Writing inspired by four visits to Zimbabwe, her childhood home, from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2007, Doris Lessing. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Doris Lessing made several visits to her homeland, Zimbabwe, a country from which she had been banned for twenty-five years for her opposition to the government of what was then white Southern Rhodesia. Vividly mingling memory and reportage, Lessing pays passionate and profound testament to an extraordinary country, its landscape, people and unquenchable spirit. 'African Laughter' is both a shrewd and perceptive portrait of a modern African state emerging from its bloody and terrible colonial history, and a candid and moving insight into the mind of one of this century's finest writers.
Lessing has strong credentials to write about Zimbabwe. Simply growing up there is something, but she has the distinction of being an advocate of African rights before the Second World War, and being banned and exiled by the British Colonial Government. In exile she continued her activism and in consequence appears to have some very good connections with current senior and middle-ranking African officials. On the other hand her parents were European settlers, and she has connections with the European farming families who remained in Zimbabwe after independence - although she describes the icy reception she received on her first return in 1982 from some who hadn't forgave her defection to the cause of African independence. But it isn't her connections with either the African leadership, or the European farming community that drives this book. It really comes down to her determination to meet and talk to people who are experiencing the day to day reality of Zimbabwe on the farms and in the rural areas where the struggle to survive is most acute.
Lessing's visits cover the period 1982 to 1992. Subsequently Zimbabwe has spiralled into anarchy under Mugarbe's increasing autocratic (and eccentric) rule and yet persisted and recovered to some extent by 2013. Although Zimbabwe has not yet become all it could become, Lessing gives the reader some understanding of the resilience and the energy of the people that allows them to still have and express hope for a better future.
In this book, Lessing describes returning to newly-independent Zimbabwe in 1982, 1988, 1989 and 1992. Although the material covers a period of ten years, she has obviously tried to avoid hindsight as far as possible and records her impressions of what she saw and heard in a very direct, immediate way - not quite a diary, but something very like it. The text is divided up into short, essay-like sections under sub-headings, in a slightly jokey newspaper style that looks as though it might be meant partly as a tribute to one of the friends she visits, a teacher in a remote bush school who is managing against all the odds to help his students produce a school magazine. But it also allows her to foreground how life in Zimbabwe is changing, by returning to a topic from a previous year under the same sub-heading.
In 1982, she is full of optimism - Zimbabwe is doing much better economically than most of its neighbours, it is able to feed itself, the scars of the long civil war seem to be healing, politics is not noticeably more corrupt than it was in 18th century Britain, and everyone (apart from her white farmer relatives, who are all muttering about selling up and going to South Africa) seems to believe in the country and its future. Where there are big problems, she sees people working hard to find ways to solve them.
On the subsequent visits, the tone changes a bit - many of the whites who left have come back, disappointed with what they found in South Africa, and are now putting their weight behind building a fair and multi-racial society in Zimbabwe, but climate change, soil erosion, AIDS, frequent shifts of agricultural policy, galloping corruption, and the increasing isolation and paranoia of Mugabe's single-party government all seem to be pushing the country into crisis. Of course, we know with hindsight that things only got (a lot) worse after 1992.
As we would expect, Lessing is a very clear and frank observer, both of what is going on and of her own reactions to it, which are obviously complicated by her status: she's simultaneously an outsider, a member of the colonial white farming class, and a left-leaning revolutionary. Most of the time she tells her story through the things people say to her and the things she directly observes herself, without resorting to newspaper reports or statistics. She works hard to see the positive and not allow herself to be distracted by the everyday inconveniences of African life.
There's a lot in the book about how the Zimbabwean landscape has been changed by the impact of increasing population - the bush that Lessing and her brother were able to roam in freely as children in the 1920s has shrunk, wildlife has disappeared in many areas, and the soil is suffering from erosion and overuse of chemicals.
Lessing also writes very perceptively about how aid projects work out on the ground. There is a very heartening description of the Book Team, a self-help project to provide villages with easily-intelligible handbooks on everyday topics. She goes out on the road with the team and is impressed with the enthusiasm and commitment of the village women who travel long distances to join in meetings and provide content for the books. And the sheer fun that they have doing it.
But we also hear about the mismatch between what people need and what aid organisations think they should have; how good ideas fail from problems in the supply of basic resources: schools that can't get books because of import restrictions; machines that can't be used for lack of spare parts; qualified teachers and nurses who don't want to work in remote areas, so their places have to be taken by enthusiastic but inexperienced foreign volunteers, etc. (all problems I've come across in many other countries when I was working with a development fund).
A constant refrain in the conversations Lessing has with black Zimbabweans is the comment "If Comrade Mugabe only knew..." - Lessing doesn't need to remind us of how many other kings and dictators that has been said by their loyal but worried subjects...
Interestingly enough, the title African Laughter comes from Lessing's joy of hearing Africans laugh. "The marvelous African laughter born somewhere in the gut, seizing the whole body with good-humoured philosophy" (p 80).
Confessional: there were times when I got lost in Lessing's chronology. An example: Lessing is visiting her brother and describing a scene languishing on the verandah. Her brother's two Alsatians (popular dogs as pets in Africa) are lounging nearby. One dog in particular, Sheba, hungers for Lessing's female attentions. Lessing then seamlessly goes on to describe how Sheba finally attached herself to her male owner only to be strangled to death in some loose wire at the end of a fence. Because she doesn't reference two periods in time I wasn't sure when this happened. Subsequent mentions of poor Sheba are depressing, knowing her sad demise.