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Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

An African Childhood

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight
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When the ship veered into the Cape of Good Hope, Mum caught the spicy, heady scent of Africa on the changing wind. She smelled the people: raw onions and salt, the smell of people who are not afraid to eat meat, and who smoke fish over open fires on the beach and who pound maize into meal and who work out-of-doors. She held me up to face the earthy air, so that the fingers of warmth pushed back my black curls of hair, and her pale green eyes went clear-glassy.

“Smell that,” she whispered, “that’s home.”

Vanessa was running up and down the deck, unaccountably wild for a child usually so placid. Intoxicated already.

I took in a faceful of African air and fell instantly into a fever.

In Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller remembers her African childhood with visceral authenticity. 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.

From 1972 to 1990, Alexandra Fuller–known to friends and family as Bobo–grew up on several farms in southern and central Africa. Her father joined up on the side of the white government in the Rhodesian civil war, and was often away fighting against the powerful black guerilla factions. Her mother, in turn, flung herself at their African life and its rugged farm work with the same passion and maniacal energy she brought to everything else. Though she loved her children, she was no hand-holder and had little tolerance for neediness. She nurtured her daughters in other ways: She taught them, by example, to be resilient and self-sufficient, to have strong wills and strong opinions, and to embrace life wholeheartedly, despite and because of difficult circumstances. And she instilled in Bobo, particularly, a love of reading and of storytelling that proved to be her salvation.

A worthy heir to Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham, Alexandra Fuller writes poignantly about a girl becoming a woman and a writer against a backdrop of unrest, not just in her country but in her home. But Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is more than a survivor’s story. It is the story of one woman’s unbreakable bond with a continent and the people who inhabit it, a portrait lovingly realized and deeply felt.
Random House Publishing Group; March 2002
321 pages; ISBN 9781588360496
Download in secure PDF format
Excerpt
Rhodesia, 1975

Mum says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”

They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”

“Why not?”

“We might shoot you.”

“Oh.”

“By mistake.”

“Okay.” As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. “Okay, I won’t.”

So if I wake in the night and need Mum and Dad, I call Vanessa, because she isn’t armed. “Van! Van, hey!” I hiss across the room until she wakes up. And then Van has to light a candle and escort me to the loo, where I pee sleepily into the flickering yellow light and Van keeps the candle high, looking for snakes and scorpions and baboon spiders.

Mum won’t kill snakes because she says they help to keep the rats down (but she rescued a nest of baby mice from the barns and left them to grow in my cupboard, where they ate holes in the family’s winter jerseys). Mum won’t kill scorpions either; she catches them and lets them go free in the pool and Vanessa and I have to rake the pool before we can swim. We fling the scorps as far as we can across the brown and withering lawn, chase the ducks and geese out, and then lower ourselves gingerly into the pool, whose sides wave green and long and soft and grasping with algae. And Mum won’t kill spiders because she says it will bring bad luck.

I tell her, “I’d say we have pretty rotten luck as it is.”

“Then think how much worse it would be if we killed spiders.”

I have my feet off the floor when I pee.

“Hurry up, man.”

“Okay, okay.”

“It’s like Victoria Falls.”

“I really had to go.”

I have been holding my pee for a long, long time and staring out the window to try and guess how close it is to morning. Maybe I could hold it until morning. But then I notice that it is the deep-black-sky quiet time of night, which is the halfway time between the sun setting and the sun rising when even the night animals are quiet—as if they, like day animals, take a break in the middle of their work to rest. I can’t hear Vanessa breathing; she has gone into her deep middle-of-the-night silence. Dad is not snoring nor is he shouting in his sleep. The baby is still in her crib but the smell of her is warm and animal with wet nappy. It will be a long time until morning.

Then Vanessa hands me the candle—“You keep boogies for me now”—and she pees.

“See, you had to go, too.”

“Only ’cos you had to.”

There is a hot breeze blowing through the window, the cold sinking night air shifting the heat of the day up. The breeze has trapped midday scents; the prevalent cloying of the leach field, the green soap which has spilled out from the laundry and landed on the patted-down red earth, the wood smoke from the fires that heat our water, the boiled-meat smell of dog food.

We debate the merits of flushing the loo.

“We shouldn’t waste the water.” Even when there isn’t a drought we can’t waste water, just in case one day there is a drought. Anyway, Dad has said, “Steady on with the loo paper, you kids. And don’t flush the bloody loo all the time. The leach field can’t handle it.”

“But that’s two pees in there.”

“So? It’s only pee.”

“Agh sis, man, but it’ll be smelly by tomorrow. And you peed as much as a horse.”

“It’s not my fault.”

“You can flush.”

“You’re taller.”

“I’ll hold the candle.”

Van holds the candle high. I lower the toilet lid, stand on it and lift up the block of hardwood that covers the cistern, and reach down for the chain. Mum has glued a girlie-magazine picture to this block of hardwood: a blond woman in few clothes, with breasts like naked cow udders, and she’s all arched in a strange pouty contortion, like she’s got backache. Which maybe she has, from the weight of the udders. The picture is from Scope magazine.

We aren’t allowed to look at Scope magazine.

“Why?”

“Because we aren’t those sorts of people,” says Mum.

“But we have a picture from Scope magazine on the loo lid.”

“That’s a joke.”

“Oh.” And then, “What sort of joke?”

“Stop twittering on.”

A pause. “What sort of people are we, then?”

“We have breeding,” says Mum firmly.

“Oh.” Like the dairy cows and our special expensive bulls (who are named Humani, Jack, and Bulawayo).

“Which is better than having money,” she adds.

I look at her sideways, considering for a moment. “I’d rather have money than breeding,” I say.

Mum says, “Anyone can have money.” As if it’s something you might pick up from the public toilets in OK Bazaar Grocery Store in Umtali.

“Ja, but we don’t.”

Mum sighs. “I’m trying to read, Bobo.”

“Can you read to me?”

Mum sighs again. “All right,” she says, “just one chapter.” But it is teatime before we look up from The Prince and the Pauper.

The loo gurgles and splutters, and then a torrent of water shakes down, spilling slightly over the bowl.

“Sis, man,” says Vanessa.

You never know what you’re going to get with this loo. Sometimes it refuses to flush at all and other times it’s like this, water on your feet.

I follow Vanessa back to the bedroom. The way candlelight falls, we’re walking into blackness, blinded by the flame of the candle, unable to see our feet. So at the same moment we get the creeps, the neck-prickling terrorist-under-the-bed creeps, and we abandon ourselves to fear. The candle blows out. We skid into our room and leap for the beds, our feet quickly tucked under us. We’re both panting, feeling foolish, trying to calm our breathing as if we weren’t scared at all.

Vanessa says, “There’s a terrorist under your bed, I can see him.”

“No you can’t, how can you see him? The candle’s out.”

“Struze fact.”

And I start to cry.

“Jeez, I’m only joking.”

I cry harder.

“Shhh, man. You’ll wake up Olivia. You’ll wake up Mum and Dad.”

Which is what I’m trying to do, without being shot. I want everyone awake and noisy to chase away the terrorist-under-my-bed.

“Here,” she says, “you can sleep with Fred if you stop crying.”

So I stop crying and Vanessa pads over the bare cement floor and brings me the cat, fast asleep in a snail-circle on her arms. She puts him on the pillow and I put an arm over the vibrating, purring body. Fred finds my earlobe and starts to suck. He’s always sucked our earlobes. Our hair is sucked into thin, slimy, knotted ropes near the ears.

Mum says, “No wonder you have worms all the time.”
Subject categories
ISBNs
1588360490
9780375507502
9781588360496