||Rout of Africa
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
Picador £15.99, pp310
The Observer, February 24th 2002
VS Naipaul, in his 1971 Booker Prize-winning novel In a Free State, offered a vision of the future for whites in sub-Saharan Africa in his portrayal of a European couple in flight from civil war in an unnamed African state. The couple eventually reaches a fortified city at the southernmost tip of the unnamed country, where other whites, like them, are anxiously clustered and where they speak, as they do today in Cape Town, that last authentic white stronghold in Africa, of atrocities witnessed and prepare for the violence ahead.
In a Free State can be read as a parable of the collapse into anarchy of Zimbabwe and, more generally, of the white retreat from southern Africa, as settlers have fled first from the Congo and then from Zambia, Malawi, Rhodesia and post-apartheid South Africa, not forgetting the catastrophic exodus of the Portuguese from Angola and Mozambique, which condemned those states to perpetual conflict.
Today, Africa is characterised largely as being a continent of failed states. Some influential thinkers such as Robert Cooper, who advises New Labour, are even advocating a new form of benign, disinterested colonialism to counteract endemic corruption, ethnic rivalry and the failure of the African elite to produce workable civil societies.
But the stain of imperialism is deep. The traumas of nation-building of the kind being experienced in Zimbabwe, with its corrupt system of patronage and control, as outlined by Martin Meredith in his lucid new study, are the inevitable consequences of attempting to impose inappropriate Western models of government on artificially constructed nation-states. If Africa is ever to flourish - and perhaps the truth about Africa is that it may never flourish - it must be allowed to find its own way in the world, free from outside intervention.
Alexandra Fuller arrived with her parents and elder sister, Vanessa, in Rhodesia in 1972, seven years after Ian Smith had made his disastrous unilateral declaration of independence in opposition to the inevitability of black majority rule. Her parents had lived previously in Rhodesia as well as Kenya, and they had returned to Africa restlessly seeking something that had always eluded them in damp, restrictive Britain. Happiness, perhaps.
The family soon moves to a struggling farm in the remote Burma Valley on the eastern border with Mozambique, from where Robert Mugabe's Shona Zanu guerrillas are launching cross-border raids at the start of the bush war, killing farmers on their isolated settlements.
As many local whites prepare to flee, usually at night, the Fullers become ever-more perversely entrenched on their farm. Protective razor-wire fencing is erected around their compound, the girls receive shooting lessons, and suffering and violent death are accepted as mere facts of life, rather like the weather. Fuller recalls how one girl, who attends the local high school in Umtali, has her legs blown off; on another occasion, a bus explodes after hitting a landmine and body parts hang from the trees like 'black and red Christmas decorations'.
When independence finally arrives, in 1980, and Mugabe, learning from earlier post-colonial struggles and what went wrong in countries such as Mozambique, cannily pursues reconciliation with the remaining whites, the Fullers decide to stay on in Zimbabwe. They move further south, to manage another ruined farm, but their lives there amount to little more than a chain of calamities and woes: a newborn child dies (Alexandra has already lost two siblings), the weather is relentless and debilitating, and Fuller monitors her mother's slow decline into alcoholism and madness.
She writes with wit and a tough, self-revealing honesty of the loneliness, boredom and poverty of life in those desolate borderlands, of the shattering silence of the long nights after the generators have been switched off and of feelings of continual fear. She does good weather, too; her book is saturated in heat and dust and dirt. Like many first-time writers, she strives to invent her own idiom. She mangles and stretches language as she seeks to speak and see with the immediacy of the child she once was.
It doesn't always work. At times, she experiments too much - with alliteration, compound adjectives and short verbless sentences - and in so doing her book becomes an engine of self-delight, a work of exhibitionism: I'm here! Yet the exuberance and readability of her narrative are such as to compel the suspension of all critical judgment. Fuller, like Arundhati Roy, whom she stylistically recalls, has the stardust of future celebrity all over her. Her memoir is terrific.
Fuller's parents still live in Africa, in Chirunda, Zambia, in 'one of the least healthy, most malarial, hot, disagreeable places' in the entire country. They are two hours by car from the home of Vanessa and a long way from urban life - 'far from the madding crowd,' her father jokes.
The author is bewildered by the wilful eccentricity and stubbornness of her parents and by the strange vacancy of her sister who, she concedes, for most of their time together resided in a place of 'such profound, unreachable pain that she didn't exist for me except as some shadowy, silent, very beautiful unattainable creature'. From her new home in Wyoming, Fuller refuses to condemn her parents. They have suffered too much because of their profound love of Africa, never ceasing to mourn the death of their three children.
When I was last in Zimbabwe, shortly after the 2000 general election, I was encouraged by how everyone I met, white and black, seemed to be garrulously opposed to Robert Mugabe. There was a renewed atmosphere of candour and liberation. It was hard not to imagine the old tyrant falling soon. It did not happen - and now millions face starvation.
Perhaps I made the familiar mistake of observing Africa through Western eyes, because Fuller, who was in Zimbabwe at the same time as me, saw something quite different: the past repeating itself in the immediate violence washing over the country. 'What I saw,' she says, 'was yesterday's terror.'
Which will become tomorrow's terror as well if Mugabe wins the forthcoming presidential election, condemning the last remaining whites of Zimbabwe to move on again, perhaps this time heading even further south to Cape Town and the end of Africa, where they may remain, like Pincher Martin on his blasted rock, living out their last days in that increasingly fortified settlement on the southernmost tip of the continent.
Not to be reproduced without permission.