What goes through their heads?
This month, I want to conclude the discussion on what goes through the heads of the “outsiders” who come to Africa with the intention of teaching us the way of the world, by looking at Alexandra Fuller’s book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – An African Childhood. By Baffour Ankomah
As I mentioned in last month’s column, Alexandra, now 46, was born in England in 1969 and brought to Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when she was 3 years old by her Anglocentric parents who also farmed in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Malawi. In 2003, at the height of the Zimbabwean land reform programme and the hubris that arose over it in the West, Alexandra, then 32, published her book.
It received enthusiastic reviews in the West, but it is a book in which the African was desecrated through 315 pages, only for Alexandra to admit at the very end that her mother who was so influential in her childhood was a “racist”, and that she (Alexandra) had written the book because “I felt as if I needed to find a way to explain the racism I had grown up around, to justify the hard living of whites in Africa, to expunge my guilt over the injustice I had witnessed in my youth.” So there was an “injustice”.
But as expected, coming out especially at the critical point where Zimbabwe’s land issue had made the country cannon folder for Western commentators, the book was received with glee. One of the most colourful reviews came from the Chicago Tribune: “The Africa of this beautiful book,” the Tribune said, “is not easy to forget. Despite, or maybe even because of, the snakes, the leopards, the malaria and the sheer craziness of its human inhabitants, often violent but pulsing with life, it seems like a fine place to grow up, at least if you are as strong, passionate, sharp, and gifted as Alexandra Fuller.”
God created Africans too
Just imagine. This is 2003. What is going through the head of the Chicago Tribune writer when writing this about us, God-created Africans! “Despite, or maybe even because of, the snakes, the leopards, the malaria and the sheer craziness of its human inhabitants, [Africa] seems like a fine place to grow up.”
And Alexandra and her publishers had the good grace to print this mother of all insults on the flyleaf as the first of the “Praise for the book” comments that cover 4 pages. And this is a woman who describes herself as “African by accident, not by birth. So while soul, heart, and the bent of my mind are African, my skin blaringly begs to differ and is resolutely white. And while I insist on my Africanness (if such a singular thing can exist on such a vast and varied continent), I am forced to acknowledge that almost half my life in Africa was realised in a bubble of Anglocentricity, as if black Africans had no culture worth noticing and as if they did not exist except as servants and (more dangerously) as terrorists.”
Alexandra says her skin “blaringly begs to differ and is resolutely white”. I ask, what is going through her head as she writes this book? While reading it, I read some portions to my Zimbabwean wife. By the third day, she blocked her ears and told me I had a strong stomach to continue reading the book. But listen to this excerpt: Alexandra’s mum is talking to a guest: “‘Look, we fought to keep one country in Africa white-run’ – she stops pointing her fingers at our surprised guest to take another swallow of wine – ‘just one country’. Now she slumps back in defeat. ‘We lost twice’.”
Alexandra goes on: “The guest is polite, a nice Englishman. He has come to Zambia to show Africans how to run state-owned businesses to make them attractive to foreign investment, now that we aren’t Social Humanists anymore. Now that we’re a democracy. Ha ha. Kind of.
“Mum says: ‘If we could have kept one country white-ruled, it would be an oasis, a refuge. I mean, look what a cock up. Everywhere you look, it’s a bloody cock up’… Mum pours more wine, finishing the bottle, and then she says fiercely to our guest, ‘Thirteen thousand Kenyans and a hundred white settlers died in the struggle for Kenya’s independence.’ I can tell the visitor doesn’t know if he should look impressed or distressed. He settles for a look of vague surprise. ‘I had no idea’.
“‘Of course you bloody people had no idea,’ says Mum. ‘A hundred … of us … Nineteen forty-seven to nineteen sixty-three. Nearly twenty bloody years we tried to hold on.’ She makes her fist into a tight grip. The sinews on her neck stand taut and she bares her teeth. ‘All for what? And what a cock-up they’ve made of it now. Hey? Bloody, bloody cock-up’.”
I ask, what is going through Mum’s head? But let’s stay with her for a while. She continues to educate the guest from England about Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and how Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence occurred on 11 November 1965.
“‘He made it clear that there would never be majority rule in Rhodesia,’ Mum tells the guest. ‘So we moved there in 1966. Our daughter – Vanessa, our eldest – was only one year old. We were prepared’ – Mum’s voice grows suitably dramatic – ‘to take our baby into a war to live in a country where white men still ruled … We were prepared to die, you see, to keep one country white-run’.”
White-run where? In Africa! Where “accidental Africans” don’t quite belong? Alexandra then recounts how the first black-white war in Rhodesia was fought, and how “the whites didn’t call it Chimurenga. They called it the Troubles, The Bloody Nonsense. And sometimes ‘the war’. A war instigated by ‘uppity blacks’ ‘cheeky kaffirs’, ‘bolshy muntus’, ‘restless natives’, ‘the houts’. We call the black women ‘nannies’ and the black men ‘boys’.”
Alexandra continues: “The First Chimurenga was a long time ago, a few years after the settlers got here. The welcome mat had only been out for a relative moment or two when the Africans realised a welcome mat was not what they needed for their European guests. When they saw that the Europeans were the kind of guests who slept with your wife, enslaved your children, and stole your cattle, they saw that they needed sharp spears and young men who knew how to use them. The war drums were brought out from dark corners and dusted off and the old men who knew how to beat the war drums, who knew which rhythms would pump the fighting blood of the young men, were told to start beating the drums.
“Between 1889 and 1893, British settlers moving up from South Africa, under the steely, acquiring eye of Cecil John Rhodes, had been … What word can I use? I suppose it depends on who you are. I could say: Taking? Stealing? Settling? Homesteading? Appropriating? Whatever the word is, they had been doing it to a swathe of country they now called Rhodesia … Now, how can we, who shed our ancestry the way a snake sheds skin in winter, hope to win against this history? We muzungus. We white Africans of shrugged-off English, Scottish, Dutch origin.”
Now tell me, what went through the heads of the settlers of shrugged-off English, Scottish, and Dutch origin who slept with the wives of the Africans and enslaved their children? Did they consider “the human inhabitants of Africa” as human beings too? Humans with spirits and souls and emotions? NA