Book Review: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

cocktailhourunderthetreeofforgetfulnessCocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Five Starsis Alexandra Fuller’s second book covering her family’s experience in east Africa. The first, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which her mother describes as an Awful Book, tells the story from her perspective. In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, she expands the story to include her grandparents so that the story is told more from her parents’ point of view, even more so from her mother’s point of view.

It covers her mother’s Scottish ancestry; her grandparents’ move from Scotland to Kenya and back to Scotland; her father’s adventures in Canada, Montserrat, and Barbados before he landed in Kenya where within two weeks he met Nicola Huntingford and decided to stay. It covers the Mau Mau rebellion; Ian Smith’s Universal Declaration of Independence of Rhodesia from Britain and the world-wide economic embargo that followed; the Bush War which the nationalists refer to as the Second Chimurenga, the Shona word for rebellion, and which fostered the creation of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the Mozambique Liberation Army (FRELIMO), and the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO); and the eventual independence and majority rule of Zimbabwe.  It is a quick history lesson on a painful and shameful period in Africa. But it is much more.

The real story in the book is the love story: the love between Tim and Nicola Fuller; the love of Tim and Nicola Fuller for their children; the love of Alexandra for both her parents; the love of all of them, but especially Nicola Fuller, for Africa, though not always the Africa that exists; and most of all it is a story of the love of life illustrated through an independent spirit that kept her parents moving forward, looking for the next challenge in spite of losing children, jobs, farms, and wars.  Alexandra Fuller tells this love story so compellingly, so engagingly, so compassionately for not only her family but also for the native Africans around them. Her introduction to her family made me feel as though she was welcoming me into it. And I felt honored to get to know them all.

  • Print Length: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (August 23, 2011)
  • Publication Date: August 23, 2011
  • Genre: History, Biographies and Memoirs

Book Review: Scribbling the Cat

scribblingthecat“The windows of the pickup were rolled down because we, in Five Starscommon with everyone else in this part of the world, were jealous of every drop of fuel we spent. And, under these circumstances, air-conditioning (like the exorcism of war memories and the act of writing about it) was an unpardonable self-indulgence. K had gone quiet and the muscle at the back of his jaw had begun to quiver. Air-conditioning ices memories with its blandness, but with the windows wound down the past came rushing back at K. ‘Do you smell that?’ he asked me more than once, looking at me as if expecting to see the same war-shocked look on my face as he wore on his own. I nodded. But what I was smelling was not what K was smelling. I was smelling now, he was smelling memories.”

In Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier Alexandra Fuller tells the story of her return to Zambia in order to travel with K, a soldier who fought in the many wars of independence in East Africa in a search to make sense of what the war had done to them both. Still a child during the wars of independence that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, Northern Rhodesia into Zambia, and freed Mozambique from the Portuguese, Fuller experienced it as a time when both her parents were defenders of colonial way of life. In her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, she recalls being left behind with her sister and mother as her father heads off in camouflage and a blackened face so that he won’t be visible. Fuller the child wants to yell out to him in warning as she watches him walk down the drive leading to their farm that she can still see him, that he must watch out. She also sits at her mother’s feet during her mother’s periods of assignment at the map of lights set up to give white farmers a warning system if attacked. If one of the lights came on, a call to arms would go out to defenders to race to the farm under attack.

Years later, Fuller, now married and mother of two children, returns from her Wyoming home to visit her parents in Zambia. She meets K, a soldier who is still battling demons unleashed during his time as a soldier in the RLI, Rhodesian Light Infantry.

“Because it is the land that grew me, and because they are my people, I sometimes forget to be astonished by Africans.”

Fuller begins her narrative with the lines above. K astonished her because he was still in Africa after years of fighting against the native Africans who were fighting to take possession of the land. K has lost his farm, his son, and his wife. But K has found God. He has turned his life over to God, asking God for guidance every day. K asks God if He has sent Fuller to be with him.

Fuller admits she and K were on the wrong side in the fight. And yet her parents remained. K remained. And she returns again and again, feeling African more than any other nationality in spite of her American husband and Wyoming home. She invites K to return with her to Mozambique, where K spent most of his time fighting to retain possession of African land, in the hopes that she can help him find reconciliation and she can find understanding.

“You can’t rewind war. It spools on, and on, and on. Looping and jumping, distorted and cracked with age, and the stories contract until only the nuggets of hatred remain and no one can even remember, or imagine, why the war was organized in the first place.”

In the end there is no reconciliation, no understanding. There is only the story of “what happens when you stand on tiptoe and look too hard into your own past and into the things that make us war-wounded the fragile, haunted, powerful men-women that we are.”

This is a naked story of warts and wounds and victims of war. Fuller opens up the door to let the reader see her Africa, an Africa she loves in spite of its terrors and dangers. She uses the language those she meets would use, unflattering in its references to black Africans, but without apology. She simply reports.

To any who choose to pick up her story, and I recommend doing so but not until after reading Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, be sure to turn to the back of the book to review the Glossary before diving into this story.

Book Review: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

dontletsgotothedogstonightAlexandra Fuller’s first memoir covers her chilFive Starsdhood in Africa, including stints at boarding schools far from her parents, ending with her marriage to an American who brought her out of Africa and into another land.

Her parents were grounded in Africa, her mother by birth and her father by experience. Yet after the death of their second child, a boy, they chose England, perhaps to escape the threat of the Coming-Back Baby because they hadn’t buried their son far enough away from their Rhodesian home or perhaps to avoid the rising threat of violence in the increasingly independence-minded region. In the few years the family lived in England, Alexandra was born.

But success in England eluded them. In view of insurmountable debts, Fuller’s father returned to Rhodesia, and her mother brought the two girls, Vanessa the first born and Alexandra, back by ship to Cape Town and then by train to Rhodesia.

Fuller tells the naked story of her family’s successes and failures in England, several spots in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) including on the border with Mozambique, Malawi, and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), without judgment, as an objective participant, if that isn’t an oxymoron. There is no apology in the book. There is just the story, told with candor and compassion, with humor and hope. Fuller uses the language of her mother, not hiding her mother’s colonialist views of the Africans. But she also tells of the loss of two more children which bring her mother at least to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Since her parents’ life choices differ so widely from what most people would consider average, it is difficult to be certain how far from the Fuller-normal either parent ever drifted. In the end, her mother survived.

Fuller describes the Africa of her childhood down through the layers of dirt and muck under her feet with love. Learning how to recognize possible improvised explosive devices and how to handle a gun are normal elementary school requirements. When the girls go to sleep, they worry about terrorists hiding under their beds. Yet there is no judgment as she writes. This is Africa, she writes. And it is home.  We should all have such warm feelings of home.

Z is for Zambia

White Rhino by SarahDepper, on Flickr

I never wanted to go to Africa. I was sure of it. That is, until I went to Yemen, another place I never wanted to go.

But a good reason to go to Yemen came along. And I am so very pleased. I enjoyed Yemen so much more than I had expected (Y is for Yemen) that I realized I needed to give more consideration to other places I thought I didn’t want to go. Africa came immediately to mind.

I planned to retire from the Foreign Service once I had completed 20 years. Everything about the system was geared to encourage Foreign Service employees to leave after 20 years, except for the few who managed to be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. I didn’t expect to reach that level, so I planned my life assuming I would retire in 2005.

In 2003, I actively sought as my final assignment an opportunity to see as much of Africa as possible in what I assumed would be my final two years: roving management officer. For my last two years, I would serve temporarily in whatever management positions the Bureau of African Affairs felt were most important to fill when the gap between leaving and arriving employees was long or when vacancies occurred unexpectedly, due to illness or other emergencies.

Plans have a way of being interrupted, especially when living overseas. Instead of spending two years in Africa as a roving management officer, I was only there for nine months. And that meant I only experienced three countries: Madagascar (A is for Antananarivo), Eritrea (E is for Eritrea; K is for Keren), and Zambia.

My stay in Zambia was the shortest: three weeks. Far too short. So I’m “extending” it through reading.

Zambia is the setting for a number of memoirs. Here’s one I just finished. Watch for my review of it soon. (A preview–I gave it five stars.)

(From Goodreads.com) “In Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller remembers her African childhood with candor and sensitivity. Though it is a diary of an unruly life in an often inhospitable place, it is suffused with Fuller’s endearing ability to find laughter, even when there is little to celebrate. Fuller’s debut is unsentimental and unflinching but always captivating. In wry and sometimes hilarious prose, she stares down disaster and looks back with rage and love at the life of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary time.”

The following are now on my “Want to Read” list:

(from Goodreads.com) “When former journalist Adeline Loh could no longer endure the brain-deadening routine of work, she did what any sensible person would do: flee Malaysia with a paranoid vegetarian named Chan and go ambling in the lion-infested wilderness of southern Africa. However, upon arriving in Zambia, the bush virgins realised nothing from the Animal Planet documentaries had prepared them for survival in the savannah. With baboons, hippopotamuses and buffaloes conspiring to tear them into pieces, our addled heroines rattled along crater-pocked tracks, canoed through the crocodile-infested Zambezi River, flew over Victoria Falls on a little tricycle with wings, stalked incestuous rhinoceroses and peed amidst thorny shrubbery. And in more life-preserving moments, they pondered antimalarial druggies, sleazy hunters and muscle-bound native women while hoping to achieve their main goal—not to get eaten alive!

“In Peeing in the Bush, Loh recounts in candid prose her fun and engaging misadventures in Zambia with a rich mix of anecdotes, commentary and deft description.”

This one is in my hands, written by the same author as the one just finished so I am looking forward to starting it.

(from Goodreads.com) “When Alexandra Bo Fuller was in Zambia a few years ago visiting her parents, she asked her father about a nearby banana farmer who was known as being a tough bugger. Her father’s response was a warning to steer clear of him: Curiosity scribbled the cat, he told her. Nonetheless, Fuller began her strange friendship with the man she calls K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian War. A man of contradictions, K is battle-scarred and work-weathered, a born-again Christian and given to weeping for the failure of his romantic life and the burden of his memories. Driven by K’s memories of the war, they decide to enter the heart of darkness in the most literal way, by traveling from Zambia through Zimbabwe and Mozambique to visit the scenes of the war and to meet other veterans. The result is a remarkably unbiased and unsentimental glimpse of life in Africa.”

(from Goodreads.com) “It is 1972 and James and Katrina Martin set off for a well earned month of vacation from Zambia to South Africa and England. They return to find that James is to be offered an opportunity to start a new mine away from the Zambian Copperbelt, an opportunity that he takes. They travel to the Mtuga operation which is located just off the Great North Road in the Mkushi district of Zambia. The mine is sited on old workings from the 1920’s and is being re-opened as a surface mine. The Mkushi District is better known for its tobacco and maize farms and in the late 1970’s for the camps of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), an organization that they will encounter a few times.

“Life is complicated when the Rhodesians close the border with Zambia and Zambia retaliates, potentially stranding all their new mining machinery outside the country. They must formulate a plan to get everything to the mine and the operation started on time and to budget. Things are further complicated by corporate politics and rivalries that create problems along the way.

“Although now married for almost three years, James and Katrina continue to discover each other and their romance and desire for one another is as strong as ever. They take every opportunity they can to be away and alone together in the more remote parts of Zambia.”

(from Goodreads.com) “1898, Tsavo River Kenya, the British Empire employs native workers to build a railroad. Construction comes to a violent halt when two maneless lions devour 140 workers in an extended feeding frenzy that would make headlines and history all over the world. Caputo’s Ghosts of Tsavo is a new quest for truth about the origins of these near-mythical animals and how they became predators of human flesh.”

You may recognize the lions as the titular characters in the 1995 movie, The Ghost and the Darkness. For the original book on which the fictionalized movie was based, see The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

And there is also fiction.

(from Goodreads.com) “In A Cowrie of Hope Binwell Sinyangwe captures the rhythms of a people whose poverty has not diminished their dignity, where hope can only be accompanied by small acts of courage, and where friendship has not lost its value.”