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White roots in black soil

In Rhodesia we are born and then the umbilical cord of each child is sewn straight from the mother to the ground where it takes root and grows.”

This passage appears about half way through Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight (Picador, 2002) in a chapter headed “Losing Robandi”, the farm the Fuller family left after the war was lost. “Or won,” Fuller reminds me in an interview.

Although she was not born in Zimbabwe, she arrived there as an infant; the family lived on various farms until they ended up in the Burma Valley on Robandi, which was right on the Mozambican border and highly undesirable, as the hills to the east were heavily landmined. They’d bought it with borrowed money and the chimurenga was then in its eighth year, in 1974.

Each chapter is preceded by a picture, family snaps, the first of which is captioned “Bobo (Alexandra) loads the FN” — she must have been about seven in the picture. At the time her parents slept with loaded rifles on the floor beside them and the children were warned never to startle them at night, in case they were shot by mistake. So Bobo had to wake her sister to take her to the loo, holding a candle with which to see the spiders and scorpions, never mind the “terrorist” under the bed.

Now the mother of two, Fuller lives with her American husband in a remote and difficult part of Wyoming. But she adds that they are coming back to Africa, Tanzania, in November as they miss it too much. Fuller says she has eight or so novels mouldering in a garage (“Where they belong”), unpublished, all of which skirted around the subject of this book — until she decided to “tackle it as the truth”. Getting it published took “an African amount of determination”, keeping on and on trying.

Her chapters on the chimurenga years are told from a child’s point of view — her father going off as a reservist, for ten days at a time, leaving her mother and children on the farm. Her mother, also a reservist, did duty at headquarters on the radio desk while Fuller lolled about reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Although times were hard and food absolutely basic, they had a wonderful library of books left behind by white farmers who were leaving. They also inherited the dogs. Interspersed with these childhood memories are evenhanded accounts of what the chimurenga was about and other history. The most miraculous thing about the war was that afterwards, “for about twenty years” she specifies carefully, “people could put it behind them”, even the boy soldiers who had “known nothing but war and who could never forget that they were warriors”.

Difficult, inhospitable farms like Robandi were given away in the new land redistrubution to “Mugabe’s enemies, whom he is pretending to appease”. Fuller’s father takes this philosphically and gets ready to start again elsewhere. They joke about “piss and reconcilation”.

Fuller describes her book as “deliberately honest”. Questioned as to why she’d not included any of her black friends, she gives two reasons: it was a question of focus, and she did not want to seem “like a closet white liberal”. “I can’t stand these books coming out of Africa written by these white kids who pretend they were really nice to their nannies.”

She is also devastatingly honest about her family. Her mother, Nicola, whom she loved and admired, was sometimes not easy to live with, drank excessively at times and battled manic depression. At one point Fuller says, “Her sentences and thoughts are interrupted by the cries of her dead babies.” In addition to all the other difficulties of her life, Nicola also had to cope with the death of three infants, an ongoing grief that affected them all profoundly.

What sets this book apart from other African memoirs of childhood is not only its refreshingly frank exposé of white consciousness then, but also its writing that is concise, swift, stylish and deeply poetic. Full of hilariously dry asides, it is a complex overlay of many characters and issues in circumstances few would choose for themselves.

After a book promotion tour of fourteen cities in the United States, Fuller visited her parents in Zambia for Christmas; her father picked her up at the airport and “threw [her] in the back of the bakkie with the dogs and the petrol”, where she spent the ride home contemplating a sudden ignominious death from the sparks from her father’s pipe flying back from the cab igniting the petrol. This amuses her. “They’ll never let me get too big for my little boots,” she says, and goes on to reflect that what they’ve really given her can never be taken away: “humility and self-sufficiency”.

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