If you read my blog at all, you know how much I write about the situation in Zimbabwe. Over the summer, a friend from one of the local bookstores passed me a galley of the The Last Resort, a memoir of Zimbabwe by Douglas Rogers. Rogers is a born and raised Zimbabwean whose moving portrayal of his parents struggle to reinvent themselves during the chaotic and tumultuous Mugabe regime of this once bountiful, shining example of a prosperous nation, is heartbreaking as well as captivating. This book is a must read. (I have now read it twice!)
In a moving, sometimes laugh out loud funny tribute, we meet Doug's parents Rosalind and Lynn Rogers, whose amazing resilience turns out to be part of the core of what makes people Zimbabwean. After leaving the country as a young man, Doug began to increase his travel back home as his fear for his parents' safety grew. In the process, his memoir paints an uncanny sense of what is was like growing up in Zimbabwe as a child, and returning to this country as an adult in the midst of the current political crisis under Robert Mugabe. A crisis that has dragged many Zimbabweans through a long and protracted hell of which most of the world community is ignorant.
Rosalind and Lynn take that little piece of hell and turn it into opportunity that would shock most children who faced these issues with their parents. Yet his parents bounce along as their once famous back-pack and pizza place becomes a brothel for the Zanu-PF party. He can't quite believe that the diamond smugglers make this their hang out or that dad finally succumbs to growing marijuana. As an adult child, facing those kind of issues with your parents is like imagining them having sex. Truly funny.
As the story unfolds it illuminates a powerful human aspect to the Zimbabwe crisis through the eyes of human beings that are still stuck there. The story moves beyond race to "ordinary people, not black or white, who are trying to survive the regime of Robert Mugabe and all his crazy laws," says Doug. Yet throughout it all, there is a national pride and stoicism that we wish all of us would learn from our parents. This story of the Rogers' has left an indelible impression on me.
Doug's parents, who are often funny, are resilient and able to shift to the changing landscape like chameleons. In the beginning of the book, Doug hears of the first white farmer who was killed and calls his parents in a panic. In a funny exchange he realizes that they are busy watching a cricket game and oblivious to the murder. Rosalind's response to her son's panic makes one see the steel-eyed determination that allows her family to survive during these tumultuous times. Her attitude serves her well in a country that continues to throw curve balls at any human being, black or white, that starts to wish Mugabe gone.
The author sheds some light on the political climate in this book, but not from a dry, educational perspective -- he illuminates the situation through the effect Mugabe has had on human beings and their lives. Some of what he shares is staggering, given that the popular press can't get it right. For example, only 28% of that country is commercial farmland. The whites own only 14-15% of that farmland. Mugabe is a master at framing the issues, and in 2000, he framed his land reform movement on the fact that 70% of the land was owned by white commercial farmers. All of the international press took those numbers at face value when they were completely inaccurate. Of that 14-15 % those farmers paid ½ of the GNP. In 2000, the farm workers on those white farms numbered over 300,000. These farm workers supported families with a population of close to 2 million.
What does not come out in the press, is that Mugabe's land reform idea was a planned and systematic decimation of the opposition party led by very false data that the International press took at face value. Sound familiar? These black farmers, along with the white farmers supported the opposition, and were part of the opposition stronghold. Mugabe wanted to destroy this. In the process, he not only destroyed Zimbabweans who lived on this land for generations, but the farms that made Zimbabwe a shining example to the west.
At one point in the story, Rosalind loses her citizenship via the Government Citizenship Act of 2002. She is forced to not only renounce the citizenship of her parents (if one is not born in Zimbabwe) but she must prove that she would never become a citizen of that country. She has to go to the embassy and get a letter that she is not eligible for citizenship to that country. As you see her struggle with these crazy laws, one feels as if Mugabe has taken on the character of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. He outshines Johnny Depp's portrayal in his sinister craziness. Willy or not, Rosalind's experience with the Government Citizenship Act is a great example of Mugabe's continued ploy to stop Zimbabweans from voting.
I spoke with Doug about his book that conveys the human story about this situation and couches the politic debate. "No one wants to listen to analytical bullshit; no one wants to hear the details of why Mugabe's governance and laws are ridiculous," he says. And he is right. Mugabe has managed to shovel a once successful country into the manure pile, and most of the world looks on. Doug's story can move the political debate to the human fallout. There are lots of bodies.
The Last Resort is a compelling story about one family's struggle, the sometimes hilarious perspectives of marriage and the coming of age of a son who discovers how truly special Zimbabweans are. "Strangely though, while things around them were falling apart, my parents had an incredible ability to laugh at the absurdity of their situation." I can imagine his mother's reply, she would say, "Darling, of course, we are Zimbabweans. "