Zimbabwe in black and white

House of Stone, by Christina Lamb, HarperCollins £14.99, pp290

May 14 2006 / The Observer

Rhodesians Worldwide is a website through which old Rhodies communicate, and wonder about the lives they might have lived if Robert Mugabe had not won the war to liberate from white minority rule the country that became Zimbabwe. These dispatches are, inevitably, nostalgic and Rhodesia is remembered as a kind of Arcadia before the fall, when these reluctant exiles were enjoying the time of their lives, unburdened, it seems, by any sense of racial or liberal political conscience. The contributions to the site can be read as an exercise in willed denial; what is missing is any curiosity about the lives of the black Africans among whom they once lived, what they thought, believed or wanted.

Denial is the subject of Christina Lamb’s book, which tells the story of a white farmer called Nigel Hough and his black maid, Aquinata, and how they were brought together and changed by the farm invasions that began in 2000 and have since led to the ruin of the agricultural infrastructure of one of the most fertile countries in Africa and to the misery of its people.

Nigel’s father, an Englishman, settled in Rhodesia in the late 1940s, attracted there by the ease of the lifestyle, the climate, the landscape, and by the privileges of being white in this part of colonial Africa. What is often forgotten about Rhodesia is how resolutely suburban it was. To visit the capital, Salisbury, was like finding yourself in Tunbridge Wells on a Sunday afternoon; the polite hush and the prejudices were certainly the same. How can this be Africa, you thought?

Growing up in a village, Aqui had her own dreams and aspirations. She wanted to be educated, and she wanted to be a nurse. She believed in the war to liberate her people and she was sure that once the whites were defeated and the blacks controlled their own destiny, there would be equality and the country would flourish.

For a brief period following the free election of Robert Mugabe as president in 1980, there was hope that reconciliation between the black majority and the remaining whites was possible. In his post-election address to the nation, Mugabe spoke of forgiveness and urged whites to stay on to build the new country. The white farmers, despite faltering attempts at reform, were allowed to continue very much as before, working the richest and most fertile land.

Nigel was encouraged; Africa was his home, he was a white African; he wanted to believe, as Aqui did, in the possibility of a harmonious future. He stayed on and, in time, married a local white woman and settled on a farm in the tobacco-growing district of Marondera. It was there that Aqui came to work for him, her life before then, even in liberated Zimbabwe, amounting to a convoy of sorrows: raped as a child by a schoolmaster, a drunken, abusive husband, absolute poverty.

Nigel and Aqui’s stories are told in alternating chapters, their own words, rendered in italics, merging with the flow of Lamb’s hurried prose. But there is a problem: too often one struggles to differentiate Aqui’s voice (her English would surely be Shona-inflected) from Nigel’s. In their flatly modulated diction they both sound like Christina Lamb.

Lamb is a courageous and excellent reporter but she can be a careless writer. In her acknowledgements she thanks her editor ‘who somehow turned round her manuscript in record time’. But her editor failed to prevent her worst excesses: repetition, overstatement and a serious absence of attribution. One section, on the Selous Scouts, reads as if hastily paraphrased from a website dedicated to the Scouts. If this site was indeed one of her sources, as it must have been, why isn’t it cited? Why wasn’t she advised to include a bibliography, index or source notes, in what is, after all, not only reportage but a semi-scholarly history of Zimbabwe?

The final section of the book, the best, sees Lamb back in Zimbabwe, illegally. The farms have been destroyed. The shanty settlements of the blacks in the cities who dared to vote against Mugabe in the last election have been demolished as part of Operation Clean Up the Filth. Most of the whites who can have emigrated, and the prevailing mood is one of menace and fear - a geriatric tyrant holding on to power at any cost. The Houghs remain in the country, though they have lost their farm, and Aqui is still working for them in a subordinate role. Nigel and Aqui now live without dreams, illusions or hope. Yet they have mutual respect - and a greater understanding of what it means to be black, and indeed white, in southern Africa. But, oh, the pain, and the regret.