a table and chair, and a means to cook.

My house was one half of a duplex right on the school grounds, the other half belonging to a British volunteer named Derek. The four-room structure with concrete floor featured a two-burner gas stove, four shuttered openings covered with a wide grill mesh, two bookcase-type shelves, no closets, no ceiling, no electricity, no faucets — for that matter, no indoor plumbing at all. My toilet was a hole in the ground surrounded by corrugated aluminum. My bathing facilities were similarly constructed, a large plastic bucket shared with a black widow spider. My water came from a concrete tank filled with the rainwater collected from the gutters on my aluminum roof. I was 18 miles from a paved road.

Despite the basicness of the house, I really came to love the place. I created a makeshift closet by stringing wire between the tops of the parallel walls in the bedroom. I decorated by tying greeting cards Tibetan prayer flag-style from the faux panels, a reminder of love and friendship sent from my friends and family in the United States. I hung a kanga, a traditional, colorfully printed cloth bedecked with Swahili proverbs, from another wall to encourage me in my two-year teaching contract. I even tried hand-waxing the floors to make it easier to clean up mud tracked in during the rainy season.


I woke daily to light beaming through the spaces between the wooden boards of the house. Geckos scratched and scrambled up the walls and across support beams. Thanks to them, I never had a mosquito problem. Rain beat a loud rhythm on the aluminum roof during the “wet” season, which challenged all conversation. Derek planted banana and papaya trees, peas, and guavas in our front yard. I ate so many bananas I didn’t touch another one for 10 years after I returned home.

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My house site on a hill afforded me spectacular views of the town foot traffic to the coffee factory, the local men’s soccer matches at the neighboring primary school, and the waxing/waning cloud cover over Mount Kenya’s snow-covered peaks 75 miles to the north. I spent a lot of time after work watching life from the front stoop.

Evening conversation passed through the uninsulated wall dividing the duplex, as if Derek and I were in the same room. We alternated listening to his radio’s broadcast of the BBC and mixed-tape songs on my cassette player; we narrated the plots of novels we had just finished reading.

My very public perch invited people from town to drop in and visit on Sundays, demonstrating a sociability and gregariousness I miss dearly to this day. It’s no wonder that when my contract was completed two years later, I sobbed the length of that long red-clay road that took me back to the airport away from the coziest home and neighborhood I ever inhabited.

Dr. Paula Mahon is medical director of Healthcare for the Homeless in Manchester, N.H. Please send comments and a 550-word essay on your first home to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.