An extended review of African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe by Doris Lessing. Published in Transition, Issue 59.
As I write, the drought in Southern Africa, the worst in this century, continues unrelenting. Zimbabwe has been spared the horrors of Somalia and Mozambique, where the effects of drought are compounded by civil war, but the country's situation is serious. An article in the New York Times told how rangers at Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou National Park were killing wildlife in order to feed the people. Plans were underway to shoot about 2,000 elephants and 5,000 impala and distribute the meat among starving villagers. A photo of an African boy showed him grinning as he held up a side of impala meat.
Though the Times didn't say so, Gonarezhou National Park is a historic spot. A bleak, arid, little-known corner of Zimbabwe, it was here that Joshua Nkomo, with other nationalist leaders, spent over ten years in a detention camp. Nkomo referred to it as the "dark side of the moon." A railway line passes through from Mozambique, and in his memoirs Nkomo described watching trains roll by, bringing goods to Rhodesia in violation of international sanctions. The detention camp is gone, but in recent years the park has been closed to foreign tourists because of the threat from Renamo rebels who have poached rhinos and elephants there and sold the horn and ivory to fund their activities.
The most recent of the four trips described in Doris Lessing's African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe was a quick stop early in 1992, when the seriousness of the drought was already apparent. The country usually held grain reserves sufficient for one year, but these had been given away or sold. "It seems advice from the experts of the IMF and the World Bank was partly responsible for this stupidity," Lessing notes.
"Who cares whether this is just a little temporary blip on the weather graph? Or a permanent major shift in the climate?" a Zimbabwean tells her. "The farmers don't care, hungry people don't care. All people care about is, Are the rains going to come in November?"
That is how the book concludes -- on a somber note all too familiar in works about modern Africa. As if the drought and famine were not enough, the last brief chapter also touches on AIDS, corruption, and a government move to exert more control over the University of Zimbabwe.
And yet ... in the same chapter, a traveler returns from Zaire, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique to say, "Let me tell you! In comparison with any of those Zimbabwe is up to its armpits in jam." Another voice says, "Corruption? Don't make me laugh. Compared to someone like Robert Maxwell they are babies. Bad planning? So what! They'll learn." And a village woman from Masvingo says, "We survived the War. We'll survive the drought."
This multiplicity of voices is characteristic of African Laughter. You could call it a polyphonic book, like the polyphonic novels of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, in which a vast story is told through alternating voices. And this would be oddly appropriate, since Doris Lessing more than once compares Zimbabwe to revolutionary Russia: another traditional peasant society yanked violently into the future, to the accompaniment of dire predictions, utopian dreams, inflated rhetoric, energetic profiteering, and idealistic self-sacrifice. Zimbabwe even has its narodniks -- educated young men and women who "go to the people" in order to teach and learn from them. In this case they are the members of a Book Team who travel the country from village to village, organizing discussions with rural women and compiling a book on their problems and how to solve them.
Doris Lessing was born in Persia and spent her youth in Southern Rhodesia -- two countries whose names have disappeared from the maps. Her opposition, as a Communist, to the racial oppression practiced by the Rhodesian government caused her to be made a Prohibited Immigrant. She has described Rhodesia vividly in some of her best fiction, including The Golden Notebook, the Children of Violence novels, and her African Stories. There is some beautiful descriptive writing in this new book, too, particularly in the sections that tell of her wary conversations with her long-estranged brother (now dead) and her return to the hill where she lived as a child. When, after years of misgivings and false starts, she goes to see the place, she finds the hilltop leveled and a "graceless greyish bungalow" standing where the house she grew up in once stood. The bush around the house, where once you could hardly take a step without starting a bird or a duiker, is gone. An African family is living there, and the house is full of children who look at her through the windows and don't respond to her smiles and gestures.
Her brother has warned her not to return here because it will break her heart, but it is not until she looks out from the hill and sees endless red fields where the bush once was that she realizes this was what he meant. Six years before, she had given a lift to three African men and fallen into conversation. When they asked her what changes she had noticed in the country, it occurred to her that the loss of the bush and its wildlife was even more important than the war and the change of government. "Now," she adds, "years later, I am sure of it. But I could not talk like this to these people then, at that time. It would have sounded an irrelevance: at best, like one of the eccentricities the whites go in for."
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