– Why do you keep going to all these… war-torn places? Why can’t you just stay here?
– Mom, the researchers of human DNA say that all of us still lived in Africa 60,000 years ago. In a geneticist’s calendar, that’s two minutes.
– What are you trying to say, that you miss “home?”
– Don’t you?
During my visit back home from Kenya, I did my best to turn these almost daily questionings into jokes, but one could overhear some bitterness even in the silence. When I showed up at my parents’ door informing them I was going to Africa for the first time, they were shocked and stricken. My mom cried, and she cried even more when upon my return I said I accepted a job offer and would go back there, this time for more than just a couple of months.
But this is probably as far as I can go in revealing my complex relationship with my mother. Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller takes it a lot further, spilling on the pages of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood a lot of the details about her upbringing, and a lot of very personal details at that. She loves her mother and she loves Africa, and her story revolves around these two very complicated relationships. And though I loved the book and highly recommend it, it has some harsh truth in it, especially in regard to that mother-daughter relationship; and the way that this harsh truth was presented has caught me off guard at times. I guess if you are to be really honest with your readers in a memoir, you have to pretty much stand in front of them naked, your worst experiences revealed. Not only that, but you also have to expose your loved ones in that same unflattering light, and that’s a whole lot harder to do, if you ask me.
But back to the book – Alexandra’s writing is beautiful and absolutely captivating. Her vivid descriptions reminded me of every scent and sound of waking up to an African morning.
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 that 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.
She writes about the ways in which she perceived Africa as a child; about the funny and unusual and scary experiences that made her childhood so different from that of her Western counterparts. She also writes about her British family’s perceived superiority over the local population, especially that of her mother. And she writes about multiple tragedies that befall her family during their life in Rhodesia, Malawi and Zambia.
I could relate to Alexandra’s story a lot of the time, while I spent the remaining time being slightly shocked. No surprise there, as that’s the reaction I am sure she was trying to invoke in her readers.
Her family left the UK when she was just two, and she talks about her inability to relate to any particular place or properly explain where she comes from, when asked. I’ve struggled with the same issue for many years, and I almost wanted to scream, “me too!” when reading those parts. When I lived it Africa, I’d always take up some 15 minutes of a stranger’s time, trying to explain that I was born in Europe, but spent all of my adult life in the United States, but went back to Europe to study, and came to Africa because that’s where I really wanted to be.
And just like Alexandra, I love Africa and I don’t know how to properly love it. She talks about never truly coming face-to-face with the lifestyle of the locals or experiencing their hospitality until later in her childhood, and the effect that the encounter had on her. And she describes how she was trying to help at least a little, but had to quickly come to terms with the reality of how little her help really mattered, and how large the scale of the problem really was. I had the very same realization slap me in the face early on, and I’ve experienced how helpless you feel, and how numb you have to grow to some of the reality around you when the scale of the problem is so massive, and how much you hate yourself for not being able to do more. Alexandra helps the reader out a bit by looking at many issues through the prism of humor, instead of complaining or lecturing – an aspect that, when added to her beautiful and light writing style made the book worth my time.
If we are killed in an ambush or blown up on a mine, we will be wearing clean brookies, our best necklaces, red and black dresses made out of the very poisonous seeds from lucky-bean trees. We’ll be presentable to go and sit on the left hand of Godthefather.
But Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is a story about Africa as much as it’s a story about Alexandra’s mother, and this is the part about which I had mixed feelings throughout the book. I could very much understand the differences in their worldviews, many times thinking back to my own experiences as I was reading. In my very biased opinion, though, I think Alexandra was a little too harsh toward her mother. Who knows, maybe that’s what it takes if you want to be true to yourself and others. But how can you really tell what is the naked truth and what is simply your perception of reality? I don’t think I’d ever be able to write a memoir for that reason. I can tell a couple of jokes about my family, but it’d be hard to expose every difference between us, every misunderstanding, and put it out there in the open for everyone to judge. Would you do it? Have you read the book and did you enjoy it? I liked it very much, from her way with words to her humor to some interesting political aspects. But I know I couldn’t write anything like that myself, not in that much detail, not so openly. I admire her and disapprove of her at the same time for that particular aspect. It was a great read, though, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is as crazy about Africa as I am.