Friday, November 4, 2011

...For mother will be there

Alexandra Fuller's parents loved Africa. In her memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, she describes her strange and difficult childhood as the daughter of white British farmers in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Fuller's father fought in Rhodesia's long civil war, struggling to keep the country "white-run." They called the opposing fighters, the Africans who wanted to control their country, "terrorists."

"In 1974," she writes, "the Rhodesian civil war was eight years old. In a matter of months, terrorist forces based in Mozambique under the new and guerrilla-friendly Frelimo government would be flooding over the border to Rhodesia to conduct nightly raids, plant land mines, and, they said, chop off the lips and ears and eyelids of little white children."

In 1974, Fuller turned five. I, too, turned five in 1974; we are the same age. While I was growing up in a small American town, Fuller was worrying about having her eyelids cut off. A dental hygienist came to my school to teach us how to brush our teeth properly; Fuller's school was visited by a soldier, who taught them how to avoid land mines. Her mother took an Uzi with her on her daily farming chores; Fuller knew how to strip, clean, load, and fire one by the time she was seven.

The most striking figure in Fuller's memoir has to be her mother, a vivacious and strong-willed woman with a truly devastating drinking problem, who refused to coddle her children and instead exposed them to danger and neglect.

Fuller portrays her parents with love. She also reveals, with unflinching honesty, their unthinking belief that whites should control Africa, that Africans are by nature unfit to do so. As a child, Fuller innocently accepted the racial superiority she was taught; as an adult, her memoir is infused with the knowledge that her parents were, at best, profoundly misguided.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight tells the story of Africa's violent struggle, as seen through the eyes of a child who knows no other world. It's fascinating. Fuller's follow-up, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, was just published in September.

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