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African Laughter

Four Visits to Zimbabwe

African Laughter by Doris Lessing
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A highly personal story of the eminent British writer returning to her African roots that is "brilliant . . . [and] captures the contradictions of a young country."--New York Times Book Review
HarperCollins; June 2009
464 pages; ISBN 9780061952012
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Title: African Laughter
Author: Doris Lessing

Chapter One



A Little History

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.

  • News
Doris Lessing's last gift to Zim was a collection of 3 500 books - The Zimbabwe Standard
Sat, 07 May 2016 20:00:05 -0700
The Zimbabwe StandardDoris Lessing's last gift to Zim was a collection of 3 500 booksThe Zimbabwe StandardIn her travelogue ...