- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

DON'T LET'S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT: AN AFRICAN CHILDHOOD
By Alexandra Fuller
Random House, $24.95, 368 pages, illus.
REVIEWED JUDITH CHETTLE


Conventionally, two completely different topics, the family and Africa seem to evoke similarly extreme responses. The family, paraphrasing Philip Larkin, either permanently messes the writer up, or is so marvelously nurturing that everything subsequently disappoints. Africa suffers a similar fate: It is either a prelapsarian Eden inhabited by wise tribal elders, or it is a helpless victim of colonialism, drought, globalism the list of potential "isms" is endless. So a book written truthfully about family and Africa is a rare treat.
Alexandra Fuller, "Bobo," a young woman now married and living in Wyoming, is often brutally honest both about her family and Africa as she chronicles a childhood with a manic-depressive mother in a region roiled by war and upheaval. But in "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" it is honesty tempered by love and understanding. Like all who have lived in Africa, the author has been inoculated with a virus that makes living elsewhere a constant reminder of what it is not. She describes, how as an adult coming back from abroad, she wanted to weep with joy as "the incongruous, lawless, joyful, violent upside down, illogical certainty of Africa comes at me like a rolling rainstorm, until I am drenched with relief."
Her family, her mother in particular, are equally exasperating and equally loved. Her mother drinks too much and has been hospitalized for depression, but the author acknowledges her feisty spirit, her love of reading, and a zest for living that has been worn down by a difficult and tragic life. And she forgives her even for the drinking, which leads her in middle age to tell unwary guests, drinking along with her, the story of her life in Africa. A life which is divided into four chapters:
"Chapter One: The War.
Chapter Two: Dead Children
Chapter Three: Insanity
Chapter Four: Being Nicola Fuller of Central Africa.
It is a monologur that inevitably includes the statement, "We were prepared to die, you see, to keep one country white-run."
The author grew up in central Africa in the period when British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's prophetic "winds of change" blew through the region, bringing war, corruption and one-party government instead of the anticipated peace and non-racial democracy. Her British parents came out to what is now Zimbabwe in 1966. They had a daughter Vanessa, and then a son Adrian, but when Adrian died the perfect life of their 23-year-old mother was shattered. The family briefly went back to England where the author was born but returned in 1969, defeated by the English weather and their bleak financial situation.
They would own or manage farms in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia, where the author's parents currently live. Their life was not the glamorous and indolent idyll of a "White Mischief" or a Beryl Markham. Never rich, they went to Africa, likes so many other English families because Britain seemed played out, finished, and Africa offered opportunities for those prepared to work hard. And the family certainly did as they lived hardscrabble lives, always in debt , on remote farms in area where droughts and malaria were ubiquitous.
The housing was rudimentary, the children were infested with worms, electricity was provided by recalcitrant generators, food was monotonous grilled , roasted, and boiled impala for too many meals and towns miles away on dusty rutted roads. But there were compensations horses to ride, abundant wild life , and always the landscape.
But the times were not propitious for white settlers in Africa, their rule was ending, despite a protracted war to maintain it that began in 1968. The Fullers like everyone else in Zimbabwe were affected, especially when they moved to a farm near the Mozambique border, and were subject to guerilla attacks.
They lived behind security fences with guns at the ready the author's father was away fighting for lengthy periods and their farm was raided. After independence, squatters started settling on the farm. The mother, who had already lost another child, in a drowning accident, was pregnant again, but when the baby died following a difficult birth she suffered a breakdown a breakdown that paralleled the disintegration in the region as the state took over health care but lacked the funds and personnel to run local clinics formerly run by the farmers' wives.
When their horses sickened and workers were violently beaten up, the family decided to move to nearby Malawi, still ruled by President-for-life Hastings Banda. Malawi was overcrowded, oppressive and terribly poor. Banda, whose spies were everywhere including in the Fuller's kitchen, dictated what could be worn women could not wear slacks and what was said or written (their letters were all opened).
Frequently ill, the author writes, "we feel more dangerously, teeteringly close to disease and death in a slow rotting, swamp-induced fashion than we did during the war in Rhodesia where there was zinging, adrenaline-filled, anything-goes freedom." They moved to Zambia, to a farm near the Zaire border, a tranquil place that afforded a much needed respite, a "balm in the wounds". And though the author was studying abroad by then she came back for her wedding. The wedding was a memorable three -day-long party, which ended when the electricity failed and her father set himself alight and had to be extinguished with a bottle of champagne.
The author's bouquet was African weeds, the algae-ridden swim pool was filled with balloons, and the water soon ran out. It was Africa at its most insousciant, most joyous and most idiosyncratic self, bending or ignoring every rule and somehow managing to survive, unbent, somehow like her family.
Never sentimental or apologetic, the author has written a memoir that resonates with truth and incisiveness, whether she is writing about a child's incomprehension, or racial differences which are not the same as racism and a continent whose people deserve better. And she does so with an ear for the way people really talk the slang, the prejudices, and the maudlin drunken confession all unvarnished. She has an an eye for the telling detail: the characteristic smell of wood smoke, the white stones round flower beds of aloes; and the farm store with "bright nylon dresses hanging from the beams in the roof wads of thick gray and pink blankets which have a special itchy smell and crates of Coca Cola."
This is a memoir, in which all is as it is, not as it ought to be, however unpalatable or distressing it may be.

Judith Chettle is a South African-born writer now living in Washington.


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