Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
by Alexandra Fuller
Have in the Library? Yes
When I’m traveling, it can be hard to find books in English, which results in me reading things that are pretty random and outside my normal taste. This is what lead me to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, found in a used book shelf in the back of a textile cooperative in Guatemala. Browsing through an endless sea of paperback romance, sci fi and thrillers, I was excited to find a title I recognized so I paid my 60Q and started to read.
This book chronicles the life of Alexandra Fuller, called Bobo by her family, growing up in the countries of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Zambia and Malawi during the 70s and 80s. Bobo’s parents think nothing of land mines, inhospitable conditions, terrorists or civil war being the childhood backdrop for their children: Bobo, her older sister Vanessa, and three others who tragically do not make it to adulthood. (Not a spoiler I promise! You find out in the first chapters.) Weaving back and forth in time, Fuller recounts snapshots of her family’s experiences in these countries, both serious and lighthearted: from throwing a drunken Christmas celebration to the severe beating taken by a maid. Fuller fills in these episodes with brief explanations of African history, but her focus is personal. Looming especially large in her tale is her mother, alcoholic, haunted, slightly insane:
Her eyes are half-mast. That’s what my sister and I call it when Mum is drunk and her eyelids droop…Like the flag at the post office whenever someone important dies, which in Zambia, with one thing and another, is every other week…”Have a drink with me, Bobo,” she offers. She tries to pat the chair next to hers, misses, and feebly slaps the air, her arm like a broken wing.
One of the hardest aspects of this book to stomach is the racism. One of the first chapters opens with a recounting of a family gathering when Bobo is an adult, returning to visit her parents in 1999 in Zambia. Her mother is telling some houseguests, “Look, we fought to keep one country white ruled, just one country.” The theme of white supremacy is entrenched throughout the book with scathing portraits of Africans the family interacted with, like the cook Thompson, whom Bobo mocks when he tells her not to disturb an African gravesite. It is part of the structure of the narrative: the decline of the family with the successive deaths of Bobo’s siblings and her mother’s insanity is tied to the changing fortunes of the war and the ultimate breakdown of “white rule” in these African countries. Bobo’s mother exclaims after one death: “that’s what happens when you have a baby in a free African country.”
Yet as an adult, Fuller is aware of the effect of racism had on her life. As revealed in her epilogue, she has purposefully used these episodes to represent without glossing the reality of how white people lived in Africa. She also provides a list of books by black Africans so the reader can broaden their understanding.
Fuller writes: “I am African by accident, not by birth…I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Arica, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me.” When two populations have such disparate experiences, she goes on to wonder if there can really be such a person as an African. In telling this tale of her life in Africa, Fuller seems to find an answer, if an uneasy one, to this question, as her parents for all their (mis)adventures on the continent have not been able to.
The subject of racism in children, and racism in the history of Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, are beyond the scope of both this review and book, but I found Fuller’s take on this topic provoking. In the end I found myself admiring the way in which she decided to portray her life, to look it in the eye for all that it was. Honesty is the first step toward accountability after all.