Gray Between Black and White
By Margaret Black
Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
By Alexandra Fuller Random House, 301 pages,
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:
got tackie lips. Like a muntu [black].”
do not.” I suck them in.
sucking in your lips.”
Mum says, “They’re not tackie lips, they’re full lips.” She
says, “Brigitte Bardot has full lips.”
she a muntu?”
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
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.
the matter now?” says Mum irritably.
thirsty,” I cry, “I’m tired.”
you go on home then,” says Mum. “I’m bringing these cows down.”
I don’t know the way.”
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