A peek inside Kenya’s Khadambi Asalache ‘out of this world’ house that was once a dump before he painstakingly turned it into a work of art that is now a museum

Khadambi Asalache's house. (Twitter)
  • Located in South London, the unassuming house is a perfect example of a rough gem hiding in plain sight.
  • Upon swinging the doors open, however, one is met with the inspiring legacy of an uncommon man.
  • The late Khadambi Asalache painstakingly turned the house into a work of art with hand-carved fretwork with African, Islamic, and British influences over a period of over 20 years.

From afar, the house of the late Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan poet, artist, and author doesn’t look like much.

Located in South London, the unassuming house is a perfect example of a rough gem hiding in plain sight.

Upon swinging the doors open, however, one is met with the inspiring legacy of an uncommon man.

Born on February 28, 1935, in Kaimosi, in present-day Vihiga County, Khadambi was the first child of the local chief.

From a young age, he began reading Shakespeare as he watched over the family’s herd of goats during school holidays and his love for literature grew and grew.

He later joined the Royal Technical College (later, the University of Nairobi) in the 1950s to study architecture before leaving the country to learn fine art in Rome, Geneva, and Vienna.

Khadambi eventually moved to London in 1960 where he even served on the council of management of the Africa Centre in London in the 1970s.

During this time, he received a Master of Philosophy in Philosophy of Mathematics from Birbeck, University of London, and later got a job at Her Majesty’s Treasury.

He also taught Kiswahili and got into broadcasting at the BBC African Service.

Khadambi was among the pioneer generation of modern Kenyan writers in English, with his first novel, The Calabash of Life, published by Longman in 1967.

Besides his writings, Khadambi’s legacy rests in the house that he bought in London, in a parlous state.

In 1981, while looking for a house that would be conveniently located for a bus ride to his office he found his diamond in the rough; a dilapidated house previously occupied by squatters at 575 Wandsworth Road and bought it for less than the asking price of £31,000.

Over the next two decades, he painstakingly turned it into a work of art with hand-carved fretwork with African, Islamic, and British influences.

The raw material for the carvings was typically salvaged from rubbish dumps.

Inside the house are souvenirs from Asalache's foreign travels and memories of trips closer to home, to the theatre.

Asalache died in 2006 and left the house under the care of National Trust, the UK conservation charity. He left no explanation of his motives as an artist.

“I think the house really stands for the power of human endeavour, and for what can be created with time and dedication and love," the Trust's Laura Hussey told the BBC's Newsday programme.

In 2009, the National Trust and the local libraries in Lambeth offered eight new writers the chance to work in Khadambi’s house, drawing on experiencing his work from the inside.

The National Trust described it as “a fascinating house which at once is both a work of art and a home.”

In the process, it raised £4 million to maintain and preserve the house for its artistic heritage.

The house became London’s newest museum after an official opening in 2013 with the items inside kept just the way the owner he had organized them.

The house is now open for visits organised by the National Trust. Due to the delicate nature of the objects in the house, the number of visitors is limited to 2,000 per year with only six guests being hosted at a time.

There is also a requirement for visitors to come with a pair of socks or slippers in order to walk on the hand-painted floors.

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