“House of Stone”, The story of a family divided in war-torn Zimbabwe
Andeea Noiret, May 2009
- liberation struggle
« House of Stone” is only apparently the story of two people living in Zimbabwe and whose destinies cross at one moment of time. In reality, the wealthy English farmer, Nigel Hough, and Aqui, his family’s black nanny are the pretext of telling the story of a country lost in civil wars, hatred and starvation, they are the set of a remarkably description of a land thorn apart between racism and colonialism. Scattered with both personal and journalistic photos all along its content, the book presents both sides of in fact the same tragic story - Zimbabwe’s history
Christina Lamb is a British journalist, whose work has appeared in the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, and Financial Times, but also in the New York Times and Time magazine. As a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times, she published articles about Zimbabwe, Brazil, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. She is the author of a number of books, such as The Africa House, Waiting For Allah: Pakistan’s struggle for democracy or The sewing circles of Herat: My Afghan Years. Her most recent book is Small Wars Permitting: Despatches from Foreign Lands, a collection of her reporting. She has reported on Zimbabwe since 1994, despite being named by Mugabe’s spokesman as an enemy of state. She has won many awards, including five times the Foreign Correspondent of the Year.
I have one great fear in my heart – that one day when they are turned to loving they will find we are turned to hating.
Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)
The book is organised in seventeen chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. Each chapter presents in alternation the story of one of the two main characters, which gives the book a good dynamic and an interesting inner construction. Based on these true and in the same time symbolic characters, the author makes the reader get a real image of the intern conflict existing between the two categories of people living in Zimbabwe – the rich white farmers and the poor black people. Moreover, every major historic event described in the book is seen not only from both characters’ sides, but also from a neutral, almost journalistic point of view. By combining with talent the personal and the objective narrative style, the author allows the reader a better insight into the history of Zimbabwe.
The story of rural Zimbabwe under colonial rule
By telling Aqui’s story, who lived in a village called Zhakata’s Kraal in Mashonaland as the eldest of five children, Christina Lamb tells us also about the beginning of Zimbabwe’s history. She describes how the country, known for its gold and diamond mines, was in the sixteenth and seventeenth century ruled by the kings of Monomatapa, whose kingdom had mysteriously disappeared, leaving nothing but the ruins of a vast granite fortress called the Great Zimbabwe. The history goes on with the King of the Ndebele tribe, Lobengula, who had given the country into concession in 1888 to the first white British settlers in search for gold. With the British Protectorate introduced officially in 1890 began the nightmare for the black population which was chased away from its own land. The action was made official in 1969 when the Prime Minister Ian Douglas Smith announced the Land Tenure Act which institutionalised the discriminatory division of the land. As a consequence of the events in 1890, the Shona natives of the ex-Rhodesia rebelled in 1896. Known as Chimurenga, this rebellion was one of the most violent against white rule ever seen in Africa. Although around 10 percent of the settlers were killed, the rebellion was finally won by the white pioneers, because of their modern war equipment.
Throughout Aqui, the reader learns also about the traditions and the way the natives were organised. By talking about her own family, Aqui speaks for the entire community of natives, who shared the same values and roles. We learn for example that in the Shona community women were extremely important, they would do all the hard work on the field, cooked the food for the entire family, took care of animals and would fetch the water every morning, walking for hours to get to the well. Boys were more precious than girls, they would get all the land and schooling as the family could afford, while girls would not go to the secondary school because by the age of thirteen they were supposed to be married. This was also the case for Aqui, but because of the danger of the civil war, her family decided to send her to her uncle’s family who lived in Marondera. So, at the age of 14 years old, Aqui left the village and went to the town, where she experienced a totally different world, a society where there were separate queues for whites and blacks at shops and where school was to expensive for her to attend. Later on she started to work for the Red Cross, she married and she became mother of six children, but soon after the birth of her first two children the marriage started to go wrong, due to the drinking problems of her husband and the poverty in which they lived. Thanks to a contact from the Red Cross, she became a housekeeper and at a certain point Aqui meets the Hough family and becomes their nanny.
Getting acquainted with the gap in ways of life between white and black
By introducing the character of Nigel Hough in the 2nd chapter, the author shows the huge existing gap between the lifestyle of the white people, who enjoyed all possible favours, and those of the blacks, represented by Aqui, who were slaves in their own country and lived into Native reserves, while being exploited by the British for work. Although born in Zimbabwe, Nigel, as every other white person, was entirely ignorant of the black majority all around, to him this was just a kind of supporting cast that did the washing and cooking or laboured in the field. Nigel himself recognizes that he was lost in generalisations towards the blacks too because all his landsmen talked about them in the same terms. His parents used to say that blacks could not be trusted and that they were far behind any civilisation. In the same time, the government itself described them as uncivilized savages. Everybody referred to the natives as “they”, as an inferior breed and this attitude was reflected also in the fact that the black population was deprived of fundamental rights such as the right to vote, which was reserved exclusively to the whites and to a handful of blacks who had an extraordinary educational and financial background.
Furthermore, the students were taught at school that the history of Rhodesia started with civilizing warring tribes by white settlers. Nobody said a word about the Shona or Ndebele people, neither of their language nor of their culture and all the history had been rewritten in order to fit the white version of Rhodesia. Besides, the monopoly of information in possession of the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation (RBC) led to a strict censorship over all programs, preventing that way the “corruption” of the white society by the outside world.
Through Nigel Hough we discover also the habits and the way of life of the entire white Rhodesian society. In fact, everything that had to do with what was seen as the motherland was copied almost in detail. The educational system was extremely rigid, a true copy of the English one. The names of farms and settlements reflected this nostalgia for Britain and so called clubs were at the centre of white communities. Here, the whites would meet and discuss any kind of topics, just like in Britain. The whites considered themselves as indigenous, although the majority came to Rhodesia only after the WWII, mostly from Britain, but also from former colonies in East Africa, India, as well as Greeks and the Jews in search of a better life. Calling themselves “Rhodies”, they used to see themselves as those who fed the whole nation and were gathered under the Commercial Farmer’s Union, supportive of the Rhodesian Front. Moreover, they enjoyed high standards of living, sustained of course by the great inequalities between blacks and whites.
Unilateral declaration of independence, a trigger for armed resistance
Apart from the characteristics of the white and black community, the book presents also the existing political context. Although under protectorate of the Queen of Britain, Rhodesia had been self-governing. The economy was based on mining and agriculture and had its own merchant banks and stock exchange. As a consequence of the independence of Ghana, of Nigeria and Congo and than of Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia and fearing that Britain would give Rhodesia back to black people, the Prime Minister Smith (elected in 1964) reacted by illegally announcing in 1965 the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain. He was sustained in this action by South Africa’s apartheid regime and although some African states were against Rhodesia’s independence and imposed international trade embargos, the country continued to develop thanks to the help given by it.
Regarding the direct consequence of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, the book reveals the start of the second rebellion, which led a year later to the beginning of a long and traumatic civil war, the so called Bush War, led by the guerrillas, whose camps were based in Tanzania and Zambia, from where the attacks were launched. Although at first almost ignored by the majority of whites, the second Chimurenga started to spread in late 1972 when the armed resistance movements infiltrated the north-east of the country and attacked the white farms. By 1974, the civil war suddenly intensified and from that point on, the rebellion turned into a brutal civil war. The fighters, which some referred to as “rebels” while others as “Comrades” obtained food and clothing from the rural black population, often using coercion. Massive killings and atrocities had been organized and later on fighting had started between the rebels themselves.
The reader is helped to understand how the political regime turned to a nightmare. In the book we can find information about the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), whose secretary-general was Robert Mugabe. We make this way the acquaintance with the man who would become later a dictator in the country he helped to liberate. We find out his family history, but also that he was plotting from prison (where he was incarcerated because of being member of the National Democratic Party) to become the independence movement’s leader. Moreover, we learn important details about his party: that its funds came mostly from China, that it had its bases in Mozambique and that its slogan was “Land for the People” which corresponded to the fact the rebels made promises that they would give blacks back the land taken by the whites. But the story behind was far from being idyllic. We learn that the Comrades used coercion to oblige people to attend their meetings and that Mugabe worked with Chinese instructors to teach his forces the learning of Mao Zedong. Moreover, those among the black population who did not embrace his doctrine risked harsh punishment. Mass denouncements were encouraged and everyone was supposed being a collaborator, creating a climate reigned by fear. Everyone suspected everyone, even inside the family and teenage girls like Aqui were in danger to be raped by the rebels who lived in bushes. Besides, because women had stopped working their fields (the cause was the continuous fear of rebels), the population started to starve. By 1977, Mugabe ran ZANU from Mozambique, made declarations at the radio calling the whites as exploiters and thousands of his Chinese-trained guerrillas had infiltrated Rhodesia, launching attacks on white farmers. The future independence and his empowerment were only a few years away.
1980: Independence ending white minority rule
Christina Lamb dedicates the entire 7th chapter to this major event in the history of Rhodesia which is the independence. On this occasion, the country had changed its name into Zimbabwe on 17th of April 1980, being the last of Britain’s fifteen colonies on the continent to achieve independence. After years of vicious fighting, with more than 30,000 victims having been killed, the independence came therefore as a salvation and was the result of the negotiations that have taken place at Lancaster House in London between September and December 1979. After 14 weeks of negotiations, a ceasefire was declared and a British Governor appointed to oversee elections planned to take place at the end of February 1980.
The winner of the first free elections was Mugabe’s party, newly called ZANU-PF (Patriotic Front). On January 27th 1980, Mugabe returned to Zimbabwe after five years of exile and started to present himself as the nation’s hero. He made television speeches assuring the business community that there will be no sweeping nationalization and that the farmers would have their property rights respected, so that the panic among the white community diminished. Although the ZANU-PF’s leader had won with absolute majority, he announced that he was forming a government of national unity and he even named two white ministers (one for the Agriculture Ministry) in his cabinet. The international community was impressed by his extraordinary gestures and he was emerging as a positive figure for the destiny of the country, with firm intentions of reconciliation between whites and blacks. Unfortunately this was only propaganda, because by comparison with his speeches, nothing remarkable took place after his election, instead the general situation in the country got worse in all regards.
Mugabe’s legitimacy as freedom fighter begins to crumble
The author gives the reader insight into the nation’s soul, by presenting Aqui’s feelings and thoughts towards this new political regime. As almost every black person in Zimbabwe, she used to defend Mugabe, no matter how bad the economic situation of the country was. Her state of mind reflected well what the majority of the black population felt about the country’s leader. Blame for failure was always on the other. After a while she got tired to justify him and resented being disappointment by the empty promises of the regime. His promises of giving back the land proved to be vain and the hard life of the black had hardly changed. Instead ,prices went up as well as unemployment.
Land at the heart of conflict
The book presents in a very good manner also the land issue, which is in fact at the origin of Zimbabwe’s conflict. The reality was that less than 6,000 white farmers held 39 per cent of the land and two thirds of the total productive land, while millions of blacks were forced to live in reserves in areas with draught and poor land. As a result of the Lancaster House negotiations, it has been agreed that the white farmers were to be protected from expropriation and that the British government would finance land redistribution. The result was that for the first ten years of independence, the whites still dominated farming (with more than a third of the land and about 80 per cent of the most fertile parcels), commerce, banking, mining and industry, but on the other hand the civil war had stopped, security on the streets returned and the entire country received international support. This positive starting point meant in practice foreign aid and an extraordinary economic boom, but for a limited period.
Peace with an expiry date
In the meanwhile, Mugabe’s main preoccupation was to eliminate the presumed dissidents who tried to destabilize the new political regime of Zimbabwe. The leader of ZANU-PF had kept the country in a state of emergency, using exactly the same methods as Ian Smith: he controlled most media and got rid of white editors. His armies were terrorizing the country. Nothing transpired into the media, the deaths were never registered, interrogation centres were established everywhere and nobody knows how many people died in the four years of terror that followed the independence. At the same time, the members of the leading party richer.
The impact of the structural adjustment program
The optimism at independence did not last long. By 1986 half of the white population had left Zimbabwe as a result of the continuous degradation of Zimbabwe’s economy. Mugabe’s government indebted the country at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, accompanied by a structural adjustment programme. This meant that the country embraced the free market, the government abolished price and exchange controls and reduced import tariffs. This led to an austerity plan launched in 1991 in order to curb the immense inflation. Jobs were cut as well as health and education subsidies, the Zim dollar crashed, the inflation came up to 200 per cent and the population began to starve while the country came to register the highest levels of HIV infection in the world (situation which still continues at present). Facing between 1991 and 1995 also two terrible draughts, the country plunged into an economic deterioration without end.
No free elections
Moreover, the series of elections taken place since the independence changed nothing into the political order because every political opponent who would oppose Mugabe was threatened or even killed. No one was free to criticize the corruption proven by the government. Besides, Mugabe made a Unity Accord with his old rival Joshua Nkomo and turned Zimbabwe into a one-party state. In 1987, he declared himself both President and Prime Minister, being able to dissolve the Parliament as he liked as well as to establish unlimited terms for his office.
Failed land reform
Christina Lamb also presents another major event which came to join the series of factors that led to an even worse degradation of Zimbabwe’s economic situation. We talk here about the Lancaster House Agreement which protected the white farmers and expired in 1990. Only a few months later Mugabe signed the purchase of white-owned land, welcomed by the black population with much joy. Internationally, Zimbabwe’s leader remained the great liberation hero, despite the indescribable crimes committed in Matabeleland during the four years after the independence. But in 1995, fifteen years after the independence, the whites still controlled business, mining and farming, while the black labour still remained cheap and plentiful. The so much announced land reform had not really materialized despite the recent declarations of the government (which adopted a Land Acquisition Act). As a consequence, Britain had suspended payments in 1996 because of the lack of progress on transparent programmes and the situation in townships also degraded slowly.
In 1998 riots exploded in Harare, where people had gone into the streets to protest against the huge prices of cereals and other basic food, situation due to the application of the so unpopular IMF programme. The situation characterised itself through a lack of medicines, a rapid inflation, often cuts of electricity, schools which were no longer free and the television which was entirely manipulated by the government. Apart from that, the funds that IMF and the World Bank gave to Zimbabwe started to vanish, due to the fact that Mugabe’s family and party members were the only ones who had benefited from them.
The book also relates about the new party which came on the political scene in Zimbabwe in 1999. Called the MDC, which stood for Movement for Democratic Change, its leader Morgan Tsvangirai joined a wide alliance of civic organisations, churches, human rights groups and lawyers to demand constitutional and electoral reform. Together they formed the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) with the goal of preventing Mugabe running for elections again. In 2000 was held a referendum on a new constitution, but more than 60 per cent had voted against it, which meant a hard punch to Mugabe’s regime. The dictator declared that behind the opposition it was a conspiracy of the whites, but the reality was that his own people were beginning to turn against him and it was for the first time he had been confronted with the proof of his own growing unpopularity.
Heading towards collapse
After this turning point, the whole situation in the country had become impossible and the book describes well the dramatic general situation: white farms were invaded and the rebellions were directed against the presumed MDC supporters. International development aid was frozen. Little by little Mugabe and his regime started to form collective farms to resettle people, but most of them ended up abandoned, because of the lack of experience in the field and especially the lack of capital to invest. But above all, the whole process was not about making blacks land owners, but about land nationalizing. The following elections were a masquerade, with beatings and people disappearing, with murders, rapes and abductions taking place – all organized by ZANU-PF militia. Nevertheless, there were signs that people wanted change, that they were not happy with the whole situation especially with the Zimbabwean troops intervening in the Congo war, while the country’s finances were collapsing and the recession ruled. In general the whole situation was indeed desperate: most people had no access to independent media and suffered from starvation and the opposition was scared about the consequences if it would have dared to stay up to the dictatorial regime.
By the elections from March 2002, the situation was worse than ever. The police itself had become an instrument of the party, tortured opposition supporters and actively helped the invasions of the white farms. Moreover, the locations of vote stations were kept secret so that the MDC would not know where to deploy their agents; the number of voting stations in urban areas was reduced so that voters would have to queue for many hours and discourage participation; thousands of voting persons found their names missing while many dead people’s names appeared (the so called zombie votes). As a consequence, Britain, the US, the EU and the Commonwealth reacted promptly and refused to recognize the result which was in favour of Mugabe, re-elected for another six years, and imposed sanctions to his regime. The continuously harassment from the part of the war vets led to a massive exodus within the white community, caused marriages to break down, families to turn against each other or leaving the country. But more critical was the exodus of black professionals, doctors, teachers and nurses – about 60 to 70 per cent of productive adults.
Besides all that, the MDC lacked of strategy and of a charismatic figure who could stand up Mugabe. Nigel Hough nurtured this opinion, although he supported actively the party. By saying that “I had never seen Morgan as the answer for Zimbabwe. The problem was there just wasn’t anyone else” , he represented the voice of the whites and of the entire international community. As the crisis deepened, we assist to a change of Nigel’s state of mind regarding the whole situation in the country. Although as a teenager he waited with impatience the time when he could join the army in the war against the black people (war was presented in the media as something glamorous, it was about defending civilized Christian standards and a way of life), later on he began to understand that “War seemed to be an excuse for people doing terrible things (…) and the government seemed to be promoting that kind of patriotism without thought.” That is why he had tried to act in order to change things in his way. As a farmer, he employed local people, trained them, founded an orphanage for children whose parents had died of AIDS (deceased farm labourers), helped set up a school and was the chairman of a local employment creation committee that had enabled hundreds of students to start up projects.
Where the story ends
The book ends with the Houghs’ farm being seized and the family having to leave the country. But more important than that is the fact that the professional relationship between them and Aqui led to a deep friendship based on mutual respect and admiration for each others’ differences. In time, barriers of ignorance and prejudice between them have been broken down and the two opposite worlds symbolized by them meet in a wonderful friendship.
The book was written in 2006 and published one year after, so that it does not present the recent evolutions in the political history of the country, that is the organisation of a coalition government between Mugabe’s and Tsvangirai’s parties after the election on March 2008 of the MDC’s leader, naturally contested by the dictator. But the author, who came to well know Zimbabwe and to feel for its people as if they were her owns, gives us the readers an explanation of how it had been possible that a such deep crisis could have install and above all continue in time. Christina Lamb says in the prologue: “I had never understood why Zimbabweans did not rise up against their leader as people had in Yugoslavia or Ukraine. It irritated me that they kept asking why the outside world did nothing, when it seemed they were unwilling to help themselves. But (…) I realized (…) just how much twenty-five years of Mugabe’s rule had oppressed the population.” And she quote Nelson Chamisa, the youth leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, who said: “The people will never rise up now.(…) Mugabe can do anything he likes to them.”
Zimbabwe’s destiny has many things in common with the destiny of my home country, Romania. The book helps to understand the role that the British settlers and white minority rule by Ian Smith played into the developing conflict as well as the context in which Robert Mugabe came to power. Furthermore, it accounts of the cruel civil war that took place and that led the country into chaos. Narrated with accuracy, elegance and clearness, the book mirrors the Zimbabwe’s political, social and cultural context and represents therefore an excellent insight into its traumatic history. It was only thanks to this book that I finally understood the origins and the real development of the conflict in Zimbabwe.
I was stroke to find out how beloved this country was from both populations found in conflict. Indeed, this dzimba dza mabwe, this House of Stone which is Zimbabwe, is the home country for generations of both blacks and whites, but this love for their land had turned up into a deep hatred against one another, just like the quotation given at the beginning of the book well said. It is as if Zimbabwe could not take all this infinite love. This is indeed the story of a divided nation in love for one home country, but in my opinion, the injustice and the poverty, the illness and the despair within all of its people was due principally to the madness of one man, of a cruel and megalomaniac dictator. “You have inherited a jewel. Keep it that way.” , said once the president of Tanzania to Mugabe. I can only wonder what Zimbabwe could have become if this advice would have been followed and I can only hope that this House of Stone, once one of Africa’s wonders, will get through all the hard times and will find again its strength and prosperity that it is so worth of.