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Authors: Doris Lessing

African Laughter

BOOK: African Laughter
Doris Lessing
African Laughter

Four Visits to Zimbabwe

With our short memory, we accept the present climate as normal. It is as though a man with a huge volume of a thousand pages before him–in reality, the pages of earth time–should read the final sentence on the last page and pronounce it history. The ice has receded, it is true, but world climate has not completely rebounded. We are still on the steep edge of winter or early spring. Temperature has reached mid-point. Like refugees, we have been dozing memoryless for a few scant millennia before the windbreak of a sun-warmed rock. In the European Lapland winter that once obtained as far south as Britain, the temperature lay eighteen degrees Fahrenheit lower than today.

On a world scale this cold did not arrive unheralded. Somewhere in the highlands of Africa and Asia the long Tertiary descent of temperature began. It was, in retrospect, the prelude to the ice. One can trace its presence in the spread of grasslands and the disappearance over many areas of the old forest browsers. The continents were rising. We know that by Pliocene time, in which the trail of man ebbs away into the grass, man’s history is more complicated than the simple late descent, as our Victorian forerunners sometimes assumed, of a chimpanzee from a tree. The story is one whose complications we have yet to unravel.

Loren Eiseley,
The Unexpected Universe


Early next morning we left the river and journeyed through a region the scenery of which was exceedingly pretty–more picturesque I have hardly ever seen. Hills and valleys, spruits and rivers, grass and trees–all combined to present a most charming variety of landscape views.

Major Johnson and I were driving in a cart some distance ahead of the waggon, and, when we arrived at the summit of a small hill, we stopped and waited for Mr Rhodes and Dr Jameson. I was so struck with the beauty of the country there that I decided to choose the site of the farms, which Mr Venter and I were to have in Mashonaland, at the foot of that hill. Mr Rhodes soon guessed my thoughts, for when he came up to our cart he said to me, before I had spoken a word, -

‘Don’t tell me anything De Waal, and I shall tell you why you’ve stopped the cart and waited for me!’

‘Well, why?’ I asked.

‘Because you wish to tell me that you have here chosen for Venter and yourself the site of your farms.’

‘Precisely,’ I replied, ‘you have guessed well.’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve just been speaking to my friends in the waggon about the grandeur of the place, and I told them that I was sure you would not pass it by without desiring a slice of it.’

Mr Rhodes then requests Mr Duncan, the Surveyor-General of Mashonaland, who was with us just then, to measure out two farms there, one for Mr Venter and one for myself. I am sure the landed property in that part of the country will soon become very valuable, especially when the railway runs–as it soon will–between Beira and Salisbury.

D. C De Waal,
With Rhodes in Mashonaland

This excerpt describes the country near Rusape, on the road between Salisbury and Umtali. The journeys were made in 1890 and 1891, during the Occupation but before the military conquest.


Southern Rhodesia was a shield-shaped country in the middle of the map of Southern Africa, and it was bright pink because Cecil Rhodes had said the map of Africa should be painted red from Cape to Cairo, as an outward sign of its happy allegiance to the British Empire. The hearts of innumerable men and women responded with idealistic fervour to his clarion, because it went without saying that it would be good for Africa, or for anywhere else, to be made British. At this point it might be useful to wonder which of the idealisms that make our hearts beat faster will seem wrong-headed to people a hundred years from now.

In 1890, just over a hundred years from when this book is being written, the Pioneer Column arrived in grassy plains five thousand feet up from the distant sea: a dry country with few people in it. The one hundred and eighty men, and some policemen, had a bad time of it, travelling hundreds of miles up from the Cape through a landscape full of wild beasts and natives thought of as savages. They were journeying into the unknown, for while explorers, hunters and missionaries had come this way, homesteaders–people expecting to settle–had not. They were on this adventure for the sake of the Empire, for Cecil Rhodes whom they knew to be a great man, for the Queen, and because they were of the pioneering breed, people who had to see horizons as a challenge. Within a short time there was a town with banks, churches, a hospital, schools and, of course, hotels of the kind whose bars, then as now, were as important as the accommodation. This was Salisbury, a white town, British in feel, flavour and habit.

The progress of the Pioneer Column was watched by the Africans, and it is on record they laughed at the sight of the white men sweating in their thick clothes. A year later came Mother Patrick and her band of Dominican nuns, wearing thick and voluminous black and white habits. They at once began their work of teaching children and nursing the sick.
Then, and very soon, came the women, all wrapped about and weighed down in their clothes. Respectable Victorian women did not discard so much as a collar, a petticoat or a corset when travelling. Mary Kingsley, that paragon among explorers, when in hot and humid West Africa was always dressed as if off to a tea party. The Africans did not know they were about to lose their country. They easily signed away their land when asked, for it was not part of their thinking that land, the earth our mother, can belong to one person rather than another. To begin with they did not take much notice of the ridiculous invaders, though their shamans, women and men, were warning of evil times. Soon they found they had indeed lost everything. It was no use retreating into the bush, for they were pursued and forced to work as servants and labourers, and when they refused, something called a Poll Tax was imposed, and when they did not pay up–and they could not, since money was not something they used–then soldiers and policemen came with guns and told them they must earn the money to pay the tax. They also had to listen to lectures on the dignity of labour. This tax, a small sum of money from the white point of view, was the most powerful cause of change in the old tribal societies.

Soon the Africans rebelled and were defeated. The conquerors were brutal and merciless. There is nothing in this bit of British history to be proud of, but the story of the Mashona Rebellion and how it was quelled was taught to white children as a glorious accomplishment.

At all times and everywhere invaders with superior technology have subjugated countries while in pursuit of land and wealth and the Europeans, the whites, are only the most recent of them. Having taken the best land for themselves, and set up an efficient machinery of domination, the British in Southern Rhodesia were able to persuade themselves–as is common among conquerors–that the conquered were inferior, that white tutelage was to their advantage, that they were bound to be the grateful recipients of a superior civilization. The British were so smug about themselves partly because they never went in for general murder, did not attempt to
kill out an entire native population, as did the New Zealanders, and is happening now in Brazil where Indian tribes are being murdered while the world looks on and does nothing. They did not deliberately inject anyone with diseases, nor use drugs and alcohol as aids to domination. On the contrary, there were always hospitals for black people, and white man’s liquor was made illegal, for it had been observed what harm firewater had done to the native peoples of North America.

If it is asked, How did these people, no more or less intelligent than ourselves, manage to accommodate so many incompatibles in their minds at the same time, then this belongs to a wider query: How and why do we all do it, often not noticing what we do? I remember as a child hearing farmers remark, with the cynical good nature that is the mark of a certain kind of bad conscience: ‘One of these days they are all going to rise and drive us into the sea.’ This admission clearly belonged in a different part of the brain from that where dwelled the complacencies of Empire.

By 1900 there was Southern Rhodesia, bright pink all over, inside its neat boundaries, with Mozambique, or Portuguese East Africa on one side, Angola (Portuguese West Africa) and the Bechuanaland Protectorate (pink) on the other, and Northern Rhodesia (pink) just above it.

The Transvaal, arena for the Boer War, was to the south.

The same neat shape is now stamped Zimbabwe. The trouble is that these boundaries ignore a good deal of history, mainly to do with the Portuguese influence, for Portuguese traders, adventurers, explorers, travelled and sometimes lived in areas that later were painted pink. There were no frontiers then, and if any European country were to claim the territory by right of precedence, it should have been Portugal. These histories are in Portuguese archives, not so much in the British, and school children were not taught about the Portuguese in Monomotapa or the kingdom of Lo Magondi. Yet that the Portuguese had been before them could hardly have been overlooked by the British adventurers. There is a certain wonderfully fertile valley, still full of citrus groves planted by the Portuguese, who also brought in maize and other crops.

The boundaries also ignore the pre-European politics of the Shona–for instance the Mutapa state which in the sixteenth century included much of central Mozambique.

The picture of Mashonaland presented as history to the heirs of the Pioneer Column went something like this: When we whites came we found the Matabele, an offshoot from the Zulus. They had travelled north to escape from murderous Zulu kings, and taken land from the Mashona, whom they harried and raided. The Mashona were groups of loosely related clans always on the move, for they stayed in one place only long enough to exhaust the soil and scare away the animals. We, the British, brought the Mashona people peace as well as White Civilization.

In fact the Mashona were skilled farmers and miners, whose techniques are only now being investigated by researchers. It was necessary for the British to see them as ignorant savages who owed everything to their conquerors.

The British administered sullen populations, but not for long, for quite soon, in the early 1950s, resistance movements began to form. In the late ’40s people like myself, interested in the possibilities of black resistance, found very little, though there was ‘a dangerous black agitator’ Joshua Nkomo, who inflamed crowds with his oratory in Bulawayo and another called Benjamin Burombo. Ten years later the national movements were powerful. They had been given impetus by a frothy notion called the Central African Federation, which aimed at uniting Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland and Southern Rhodesia. The idea of this Federation appealed irresistibly to large numbers of idealistic souls, nearly all white. Yet it was attempting to unite incompatibles. The two northern countries were British Protectorates, and their black populations actually believed in promises made to them by Queen Victoria, that their interests would always be paramount, that their countries were to be administered for their good. It never does to ignore the explosive possibilities of ‘naive’ emotions like this one. Meanwhile Southern Rhodesia had always modelled itself on South Africa, adapting every repressive law passed there, fitting it into an edifice of oppression as comprehensive as South
Africa’s. People who wanted to believe in uniting these three countries ignored the wishes of the blacks, and in fact the nationalist movements of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (which became Zambia and Malawi on Independence) at once put an end to the foolish scheme.

Meanwhile the nationalist movements of Southern Rhodesia, encouraged by the success of their northern allies, fomented ‘trouble’ most successfully, everywhere. Already in 1956 I met a couple of young men, whose names I was not told, who described an underground life smuggling political literature, of police harassment and arbitrary arrest, beatings, imprisonment. This underground war, still minor, did not find its way into the newspapers, though people spoke of it. Throughout the 1960s the writing on the wall became ever more visible, but the whites, who had learned nothing from Kenya, chose to ignore it. The War of Independence in Southern Rhodesia, like many other wars, need not have happened. The whites numbered 250,000 at their maximum. Of these, many, if differently led, I believe would have compromised and shared power with the blacks. But a minority of the whites, led by Ian Smith, were determined to fight for White Supremacy. There was no date for the start of that war, which slowly simmered into one of the nastiest conflicts of our time. The opposing armies were not neatly separated into black and white. On the white side fought black soldiers and black police. The whites, far from united at the start, became united by the passions of war, and the few who thought the War was a mistake, and should be ended, and could not be won (for look what was happening in Mozambique where the whites were thrown out after a terrible war) were treated with hysterical hatred, were persecuted, victimized, vilified. The blacks, too, were infinitely divided. Not only were there different armies with different leaders and ideas, there was division in the armies themselves. Robert Mugabe’s army was only one, but was the most extreme, communist, or marxist, and while the War went on most people thought that the majority of the blacks would choose Joshua Nkomo or Bishop Muzorewa, moderates and democrats.

The War was fought with cruelty on both sides. People living
in the villages had a hard time, for both the government forces and the black armies punished them for aiding the other side, but they had to help whichever soldiers arrived and demanded it. Large numbers of villagers were taken by force from their homes and put into what amounted to concentration camps–of course ‘for their own protection’. Young men and girls, as soon as they were old enough, ran away to join guerilla armies, in Zambia, or Mozambique, or even the forests of Southern Rhodesia itself, for there at least they would not be subjected to harassment, torture or death by the government troops. Part of a whole generation of black youth was educated in guerilla armies, sometimes to the accompaniment of marxist slogans, but always unified by their hatred of the whites.

The War over, the atrocities on both sides were gently allowed to be forgotten, for when the black population voted–for the first time in their lives–it was Robert Mugabe they chose, and he at once announced a multi-racial society and the end of race hatred. It is known that Samora Machel of Mozambique (and others) said to Robert Mugabe: ‘Don’t make our mistake, don’t throw out the whites, because you will be left with a devastated economy.’ The devastation was not all the result of war, but because the departing Portuguese made a point of burning and destroying everything they could before they left–behaviour we saw recently when Saddam Hussein was forced out of Kuwait.

The young nation Zimbabwe came into being in 1980. That is to say, from the arrival of the Pioneer Column at the foot of the small hill that would mark the beginnings of Salisbury, called the Kopje, to Independence, took ninety years. Ninety years–nothing. Yet in that time the culture of that large area–roughly the size of Spain–had been destroyed; the people had been kept subdued by all the power of modern weapons, policing, propaganda; finally they had rebelled against armies equipped with the most advanced weaponry, and they had won. Now they had to take power as equals in a modern world. Their chief difficulty was the same as in all new black nations. They did not have enough people trained in administration, though Southern Rhodesia had done better than most, particu
larly in agriculture, for Zimbabwe began with a good number of already trained black agricultural workers. That is one reason why Zimbabwe, unlike the black nations that surround it, feeds itself, and has healthy surpluses which it is proud to sell to South Africa and to donate to famine areas in the Horn of Africa. Zimbabwe is a success for all its faults, for all its mistakes, and although it has had to sustain Mozambique, which is a disaster. To help police Mozambique, feed its refugees, keep the oil flowing in the pipeline from Beira, costs Zimbabwe, a poor country, a million pounds a day. Mozambique has been kept alive by Zimbabwe, while South Africa has done everything to destroy it. If South Africa has stopped trying to ‘destabilize’ its black neighbours, then the damage that has been done will not heal itself overnight, and the rebel bands it armed and financed have not all become good citizens, they still sabotage and destroy. South Africa dominates Southern Africa, for better for worse, and will continue to do so: already in 1991 the ex-communist government of Mozambique invited in South African capital to heal and develop the shattered country.

Zimbabwe, like other new black countries, has a corrupt ruling élite. This is a far from apologetic class of robbers. On the contrary they are proud of themselves, boast and display their wealth. Joshua Nkomo who, like Robert Mugabe, had tried to check the corruption, finally had to capitulate to fact, and to what he was observing all around him. In a speech in 1989 he said, ‘I suppose we have to learn how to be rich as well as having to learn everything else.’

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