The other day I was at our local thrift shop with Izzy (she loves the thrift shop; I tolerate the thrift ship because of its dollar book section); we both emerged having spent roughly 5 dollars each. She ended up with a practical little dry erase calendar that is currently her pride and joy, and I had a healthy little stack of non-fiction books that, if history was an accurate guide, I figured I’d probably never read. Then the other day I found myself at loose ends with my reading material. I’d just finished My Brilliant Friend and I was waiting on my bookclub book (Americanah) to arrive so I decided to pick up one of the thrift shop non-fiction books. And, what do you know? I got completely sucked in. I read that sucker day and night over the past two days and here I am at the other end still marveling at it all!
I can hear the men around the campfire singing softly, taking it in turns to pick up a tune, the rhythm as strong as blood in a body. The firelight flickers off the blue and orange tent in pale, dancing shapes and there is the sweet smell of the African bush, wood smoke, dust, sweat. My bones are so sharp and thin against the sleeping bag that they hurt me and I must cover my hip bones with my hands.
I make a vow never to leave Africa.
Full disclosure – I’m fascinated by Africa, all of it, from its tip to its top and everything in between. I’m fascinated by its landscape, its animals, its people, its history, its present, its everything. One of my areas of fascination is whites in Africa – what compelled them to go there and, even more, what on earth compels them to stay there. So, I knew this book would hold some interest for me, but little did I know the strangely satisfying little treasure this would turn out to be. This is not just about a white childhood in Africa. It’s about an outlandish family and Africa just happens to be yet another larger-than-life character. And it’s written by someone who isn’t afraid to be completely honest because she’s faced far greater adversity than some random judgmental reader.
Her eyes are half-mast. That’s what my sister and I call it when Mum is drunk and her eyelids droop. Half-mast eyes. Like the flag at the post office whenever someone important dies, which in Zambia, with one thing and another is every other week.
Alexandra Fuller, nicknamed Bobo, was born in England in 1969, and her family moved to Africa when she was a toddler. They moved to Zimbabwe (Rhodesia at that time) smack into the literal middle of a brutal civil war. Bobo’s parents sleep with automatic weapons and they can’t travel the roads without fully armored transport. There is the constant threat of exploding mines – not to mention all the natural dangers of Africa. And yet, the Fullers manage to eek out a meagre existence on their farm and Bobo and her sister manage to have a sort of childhood – bizarre though it may seem. In truth, the external threat of terrorists and war are inconsequential when compared to the series of domestic tragedies that strike the family in the coming years. These are the things that truly threaten to undo the family, and yet they manage to bounce back every time.
Some Africans believe that if your baby dies, you must bury it far away from your house, with proper magic and incantations and gifts for the gods, so that the baby does not come back, time after time, and plant itself inside your womb only to die a short time after birth.
This is a story for people who need to find an acceptable way to lose a multitude of babies. Like us. Five born, three dead.
One of the most remarkable things about this book is the perspective which feels completely in the moment. It is all told with the honest, unflinching gaze of a child. This isn’t like so many memoirs where you feel like a wiser adult is looking back and trying to make sense of it all – trying to make it neat and easily digestible for a mass audience. Fuller never rationalizes or even condemns her parents’ behavior (completely reckless) or attitudes (deeply racist). She just lays it all out there to be examined and (hopefully) understood within the context of the time and place. As children typically do, she unquestioningly absorbed the racism surrounding her. As a small child she imperiously bullies African staff and children. As an adolescent she expresses dismay and disgust at having to share facilities with black students.
That night at supper, Oliver sits alone. None of us will sit next to him. We wait to see if he eats like a muntu…..But he has perfect European manners….He takes small, polite bites. He takes small, polite bites. He puts his knife and fork down on the edge of his plate between mouthfuls. He sips his water modestly. At the end of his meal, he pats the top of his lip with his napkin and puts his knife and fork together.
I turn to my neighbor and hiss, “I hope I don’t get that napkin when it comes back from the laundry.”
There is a particular narrative about race that makes most people happy and comfortable and Fuller doesn’t follow it – thank goodness! She does have one moment as a teen where she is invited into an African home for the first time and she sees, perhaps for the first time, the humanity of these people she’s lived among as a superior for all these years. And yet it’s still not the major moment of reversal and redemption that people crave. It’s just a moment along the path of her life and it’s a complicated path she’s probably still treading. To this day her mother still drunkenly rages about whites losing their power in Zimbabwe. And I don’t know Fuller’s current attitudes because she doesn’t tell us and it’s really none of our business. I could go on about this topic, but it feels like something best saved for another day.
The final thing that I have to emphasize before I wrap up is that this book is really an easy and mostly pleasant read. Yes, there is brutality and sadness, but there is also a great deal of wit and humor. Highly recommended!
Title: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
Author: Alexandra Fuller
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars