Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood – Review

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda
Issue 5 Easter 2003
The magazine of

Women's Union

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra FullerReviewed by Deborah Seddon

In 1971, Alexandra Fuller’s parents, after trying unsuccessfully to adapt to life in the
English countryside, sold their farm and returned to Rhodesia, a country on the brink of a
bloody civil war. As the ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope, her mother lifted the
two-year-old Alexandra to face the breeze, “Smell that, she whispered, that’s home”. But for
white Africans the question of ‘home’ is always problematic. “Where are you from
originally” is a question which Fuller notes as unsettling, the charged complexities of
identity and belonging difficult to assert in any concise or comfortable form. Fuller’s
memoir, of a childhood that saw the transition of a country through civil war to independence,
is her answer: the portrait of a white farming family that is unflinching in its
honesty. Three years younger than Fuller, I grew up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe at the same time. Her
book proved to be a painful but rewarding emotional return to the interior landscapes of that
funny, brutal, ugly, and beautiful place. “Rhodesia has more history stuffed into its
make-believe, colonial dream borders than one country the size of a very large teapot should
be able to amass in a hundred years. Without cracking.” Fuller’s book tells the story of a
country, a family, and a national identity, cracking apart.

In primary school, as we learnt to draw the map of the country into which we’d been born, the
teachers always pointed out how it was shaped like a teapot. But of course, both the tea, and
the teapot of a map, were the result of fashioning a nation out of conquered, contested land,
which in Fuller’s account takes on a character of its own-irresistible, fertile, beloved of
all its offspring -it will go on unblinking under the African sky “careless” of the bloody
contests over its identity, or ownership, drinking in the blood of black and white alike: “You
can call it what you like, fight all the wars you want in its name. It doesn’t care”. The
first Chimurenga (a Shona word meaning ‘war of liberation’) began in 1896, when the Mashona
farmers, their land brutally seized as Cecil John Rhodes and the British settlers moved North,
rose up to fight for “a land in which they have put their seed, their sweat, their hopes”. But
as the second Chimurenga began in the 1970s, these sentiments also characterise the white
Rhodesian conviction that their fight against the “terrs”, (as the guerrilla soldiers were
commonly called) for land they had tilled for almost a century, was a just cause. Today,
Mugabe’s government is calling the appropriation of land from white farmers the third
Chimurenga, and this book sheds illumination on the current situation in Zimbabwe, and why the
land issue is so far from being resolved.

Fuller’s portrait of this country and its people is vividly rendered; the detail is rich,
personal, and sensory. Told from the perspective of Bobo, Alexandra’s childhood self, it
evokes the very smells and tastes of the land: “it is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire,
old sweat, young grass.” This savour of the real is best embodied in Fuller’s frank depiction
of her mother, Nicola-the source of much of the book’s humour, her rage and grief is also the
dark vortex which consumes Bobo’s childhood. With her husband away on call-up, Nicola runs the
farm, rounds up stray cattle, saves the life of her maid Violet during a brutal attack, and
kills a spitting cobra, to the amazement of her terrified children and servants, by spraying
the pantry with automatic rifle fire, when the snake attacks her dogs. As her mother slides
into alcoholism, brought on by the deaths of her children, accidents, drought, and the
grinding poverty of the war years, “it starts to get hard for me to know where Mum’s madness
ends and the world’s madness begins.”

Fuller’s account of the exhausted disbelief that accompanied the loss of Rhodesia, and her
parents’ farm, is presented through the eyes of a child, trying to make sense of the wider
historical processes unfolding around her, and shattering realisation that the national
identity the adults in her world had fought so hard to protect was not a given, but a fiction,
and one with devastating consequences: “We were prepared to die,” says Nicola, drunk with wine
and despair after the war, “to keep one country white run.” This candid portrayal of the
madness that shaped the story of white Rhodesia neither apologises nor excuses, but tells the
truth of the place through the intimate particularity of its people. The book has a resonance
beyond the specificity of Zimbabwe; it is a timely reminder that the Rhodesian belief, in the
innate goodness of their ideals, is a ‘white lie’ of colonialism still deeply embedded in
mainstream Western attitudes.




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