Books

Living on the edge in a country turned upside-down

"The Last Resort"

by Douglas Rogers

Harmony Books, 304 pages, $25

The news from Zimbabwe fades in and out of the U.S. media like the electricity in that country - a run of shocking stories followed by long periods of nothing.

But the stories of atrocities, political corruption and human suffering keep sputtering out, like an old generator, as the situation there continues to deteriorate.

It's tough to wrap your mind around what's going on in Zimbabwe, the southern African country formerly known as Rhodesia. Guerrillas overthrew white rule in the former British colony in 1979, and Robert Mugabe was elected to run the country in 1980. The country began to flourish, particularly by African standards, with education and exporting food high priorities. Mugabe was touted in international circles as a liberation hero.

Ah, but all was not what it appeared. As Mugabe aged (he's 85 now), he tightened his grip on the country as opposition parties gained popularity. In 2000, he stepped up his terror campaigns and began seizing the land of the remaining white farmers.

This is where Douglas Rogers' new memoir, "The Last Resort," begins. His parents, white farmers whose families settled in Africa centuries ago, bought a plot of land in the 1990s in eastern Zimbabwe, near the border with Mozambique, and turned it into a game farm and backpacker lodge, with swimming pool, bar, restaurant and chalets. Business boomed.

And then everything collapsed.

One by one, their neighbors were kicked off their farms, often violently and always suddenly, replaced by squatters and low-level politicians with no farming experience. The country crumbled financially, politically and socially.

"The Last Resort" follows the highs and lows of his parents' (and their neighbors') quest to keep their property and survive in the new order. Tourists at the lodge were replaced by elderly whites who lost their land, prostitutes, opposition activists posing as priests, black-market traders, and, finally, illegal diamond dealers. The lodge becomes a microcosm of the changing society.

Lyn and Ros Rogers are resourceful and amusing characters in this book. They are compassionate but strong. They keep a shotgun near their bed but like nothing better than an evening cocktail and cigarettes on the veranda.

Rogers' book reads less like a memoir and more like a first-person article in The New Yorker - fast-paced, exciting and full of political news wrapped around personal asides. The story he tells isn't his, it's his parents', and he's there just to report it and put it in perspective for those who have never lived in a crumbling society.

"Being able to laugh at the absurdity of their situation was a trait all Zimbabweans picked up; if they didn't, they all would have had heart attacks," he writes of Moneypenny, a large, white woman who used to own a balloon factory but had become a black-market banker, exchanging U.S. dollars for hyperinflated Zim dollars by the trunkload. "Oh, my, you have to hear this," she tells him after the transaction. "It's brilliant. We're putting a spell on the chappie who took my house!"

Rogers uses lots of humor in his book, and he knows how to parcel out the country's political background in bits instead overwhelming facts. You don't have to be familiar with African politics to follow this story of survival, back-room deals and even witch doctors.

His parents were often on alert, especially when anyone pulled onto the property, knowing their land could be seized at any moment: "Mom walked down to the car. Dad's mind was racing. He thought of the Top Man. And he suddenly thought of the new tenant, the stranger in 12A. The headlights were on bright, but if she shielded her eyes, Mom could vaguely make out two figures in the front seat. The driver's door opened. Her pulse quickened. She felt the flutter in her stomach. The headlights went off. For some reason, she could see even less. She felt momentarily blind, dizzy. She could make out the burly figure of a man exiting the vehicle. Then a booming voice rang out with a Scottish accent. 'Come on, Ros, we know yer bloody hoom! Just driving past an' thought we'd pop in for a wee drink.'"

I met Rogers in a Johannesburg township in 1992, in the year before Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president. We were both journalists - he was a young reporter for a small suburban newspaper, and I was working at the Sowetan, the country's largest black newspaper.

In the ensuing years, Rogers moved to London and then New York, where he now lives with his American wife, carving out a living as a travel writer and sometime political reporter.

In the past decade, several memoirs have been written by white Zimbabweans, including Wendy Kann's "Casting with a Fragile Thread: A Story of Sisters and Africa" and Alexandra Fuller's "Scribbling the Cat." But those are childhood memoirs, full of raw emotion and dysfunctional families.

Rogers' book is more akin to Peter Godwin's "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun," which explores how Mugabe's crackdowns crushed the spirit of his parents, who had fled Europe after World War II for a new life in then-Rhodesia.

(Interestingly, all these memoirists now live in the United States.)

Rogers could have just as well written a novel set in his home country but chose to focus on his family. Fact is always stranger than fiction.

'DAWN OF DELIVERANCE'

Irmo real estate consultant and author James Peters, a third-generation Zimbabwean, recently released "Dawn of Deliverance," a novel set in then-Rhodesia.

The story takes place in the civil war leading up to 1980, when Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister. At the time, two black guerrilla groups were battling the white ruling party for control of the country.

Peters, who served 11 years as a district commissioner in the country during that time, writes an action-packed story of war and reconciliation, focusing on the relocation of an estimated 20,000 black people to protected villages in the Honde Valley (the same area in Douglas Rogers' book). He writes of the brutalities on all sides of the conflict, seen through the eyes of Jamie Ross, the district commissioner in charge of the relocation.

Peters, who is also a deacon at Gateway Baptist Church on Dutch Fork Road, invokes Biblical references to show the humanity and inhumanity of war, and the book wraps up with an opposition leader accepting Jesus when faced with a life haunted by killings.

Peters doesn't whitewash the war, and his writing is fast-paced and crisp. But at the end, his purpose is clear.

When a Dan Rather figure meets with Ross as the conflict winds down, the commissioner is worn out. "All I hope and pray for is that these reporters tell the right story," Ross says. "We've made such progress, I would hate for the media to put a negative spin on what has been accomplished by the people."

The book, published by iUniverse, is available at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Harbison as well as online.

- Janet Kahler

  Comments