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THERE is something unique about the African people in that instead of being burdened by sorrow and disaster underlining their existence, in a world where the superiority of race is evoked at every corner of its precincts, they let out a hearty laughter and let things be.

They have learnt over eons of suffering, oppression and subjugation that laughter is the best weapon to unseat aersity and to replenish the soul. Unfortunately or fortunately, it is this nature of the African that is construed for docility and naiveteacute it is this that is used against him and yet it is this that is his strength, his abode, his resolve.

The reading of Doris Lessing’s “African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe” (1992) reveals more about what the African thinks about himself and his environs than what those who purport to understand him do.

The book which effectively exploits the autobiographic mode, chronicles the writer’s own experiences through a combination of stories, poems, anecdotes, obituaries, newspaper cuttings, songs, historical allusions and sojourns.

Having been banned from Southern Rhodesia for 25 years because of her criticism of the then white government, Doris Lessing visits her homeland in 1982, two years after independence. She made three other subsequent visits in 1988, 1989 and 1992.

Her first visit reveals the euphoria of independence, as the majority black populace celebrate their freedom from the colonial yoke of oppression and subjugation the problems associated with teething as the young black government learns the ropes of governance the depression, despondence and frustration of the defeated whites who feel hard pressed to not only accept the outcome of the protracted war, but to submit to their former “boss-boys” now in charge and the hope of a newly born nation whose desire to experience the Utopian kingdom promised them is thwarted by a new breed of black fat-cats who hijack the revolution from the majority and run away with it.

A brief history of colonialism and how it displaced the original owners of the land and forced them to eke out a non-existent living on the periphery of rich arable land now occupied by the alien gangs from the West, justifies the ensuing wars the first one of which the Africans lost and the second one which they won.

Lessing gives the Whiteman’s perspective of the land and the war which he calls the Bush War.

The whites were fighting to preserve the legacy started by Cecil Rhodes and his Pioneer Column, who were on “an aenture for the sake of the Empire, for Cecil Rhodes, whom they knew to be a great man, for the Queen . . .”

They believed that “Salisbury, a white town, British in feel, flavour and habit,” was theirs for keeps because “the conquered were inferior, that white tutelage was to their aantage, that they were bound to be the grateful recipients of superior civilisation.”

The whites cared more for the land and its animals than they did for the Africans. They would rather protect animals and allow them to roam freely in vast tracts of arable land than give the same land to the blacks, who were packed in reserves in what they (whites) derogatorily called “kraals”.

The Africans were fighting for what was rightfully theirs for equal opportunities against repressive laws that relegated them to arid lands, robbed them of their humanity, castrated their sense of worth and stunted their dreams.

Theirs was a struggle for liberation and not a mere Bush War. The picture that the writer conjures evocatively questions the essence of freedom in a situation where the predatory nature of Man bares itself in the reversal of the roles of the hunter and the hunted.

The defeated whites whose erstwhile zealot, Ian Smith, conceitedly believed that there would never be black majority rule “in a thousand years”, fail to swallow the reality that stares at them, as a result they play the blame game on the ruling Zanu-PF Government.

Some decide to “take the Gap” in apartheid South Africa because they cannot endure a “black government.”

Lessing highlights the bitterness at the core of the white progenies, as they are made to play second fiddle to the true owners of the land that they so much adore, through the veranda gatherings which have become their pastime, as they recite The Monologue.

Her brother Harry who talks ceaselessly “about the innate inferiority of blacks”, and yodels about how the country used to be beautiful when it was under white administration, finds it unreasonable to “give free lifts to people who had just unfairly beaten his side in the War.” The olive branch of reconciliation that is extended to them by the black government is frowned at, as doom is prophesied.

The white dream remains etched in the past, where events seemed to favour their lot, hence, progress remains clogged in the world of yore, as spanners are put in the wheels of developmental projects. The majority, as a culmination of sabotage, individualism and deceit find themselves in no better a situation, as poverty continues to gnaw at them, yet they remain resolute and find respite in laughter.

Theirs, as described by the writer, is: “The marvellous African laughter born somewhere in the gut, seizing the whole body with good-humoured philosophy. It is the laughter of poor people.”

There are several other incidents where laughter is used as a form of escapism from the restrictive and oppressive inclination of lack.

On the flip-side the Africans who are referred to as “our Affs” by the whites are determined to haul themselves forward even in the face of aersity. They are aware that only knowledge has the capacity to turn the wheels of fortune, so the acquisition of skills is given priority. More schools and vocational centres are constructed and the Holy Grail is put in focus.

Labour laws which favour those that toil are enacted, and minimum wages introduced yet the issue of the land remains thorny as it remains in the hands of a few and the prophets of doom are quick to point out that the schools lack books and trained teachers that the O-Level pass rate for 1988 was a mere five percent but is that not an achievement considering that the bottlenecks in education during Smith’s regime saw to it that very few blacks acquired a secondary qualification?

The expatriate teachers funded by the donor community also find the terrain steep and as a result they end up receiving enlightenment from the same people they purport to guide to the light, as one Extension Worker observes: “They send us these young people. They are supposed to be teaching us . . .

“But we have to teach them what they are supposed to be teaching us . . . These young people are paid to come here and teach us. But we don’t get paid for teaching them everything.”

However, there are some whites who genuinely believe that Zimbabwe is their country and that they should work for its development. They work at par and in harmony with their fellow men regardless of colour, creed or race.

On the other hand there are fellow blacks who derive glee in suffering as they corruptly line their pockets aboard the gravy train, out of which they elbow the majority. In the decade that the book spans, a plethora of socio-economic and socio-political issues are visited.

The AIDS pandemic and its stigma, is also highlighted although the extent of its prevalence and effect is somehow exaggerated as “half” the police and the army is said to be infected.

The scanty knowledge on the disease, leads to alienation, stigmatisation and accusations of witchcraft. On the political landscape Zimbabwe plays a pivotal role in the stabilisation of the region, as Mozambique is ruined by Renamo, sponsored by apartheid South Africa.

The rise of Edgar Tekere and his Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) failed to make any meaningful impact, as was hoped by President Mugabe’s detractors peddling lies that he is unpopular:

“The POVOS are angry . . . If the government held an election now there would not be one vote for Mugabe.

“All over the country they are saying, ‘Why did we fight that war’?

“‘What for? We might as well have kept Smith . . . Yes, there is going to be a storm all right . . .'”

Wishful thinking that turned out not to be, for the revolutionary icon went on to resoundingly win against Tekere, and other puppet outfits that followed, and the African laughter echoed exuberantly in the rich mountains of the motherland.

Source : The Herald