Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood 
by Carolyn Slaughter.
Doubleday, 254 pp., £12.99, March 2002, 0 385 60344 4
Show More
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood 
by Alexandra Fuller.
Picador, 310 pp., £15.99, February 2002, 0 330 49023 0
Show More
The Healing Land: A Kalahari Journey 
by Rupert Isaacson.
Fourth Estate, 272 pp., £7.99, February 2002, 9781857028973
Show More
Show More

In 1983, when I was 11 and living in South Africa, I went to veldskool along with about twenty other girls from one of Johannesburg’s ‘liberal’ private schools. Veldskool – a compulsory annual week in the bush – was part of the national curriculum, for private schools as well as state ones. Despite privations we’d never faced before (cold group showers, breakfast at dawn, powdered eggs) and a vicious rethink of the pecking order (suddenly, the poorer children who’d spent time on farms had the upper hand), we learned some interesting things. How to use a compass, how to pin down and kill a poisonous snake without it killing you, how to set up a leopard-proof camp. We tramped over breathtaking country and wondered at the ancient ‘Bushman’ paintings on the rocky outcrops studding the landscape.

One night, a burly, sincere-looking instructor, a white man in his twenties, asked if anyone knew how to fire a gun. We were such a pampered city lot that only one or two of my classmates put up their hands – their parents were even more paranoid about crime than the norm. The instructor seemed genuinely worried for the rest: ‘Well, in your shoes I would definitely learn how to handle a firearm. Because, you know, even right now, there are guys less than seventy ks over there’ – he pointed east, to the Mozambican border – ‘who are planning to kill you. Sooner or later you guys might have to stand up to the total onslaught.’

The ‘total onslaught’ idea – an all-out war for majority rule along the lines of what had already happened in Congo or Zimbabwe, possibly even involving nuclear weapons, or with the world powers stepping in – was a commonplace in those days. But we were getting only the edited version. Our prep school in the northern suburbs was a little uneasy about the all-out promotion of White Christian Capitalist rule, but for our counterparts at state schools the veldskool ritual got longer and more fervent every year.

For a white child in Africa, the privileges were outrageous: vast quantities of sunshine, space, nature, food, adventure and altogether too much power over some adults (as long as they were black). Swimming pools and tennis courts and no housework. But there was always that feeling that Something Wasn’t Quite Right; a sense of menace which didn’t have to be stated outright to rattle you. Even in the stagnant, manicured suburbs of South African cities, electric fences and guns and horror stories were daily currency. What was even more alarming was to know that violence didn’t come only in the shape of machete-wielding burglars or guerrillas with AK-47s: it erupted among your parents and their friends. Almost every week the Sunday papers would report another classic white African murder: drunken father kills wife, children, self.

Carolyn Slaughter and Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs of ‘an African childhood’ try, indirectly, to explain how generations of white people who ‘knew what was best for their Africans’ got it so wrong. Before the Knife and Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight share more than a subtitle: they tell vivid tales of growing up with awful parents, sing the praises of the bush and the creatures in it, and attempt to account for a way of thinking that has been more reviled than properly examined in the rest of the world. They also have in common a catalogue of violence (actual and implied).

Carolyn Slaughter’s parents – a vicious petty bureaucrat, originally from Ireland, and his apathetic and depressive wife – moved around the various British Protectorates of Southern Africa (Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland) at the fag end of the Empire in the 1940s and 1950s. They pined for the glory days they had enjoyed in India (where the natives ‘had been at least intelligent’, and the pageantry was classier), and didn’t even think much of the other whites. In one remote administrative posting after another, and particularly in the Kalahari Desert town of Maun, the entire family went round the bend. It wasn’t the usual colonial ills (boredom, drink, adultery) that did for them, at least not if you take their daughter’s account seriously: Africa only served to aggravate the family’s various forms of dysfunction. Mother spent most of her time on the verandah with her face turned to the wall and Father was an unpredictable tyrant who beat the dogs as well as the servants and the children. When Carolyn was six he raped her, so she tried to kill him, with the knife of the title. She went to her mother for help, saying ‘Daddy did it,’ but was told never to tell such filthy, disgusting lies again. Several decades went by before anyone mentioned what had happened. There’s no irony in Before the Knife, little dialogue, no anecdotes, only a torrent of bitter and justified complaint.

Slaughter is now a psychotherapist specialising in child abuse, and the style here is that of the survivor’s narrative: a breathless, present-tense monologue picking endlessly at its own scars. ‘Violence was the psychic air we breathed,’ she writes; and the book is merciless in its descriptions of both her pain and the pain she inflicts on others when she in turn becomes a bully. There are nightmarish accounts of boarding school life, complete with sadistic nuns, doomed crushes and attempted suicide. Despite some fine evocations of the heat and dust of the Kalahari, this is not so much an African childhood as a miserable childhood which happened to take place in Africa.

For Alexandra Fuller, living through the Second Chimurenga, the war that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe in the 1970s, there were other scary things to confront. Horrible rumours of rebels (‘terrs’) who would leave you ‘earless and lipless and eyelidless’; mopping up the blood pouring from their maid, slashed with a machete; target practice by the pool; learning how to put in intravenous drips to save lives (but only if ‘All the Grown-Ups Are Dead’). Alexandra Fuller and her sister Vanessa were sexually molested, too, and found their parents eager to sweep the whole thing under the carpet.

Fuller has managed the trick of writing as a child, rather than about being one, with her talk of having sanctionson, the coming of freenfair elections and of her own eagerness to impress her father by learning to strip, reassemble and fire weapons, so as not to be part of the bunchofbloodywomeninthehouse. She describes the smells and sounds and foods of childhood – even the scratching of her mother’s nylons as they wait out a turn of duty on farm watch – and the Africa she knew is immediately recognisable.

She writes well about her family, too, never trying to make them seem less appalling than they were. The daily language of racial contempt is freely reproduced: the war has been

instigated by ‘uppity blacks’, ‘cheeky kaffirs’, ‘bolshy muntus’, ‘restless natives’, ‘the houts’. Black Rhodesians are also known by white Rhodesians as ‘gondies’, ‘boogs’, ‘toeys’, ‘zots’, ‘nig-nogs’, ‘wogs’, ‘affies’.

Writing as an adult, she introduces these words safely fenced by quotation marks, but pretty soon they’re running wild in the child’s internal monologue. The same unwavering, uncensoring eye takes in her parents’ recklessness and occasional selfishness: there are painful memories of evenings spent in the pick-up truck with her sister as their parents got hammered in roadside bars, of the fear as they hurtle home with Dad drunk at the wheel, and of the wretchedness of having to listen to their parents argue.

Her longing to have more ‘normal’ parents puts one in mind of Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky or even Absolutely Fabulous: ‘Pru Hildebrand is like a mum out of a book. When we go to her house we get home-made lemonade and slices of home-made bread with slabs of home-made butter on it.’ Yet this is a memoir without rancour, its fine balance of affection and irony suggestive of a truly close family. Similarly, a genuine feeling for the land warms the description of working the Fullers’ farms: the hard graft involved in fencing off those huge ranches, the tending of vegetables, dipping the cattle to stop them dying.

But perhaps the trickiest feat the book pulls off is making you fall in love with another flamboyantly unmotherly mother. Mrs Fuller’s drunken, self-dramatising rambles are set down in all their racist glory (‘We were prepared to take our baby into a war,’ she lectures a sheepish visitor from England, ‘to live in a country where white men still ruled’). The petty swindles and rampant hypocrisy of commercial farming are laid out in detail. This mum doesn’t languish in the house in a ladylike manner. She goes out on horseback to threaten the Africans who’ve begun to creep up and squat on their land (‘You fucking kaffirs! You bloody, bloody bastards! This is our farm!’), rounds up the stray cattle, fattens them up and sells them. The labourers are paid mostly in food from the company store: ‘give these buggers money and they’ll only spend most of it on chibuku,’ Fuller’s father pronounces (chibuku is lumpy, sorghum-brewed beer), turning a blind eye to his own family’s epic drinking.

For all the racist bluster, the Fullers don’t conform to the stereotype of evil planter barons. They weren’t rich: they pawned their jewellery every year to get money to grow another tobacco crop and ate free-range antelope at every meal to save a few rand. The children went barefoot, rode bareback and had worms. And in many ways the family was startlingly brave, facing with extraordinary aplomb some of the most frightening African phenomena: cobras in the kitchen, malaria, parasites, minefields and the sudden deaths of three out of five of their children. When their farm is confiscated in the 1980s – it’s such a mess that it’s given away to one of Mugabe’s enemies rather than one of his cronies – Fuller’s father can only say: ‘Well, we had a good run of it, hey?’ And they move on to try again: first to Malawi and then to Zambia.

Gradually, a new Africa makes its presence felt. Africans acquire surnames and titles, and now they have to be placated by the whites rather than vice versa. In 1980, as independence comes to Zimbabwe, accompanied by drought, Fuller is persuaded by a sympathetic black matron to share her new classmates’ bathwater: ‘I climb into the bathwater, lukewarm with the floating skin cells of Margaret and Mary Zvogbo. Nothing happens. I bathe. I dry myself. I do not break out in spots or a rash. I do not turn black.’

A few summers after Fuller, during another drought, I was on holiday in Zimbabwe, staying near a lake, when my playmates started to show me bits of metal. I didn’t recognise what they were, still not having learned to strip and reassemble a rifle. In fact, they were the weapons that had been thrown into the lake when the war ended, to be exposed when the water level dropped. I remember being very impressed by one child, a boy of 13 or so, who knew the right name for everything – grenade, magazine, clip, shell, cartridge. The reason he knew didn’t occur to me at the time. But Fuller knows very well: ‘the guerrillas . . . come to hold pungwe (political rallies) and to recruit mujiba (young boys) and chimwido (young girls) to bring supplies to the bush camps . . . they are the small, dark, moving shadows in the thick jungle terrain . . . the war has grown calmly violent, secret, earnest.’ The boy who impressed me so much was a mujiba: he knew what the metal objects were because he’d spent his childhood carrying them through the bush.

Fuller’s family find ‘ghost camps’ on their farm, where the fighters have been, and realise that their every move has been watched, that they’re always vulnerable. Yet (like the total onslaught) the massacre failed to occur as predicted. Eventually, Fuller’s perspective changes: she looks out onto this small patch of ‘her’ Africa and sees it from the mujiba’s point of view. This new double vision means she can simultaneously explain and ridicule the white enterprise: ‘Burma valley represented the insanity of the tropics so precarious for the fragile European psyche. The valley could send you into a spiral of madness overnight if you were white and highly strung. Which we were.’

Trapped in a family gone mad, Slaughter makes her rape the raison d’être of her book. Fuller is molested by a neighbour, and worse happens to her sister, Vanessa, at the hands of a ‘trusty’ white friend, but these things don’t take up more than a few brisk paragraphs. ‘It’s the decision we make to get on with it,’ she says at the end of the book, which sums up very well the can-do Rhodie spirit. Yet in both memoirs there’s a gaping hole where the African characters ought to be. There are occasional bittersweet memories of the power games between the white children and their cooks, nannies and gardeners, and of playing with their children in the compounds, but there are no black individuals with whom the authors or their families form deep or lasting relationships – only an undifferentiated ‘staff’. Like 18th-century European aristocrats, whites in Africa lived at extremely close quarters with their servants, but it was intimacy without empathy. ‘If I fall, or hurt myself, or if I’m tired,’ Fuller remembers, ‘my nanny lets me put my hand down her shirt onto her breast and I can suck my thumb and feel how soft she is, smelling of the way rain smells when it hits hot earth. I know, without knowing why, that Mum would smack me if she saw me doing this.’

Rupert Isaacson grew up in England, and for all the tales of derring-do that his émigré South African parents told him, he could only dream of the smell of hot earth. On occasional childhood holidays in Africa, he was seduced by its bizarre beauty (‘frogs as big as kittens!’), and as a teenager yearned to ride, shoot, hunt and drink like his cousins; but he quickly grasped that the farm life wasn’t for him when he saw one of his white rancher hosts punch a black worker out cold for turning up late and drunk. Instead, his African journey took him to the wild stretches of the Kalahari Desert and the Bushmen who still lived there.

Most of the remaining Bushmen, or Khoi-San, now live in miserable settlements scattered across the drier parts of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, and like other hunter-gatherer peoples they’ve been blamed both for being ‘unable to adapt’ to the modern world and for ‘losing their traditional ways’. As native Africans who weren’t particularly tall or aggressive (and who even happened to be lighter-skinned than the later waves of farming and herding Africans who displaced them), they became a central and useful trope for generations of white African writers, most notoriously Laurens van der Post. Here were the original people: kindly, gentle nomads who really understood the land without ever wanting to own or work it. And conveniently, they were almost extinct.

As with all anthropological fairy stories, this society of gentle, natural people exists only in the imagination of well-meaning outsiders. Although his own interest is in the hunting and healing arts, with a bit of higher mysticism thrown in, Isaacson has the grace to let his contemporary Khoi-San characters exist and speak as they are – as a bunch of dope-smoking, hard-drinking, porn-reading, tourist-bilking, backbiting malcontents. The Healing Land offers a fascinating account of the bafflingly complex land claims, migrations, intermarriages and rivalries of several groups of San over three international borders and three centuries. It doesn’t go easy, either, on the perversions of ‘traditional’ life now staged for tourism. Yet for someone with an obsessional interest in Bushmen, Isaacson has little to say about their wider culture. There’s nothing about language or kinship or the arts here: it’s all hunting and politics – and hearing what he wants to hear. ‘When the strangers come, there will be big rains, and then the people will dance. And when the little people of the Kalahari dance, the whole world dances,’ he’s told. This is Laurens van der Post for the Lonely Planet generation, and it’s dismaying how little Isaacson questions his own expectations of the ‘little people’.

Or, perhaps more precisely, the ‘little men’. As with so many Boys’ Own anthropologists, his understanding of San life rests heavily on the macho activity of hunting: the daily women’s work of gathering which actually fills the clan’s bellies doesn’t concern him very much. He also avoids mentioning the uglier aspects of Khoi-San society. Isaacson conducts a crypto-romance with a young Coloured social worker sent by the new South African Government to work with the Xhomani clans; herself recovering from a childhood of daily thrashings from her clergyman father, she loses patience with the constant drunken wife-beating she finds, and encourages the women to strike back. Isaacson’s reaction is one that only a European Buddhist male could muster: ‘I felt a twinge of misgiving. Was it her place to put the women up to violence, whatever the reasons?’

Many of white Africa’s children have now scattered, often to more peaceful former colonies – to Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Fuller, Slaughter and Isaacson all live in North America. This diaspora, unlike the Caribbean or West African, doesn’t seem to have much feeling for the ‘Mother Country’. I felt a real chill of recognition at Slaughter’s account of pulling into the docks at Southampton: ‘seeing it that way, the white cliffs low and crooked, it seemed such a little place, and so grey and dismal.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 24 No. 16 · 22 August 2002

Polly Hope (LRB, 8 August) does less than justice to Carolyn Slaughter’s harrowing memoir, Before the Knife. Hope says that the book describes ‘not so much an African childhood as a miserable childhood which happened to take place in Africa’, but one could argue that Slaughter portrays an old-style expatriate mentality which allowed all kinds of moral squalor to flourish. Men who, back in Europe, had been perhaps less than adequate individuals, found themselves in positions of power, licensed to lord it over a whole section of society – the Africans. It is a short step to lording it over your dispirited, lonely and inevitably disappointed wife, and your deracinated offspring. Not all expatriates in Africa lived a ‘Happy Valley’ type existence. More common was day-to-day adversity, poor living conditions, bad health and the pervasive ill-ease that must exist when you don’t understand your environment and are trying by force to control it. These conditions bred harsh values; unremarkable men became tin-pot dictators.

This is what seems to have happened in Slaughter’s family. If Hope is correct, the ‘can-do Rhodies’ of Alexandra Fuller’s memoir, don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, were subject to sexual assaults from outside the family, but decided to get on with their lives, putting the incidents behind them in ‘a few brisk paragraphs’. Slaughter was not able to do that because she was trapped in a situation of repeated abuse within her own family, from whom there was no escape. As she describes it, she was not only raped but beaten and so humiliated and ridiculed that she felt herself to be worthless. I agree that this situation can occur in all societies, but it is more likely to persist where there are few external limits on brutal behaviour, only a primitive code of loyalty and ‘covering-up’, based on skin colour. The man concerned liked to hurt animals and lash out at his servants, and there was nothing secret about this behaviour; he was living in a time and place where it hardly seemed abnormal. Hope describes the ‘usual colonial ills’ as ‘boredom, drink, adultery’, but the fundamental colonial ill was manifested in Slaughter’s father – power employed without check, anxiety or remorse. Small wonder that there is no ‘irony’ in her account of her childhood. Where would the irony lie?

Hilary Mantel
Knaphill, Surrey

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences