Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

Before I start with the main post, I'd like to hijack this forum for something important. My dear friend and adopted cousin (perhaps sister, we're fuzzy on the details) Beth is very sick, fighting her way through a medical establishment that seems determined not to help and bent double under the crippling costs involved when you're terminal. Her partner Linda has started a blog with updates on their struggles, updates about Beth when she's unable to blog and at the behest of all of Beth's internet family has included a PayPal button. I know firsthand from Steph's Knitters Without Borders how small individual donations can make something big happen and am spreading the word in the hope that it will help ease at least part of the strain for them. Please take a minute to read Linda's first post and if the spirit moves you, the PayPal button's on the right sidebar. Thank you.

On with the show.

I don't remember how old I was when I first read Born Free, but I know that it kindled within me a burning desire to become a game warden in the Serengeti. Unlike working with Jacques Cousteau, an equally strong desire, but one based in the thrill of exploring the unknown, reading about life in Africa felt oddly familiar. You know that feeling? I'm fond of saying that one of the best arguments for reincarnation I've ever encountered is the feeling I've occasionally been privileged to have upon meeting a new person, the 'ah, there you are' sense of instant recognition, as if the person is utterly familiar, just wearing a different exterior. Reading about Africa felt like that and ever since, whenever I've been able to get my hands on a book written by someone who grew up in a game warden's family or on a farm, I've devoured it, the stories new, yet faintly familiar, like a childhood memory so long ago that it seems a dream.

Alexandra Fuller grew up in Africa and her first book is called Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: an African Childhood. A memoir of her childhood, it follows the Fuller family’s trials and tribulations during the war of independence in then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and after. And there’s a significant amount of trials and tribulations. They are poor, live on several farms (either their own or managing for others), none of which are successful, the war makes everything more difficult and then there are the children who die and the mother who goes more than a little mad with the grief of it all.

Now, that sounded as if I'm telling you not to get the book to prevent you from sinking into a deep vicarious depression, but not at all. On the contrary, I'm giving this a high recommendation and not just for those of us who believe we spent a previous life in Africa. Fuller paints with words, paints a portrait of Africa so immediate that you can feel the itch of sweat on your skin, smell the spicy, smoky scent of the bush, hear the lowing of the cattle, see the red earth, the soldiers at the border crossings leaning on their rifles. It is a precarious existence, living close to the bone in a dying culture of colonialism, the British ex-pats desperately trying to hold on to a white way of life, smoking and drinking hard, resisting the inevitable change until the end.

I had no idea that Zimbabwe became independent as late as 1980 and the description of growing up in this colonial world during a time when I was growing up in Denmark stunned me. The archaic attitudes towards anyone nonwhite, the casual racism, the institutionalized caste system of white first, coloured second and black last was one that I thought at this time existed only in the South African apartheid system and I was more than a little shocked at my lack of knowledge. When I bought this book a couple of years ago, I read a reader’s review on Amazon that ripped the book to shreds for what the reader claimed was they saw as a tacit approval of this culture, criticizing Fuller for not offering a more severe condemnation of the world she grew up in. I disagree - the book is written through the eyes of a child, reporting what happens to herself and her family with no judgment, thereby offering an unflinching look at the reality of ex-pat life, of the wrenching, tearing force that is necessary to change something so entrenched to the exact opposit.

To read a book written in a way that makes you feel you are there with Alexandra and her family, to get sucked into life on an African farm, battling flies, worms, cobras in the kitchen, waiting for rain, mourning loss, celebrating life was an incredible experience. What made it even better I was when I realized that while visiting the pages of this book, I had come to absorb this way of life and not just life in Africa, but the way of thinking as normal, no longer instinctively wincing at a casual, racist reference (which is quite something, for someone who used to work in the human rights field). I think listening to the audio book drew me in further - the book is narrated by, who does a wonderful job, getting most of the accents and inflections just right, making it easier to feel as if I were there. One of the attendants who comes to help me out is from Zimbabwe and I spoke to her about the war, about the women and children being held in camps so they wouldn't cook for the rebels, the danger before the war ended and after, when Mugabe took over and never left, having as tight a grip on the country and its people as the British did.

Don't Let's Go down to the Dogs Tonight is a terrific book. It's a book that entertained and astonished, made me feel, outrage blending with understanding, sadness with laughter. It taught me things and led me to explore ideas and history, gave me an opportunity to hear more from the other side. That’s a gift. I want to read more by Alexandra Fuller.