Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
As a child, Alexandra Fuller vowed that she would never leave Africa. Reading her critically-acclaimed memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, one would think that she never has. Her childhood seems as vivid to her as the snapshots that accompany each short chapter of the book. Born of Scottish-English parents, Fuller, now 33 and living in Wyoming, grew up watching a colonial way of life draw to a messy, violent close. As a result: “My soul has no home. I am neither African nor English.”
In 1972, at the age of three, Fuller (“Bobo”) moves with her “white and highly strung” family to a series of tobacco and cattle farms in southern Africa. Traveling with “our whole lives, everything we were and everything we owned…in a Peugeot station wagon,” the Fullers barrel over the unpaved roads of the war-torn continent and its “deep, animal-scampering, cricket-calling, moth-bashing silence.” Ranch living in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Upper Rhodesia (now Zambia), and Nyasaland (now Malawi) is fraught with drought, poisonous snakes and insects, landmines, and gun-toting rebels spilling over the borders from other war-ravaged countries. Farming conditions are harsh where “the air was raw with so much blowing.”
Poor, reckless, and living on the edge, the Fullers carve out a precarious existence with the assistance of their black African servants, who are never known to Bobo by their full names. The family experiences hunger, fear, and the death of three babies. (Fuller still blames herself for the death of her younger sister Olivia, who drowned.) The Africans also experience loss, but Bobo is carefully sheltered from identification with their struggles. Fuller’s racist and “smoking-drinking” parents teach their children to respect “their” land and to regard themselves as superior to their black maids, servants, cooks, and all black Africans who, they believe, could never govern the land properly if given the chance. Bobo and her sister Vanessa parrot their parents’ superiority and sense of entitlement. They call black Africans muntus, “baboons”; they say, “muntus will eat anything.”
Africa for the young Bobo is a place where “we call the black women ‘nannies’ and the black men ‘boys.'” A place where white settlers refer to the war of liberation in Rhodesia as This Bloody Nonsense instigated by “uppity blacks,” “restless natives,” “boogs,” “cheeky kaffirs,” and “zots.” While European-owned estates often feature “a soothing oasis of trees,” the black Africans are forced to live on squalid Tribal Trust Lands in huts where “doors are flimsy pieces of plyboard or sacks hanging and lank.” Bobo believes that this is the right and good order of the world. She feels entitled to a better life because she is white.
In 1978, when the war for independence is over and Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe, white settlements are reappropriated to black Africans, and all of Bobo’s assumptions are challenged. She must adapt to a different world; black Africans attend her previously all-white boarding school and Bobo is teased for having skin that burns too easily in the sun. For the first time she thinks, “My God, I am the wrong color.” She is no longer top dog: “There are two hundred African children who speak to one another in Shona–a language we don’t understand–who play games that exclude us, who don’t have to listen to a word we say.” At age 11, she is shocked when, after bathing in the same water as her African schoolmate, “I do not break out in spots or a rash. I do not turn black.” As a child, these are observations she makes and absorbs; they will become a foundation for her later revelations.
In Malawi, Bobo sees “overcrowded, unsanitary shantytowns and over-filled garbage dumps…heaps of decomposing rubbish on which children play and pick and shit.” For years she’s driven “past Africans whose hatred reflects like sun in a mirror into our faces, impossible to ignore” on the Tribal Trust Lands. But the black Africans are no longer a peripheral element of Fuller’s world; they are a part of her self-understanding. She notices the unfairness. She longs to do something about it.
When she is invited into a black African’s home for the first time and offered the family’s entire meal, she finally recognizes her own privilege. Virtually speechless in the face of this hospitality, Fuller’s material world seems “suddenly, exhaustingly, too much” and she later brings the family the entire contents of her closet. This moment lacks a self-congratulatory or sentimental tone, because we know that, up until this moment, Fuller has considered herself superior to black Africans. But in the new Malawi, she sees that the land she loves and its native peoples are of the same world; she must love one in order to love the other. She is now within and outside the world her parents have created for her and her sense of self splits; she will spend the rest of her life navigating this division; this chapter is called, notably, “Touching the Ground.”
Fuller’s choice to narrate in the first-person child’s voice allows the reader to step back into her colorful mosaic of memories and experience the author’s sense of a divided self. Fuller uses a quirky, hyphenated nonsense-speak, running words together in a rushed, child-like way. For example, her mother is “Sleeves-rolled-up-running” and Bobo’s greatest fear is a “terrorist-under-the-bed,” which gives her a “neck-prickling-under-the-bed creeps.” The language creates prose that is raw, spirited, clear-eyed, and absolutely believable.
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is one woman’s personal story, not a history lesson or sociological study. Historical facts seem as if they were inserted as afterthoughts; they are italicized and seem to float apart from the narrative as a whole. As such, the book stays committed to the child’s-eye view and does not place blame or cast judgment. Fuller does not seek exoneration, and never asks for it. She tells her story, and she tells it well: the narrative is rich with grace and humor, and brimming with sensory detail. (Africa’s smell is “hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.”) But it is not an easy read.
Before Dogs, Fuller wrote and failed to publish eight novels about white farmers in what was then Rhodesia. She was finally inspired to write her own story after reading Mary Karr’s unflinchingly honest 1995 memoir, The Liar’s Club. Fuller’s memoir, now in it’s fourth printing, has been nominated for the Guardian’s First Book Award in the United Kingdom.
The brutal honesty of the book constitutes both its strength and, for some, its glaring weakness. The book, which has been translated into 12 languages, has prompted much discussion among critics. Audiences have responded with mixed reactions. (At one U.S. reading Fuller was asked, “What right do you have to write about poor Africa, privileged white girl?”)
Fuller makes no overtures to political correctness or cultural sensitivity. Rather than paint her parents as one-dimensional colonial relics who are hateful and racist, she offers portraits that are more troubling and complex precisely because they reveal her conflicted love for them.
Throughout her life, memories of her African childhood have acted as a spiritual anchor. These memories and her neither-this-nor-that identity have created a “pulse” that runs through her; a pulse that is held together and perpetuated by longing: “I want to open my arms into the sweet familiarity of home. The incongruous, lawless, joyful, violent, upside-down, illogical certainty of Africa.” So where is she now?
Fuller claims to have “plucked a new, different, worldly soul for myself.” I wondered if this, by its echoes of privilege and entitlement, was some vestige of colonialism. Who doesn’t live with some kind of split identity, even if they weren’t raised as a colonial expatriate in Africa? Certainly an in-depth explanation of her present life runs the risk of being expository and overly self-conscious, even apologetic (which she carefully avoids throughout the book), but she fails to address it at all. Instead the book ends abruptly with a series of flatly delivered facts that do little to connect the adult Alexandra with the child. But that’s why authors write sequels. Fuller and her husband (a safari guide-turned-real estate agent) have plans to move from their customized mountain home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Tanzania, where she will continue to write and her family will be separated from the “celebration of wealth” and irresponsible consumerism she feels are endemic to American culture.
She has also been back to Zimbabwe, writing for The London Guardian. What she has found there is nothing short of a hellish nightmare. President Robert Mugabe’s peace and reconciliation process–just a “brief dream”–has done little to assuage the resentments of war and desire for vengeance that generate from centuries of living with an unfair system. Those who oppose Mugabe’s iron-hand militia quickly join the “rows of displaced, starving people, hunched on Harare’s main streets.” Boy-soldiers swing their guns in the street; people line up for days trying to cross the border out of Zimbabwe. Fuller concludes that “Zimbabwe has become a haunted land–a country without a voice.”
In the midst of the crisis that has silenced its people, Zimbabwe–now more than ever–needs strong truthtellers. In a recent article, Fuller described a bus trip to her family’s old ranch. Her seat partner, an old woman with sores on her feet, turns to Fuller and says, “You people should pay attention to what is happening in Zimbabwe, not because half of us will die in the next few months, but because half of us will live.”
Observer intern Emily Rapp Seitz is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.