Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
There’s no understating the dangers of life in Africa: malaria, spitting cobras, poisonous spiders, intestinal parasites and worms, landmines, terrorists, corrupt government officials, and its many wars. In Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood Alexandra Fuller - nicknamed Bobo - chronicles her childhood in Rhodesia during the tulmultuous Rhodesian Civil War, which culminated in the end of white rule. It was not an easy, carefree childhood. Three of Bobo’s siblings died in infancy or early childhood, and Bobo herself had a few close scrapes with death. She learned at an early age to load guns and not to startle her parents during the night for fear that they may accidentally shoot her.
Bobo’s parents are the most profound characters in this memoir, especially her mother. Mum could drink all night, sitting “yoga-cross-legged,” and still be awake in the morning to greet the dawn with “stupefied wonder.” She can round up cattle all day like the toughest ranch hand, and yet she can also minister to the farm workers’ ailments with mercy. She could spend the day quietly reading books with Bobo on the bed and listening to radio programs, and the night singing at the “club” with a bottle in her hand. With the death of each child Mum goes into a steeper downward spiral.
Bobo grew up in a social landscape that I can’t quite comprehend, but which she relates very matter-of-factly. Her parents were poor tobacco farmers, and yet they had a household of servants to assist with cleaning and cooking because they were white. She bossed her black nanny around, threatening to fire her. She was not invited into the home of an African until she was a teenager. Her school before Independence was all white, but everything changed quickly after the war, and Bobo learned how many of the things that she was taught were wrong.
Once Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe, the Fullers lose their farm in the massive land redistribution program under the new government. They move on to another farm in Malawi, and then Zambia. Malawi is densely populated and terrifyingly poor, suffering under the restrictive regime of Dr. Banda, “President for Life.” The family feels more “dangerously, teeteringly close to disease and death (in a slow, rotting, swamp-induced fashion” than [they] did during the war in Rhodesia where there was a zinging, adrenaline-filled, anything-goes freedom and where [they] were surrounded by violent, quick multilation and a sudden, definitive end.” They move to another farm in Zambia. By this time, Bobo’s sister Vanessa gets married, and Bobo – who is now only Alexandra - is entering adulthood as well.
Fuller’s descriptions are rich and evocative, and really help us to envision what life is like in Africa by fully engaging our senses. She describes its smell as: "hot, sweet, smoky, salt, sharp-soft. It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass.” The noise includes “crashing of wings” in the morning; “grasshoppers and crickets sing and whine” in the afternoon; and the shuffling sounds of animals rebounds in the night, as the air is once again cool. Fuller talks a lot about food – the omnipresent tea, the treat of a Coke, boiled eggs, native dishes like nshima and porridge, beer and cigarettes.
This book was by far one of the best I have read this year (although it was originally published in 2001). Even if you don’t usually read memoirs or travel books, don’t turn away from this one.