September 2011

How Africa became home

By Alexandra Fuller
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Most parents are familiar with the figurative “landmines” of childhood: scraped knees, hurt feelings, unsuccessful playdates. But few, at least in the West, have to worry about actual ones. Landmines are but one of the hazards that Alexandra Fuller, author of the memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2001), had to contend with while growing up in war-torn Rhodesia in the 1970s.

With her latest memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Fuller returns to Africa and her endlessly fascinating family. In this follow-up, which easily stands alone, Fuller revisits familiar terrain, but with a vastly different perspective—that of someone a decade older who’s now a parent herself.

While her first memoir chronicled her Rhodesian childhood, this one focuses on the lives of her intrepid parents, Tim and Nicola Fuller, who resolved to make a life for themselves on their African farm despite personal heartbreak and political upheaval. At its core, however, Cocktail Hour is the story of Fuller’s dynamic mother, Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she is sometimes known. Fuller recreates scenes of her mother bumping across treacherous terrain in a Land Rover, an Uzi lying across her lap, and striding across the land with an assortment of dogs in her wake. Fuller interviewed both her parents extensively for this book, especially Nicola, whose voice she has captured with remarkable precision.

Born “one million percent Highland Scottish” on the Isle of Skye and raised in Kenya during the 1950s, Nicola rode a donkey to school, where she endured harsh treatment at the hands of the nuns; became an accomplished equestrian at an early age; and married a dashing Englishman before settling down on a farm, first in Kenya, then Rhodesia, where the author and her sister Vanessa were born in the late 1960s. When a civil war broke out in the mid-1970s, Fuller’s tenacious parents decided to dig in rather than leave Africa. We follow the young Fullers as they traverse the continent, fleeing from war and unspeakable heartache, hopscotching from Kenya to Rhodesia to Zambia.

When the girls moved away as grownups (the author lives in Wyoming with her American husband, a river guide), their parents procured a fish and banana farm in Zambia, where they remain to this day. It is here that Fuller returns at the end of the book to sit under the legendary Tree of Forgetfulness, where, according to local lore, ancestors reside and villagers meet to resolve disputes.

Fuller brings Africa to life, both its natural splendor and the harsher realities of day-to-day existence, and sheds light on her parents in all their humanness—not a glaring sort of light, but the soft equatorial kind she so beautifully describes in this memoir. She renders this portrait of her family with both humor and compassion—from Nicola and Tim’s early years, awash in that fragrant Kenyan air, to their later ones in the Zambian valley where they seem to have finally found home.

Interview with Alexandra Fuller for Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

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