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The Gray Between Black and White
By Margaret Black

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
By Alexandra Fuller Random House, 301 pages, $24.95

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller’s complex and fascinating memoir about growing up “marshmallow” in a black African world, uses the superbly realized perceptions of a tough little girl—the book jacket shows what a roaring strong child she was—to tell a story of persistent economic struggle, relentless family tragedy, scary guerrilla warfare, contemptible racism, and boundless love for a stolen land.

In 1966, Fuller’s parents and their first child, a daughter, come to farm in what Prime Minister Ian Smith, just a year earlier, has declared to be the independent country of Rhodesia. It is a white-ruled country, and Smith intends it to stay that way. When the Fullers’ baby son dies of meningitis, the family flees to England, but not before the author is conceived “next to the thundering roar of the place where the Zambezi River plunges a hundred meters into a black-sided gorge.” One dismal year enveloped in the “grey shroud” of the English countryside sends them hurtling back to another sun-blasted farm in Rhodesia: “Grass, earth, air, buildings, skin, clothes, all took on the same dust-blown glare of too much heat trapped in too little air.”

In 1974 the Fullers move again, this time to a lush, green, junglelike location on Rhodesia’s border with Mozambique. But Mozambique’s Frelimo government has given Rhodesia’s guerrilla fighters a safe haven, so the farm is a particularly dangerous place to live. The Fullers buy a rattletrap but mine-proofed Land Rover and surround their house with razor wire, and everyone learns to shoot to kill.

Then, to the surprise of the white colonials, the blacks win. At the same time, the Fullers suffer yet another personal tragedy as a third daughter accidentally drowns. Mum, who like Dad drinks copiously under any conditions, becomes terrifying. When Robert Mugabe is elected president of Zimbabwe, the farm in Burma Valley becomes part of “land redistribution,” so the Fullers move again, this time to a region declared “Unfit for White Habitation” on old colonial maps. One last pregnancy ends with the newborn’s death, Mum has a severe nervous breakdown, and once again the family moves, first to the neighboring country of Malawi, and later to Zambia. Theirs is no story of wealth achieved through colonial exploitation, but of barely marginal efforts constantly under threat.

To this day the author’s parents are unrepentant racists, condescending to those blacks who follow their directions and contemptuous of black Africans’ ability to rule themselves or farm their lands. At the same time, they are truly valiant, full of humor, and hardworking in their endless ability to start over under the most daunting circumstances. Clearly, the author is no racist. Her dry, ironic catalog of colonial theft and expropriation demonstrates that she knows who’s initially responsible for the disasters of this land. Moreover, she knows exactly how her parents appear, and she’s certainly aware of their distractedly indifferent child-rearing practices, but she loves them nonetheless and admires their grit. And so, ultimately, do we.

What also becomes transcendently apparent is the family’s desperate, passionate devotion to southern Africa, the only place they consider home. As in the novels of Paul Scott, this memoir entangles the reader completely in the complex desire and loss that is the experience of longtime resident colonials. With unsparing honesty, Fuller conveys exactly what she heard and felt, whether she’s collecting black children to force them to play “boss and boys” with her or sitting with the older white kids on the roof of the Land Rover, bouncing wildly over the heavily mined roads while everyone sings, “Because we’re all Rhodesians and we’ll fight through thickanthin/We’ll keep this land a free land, stop the enemy comin’ in.” During a drought, after her boarding school integrates, the schoolgirls have to share bathwater. Fuller objects, but the matron, now a black woman, will have none of her nonsense. “Skin is skin,” she says. So Fuller gets in the tub. “Nothing happens. I bathe. I dry myself, I do not break out in spots or a rash. I do not turn black.”

Everything I’ve said so far, however, fails to capture the humor and the complete authenticity of the personal story. Fuller and her sister Van squabble in predictable ways, although sometimes about unfamiliar things:

“You’ve got tackie lips. Like a muntu [black].”

“I do not.” I suck them in.

“You’re sucking in your lips.”

“Am not!”

Mum says, “They’re not tackie lips, they’re full lips.” She says, “Brigitte Bardot has full lips.”

“Is she a muntu?”

“No, she most certainly is not. She’s very glamorous. She’s French.”

Having tackie lips makes a difference, because the girls know for a “fact” that terrorists “chop off your lips if they catch you.”

Young Fuller, called Bobo, is whiny, petulant, exasperating, dense. Mum, not one to coddle anything that is not a dog, forces 9-year-old Bobo out on an all-day ride to round up a collection of stray African cows. Mother and daughter are riding through guerrilla-infested jungle, with cobras and other completely real dangers.

Mum leaves Bobo by herself while she tries to circle around the cows. After an interminable time, during which Bobo has imagined Mum “lying in a bloody puddle, eyelidless and lipless,” Mum returns, herding the strays. “But it still takes us more than an hour to move the cows less than half a mile. I start to cry again.

“What’s the matter now?” says Mum irritably.

“I’m thirsty,” I cry, “I’m tired.”

“Well, you go on home then,” says Mum. “I’m bringing these cows down.”

“But I don’t know the way.”

“Fergodsake,” says Mum between her teeth.

I start to cry even harder.”

Many authors have tried to write stories in which the personal and the political intersect, but few have succeeded so well as Fuller.


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