My answers to Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
What is your working title of your book? I am working on a great new Africa story, but it’s early days and I don’t want to jinx it, so I’ll answer questions about my previous book, The Last Resort.
Where did the idea come from for the book? It landed in my lap. I’m a journalist and my parents were kind enough to find themselves on the frontlines of a small war. Thanks Mom and Dad.
What genre does your book fall under?: Narrative non-fiction. It’s part memoir, part travel book, part reportage. I like to think it’s also a real-life thriller.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? The book has been bought by the BBC and they’ve done a terrific script. It’s not green-lit yet, but I would like Mom: Helen Mirren. (She wants Meryl.) Dad: Anthony Hopkins or Tom Wilkinson. Me: hmmm…Has done Gosling done an African accent? Or Dan Stevens who was just killed off in Downton Abby so he must have time on his hands. Plus he reads books.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? A testament to love, perseverance, resilience and brothel management.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? Published already by Crown (US); Short Books (UK), Jonathan Ball (SA)
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 12 months.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I was inspired by books by Laurie Lee (As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning), Graham Greene (Scoop, Power and the Glory, The Comedians), J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar, and Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. It bears little resemblance to any of these books.
Who or what inspired you to write this book? See question two. Also, I found all the horrific news stories coming out of Zimbabwe missed the amazing characters and absurdities of the country.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? It’s got guns, drugs, prostitutes, diamonds, gangsters, priests, frogs and a cookbook called Recipes for Disaster. And that’s only in my parents’ home.
A dying Christopher Hitchens is floored by a nine year old girl. This is beautiful sad.
Lots of talk about this Atlantic post on how Zimbabwe, after paying its civil service, is now down to its last $217. But at least it’s real money. Consider that back in the day – 2008/2009 – US$217 at the official exchange rate – US$1 to Z$ 300 000 000 000 000 – would have fetched you Z$65 100 000 000 000 000. At the black-market rate you can add several more zeroes. Those were the days!
My latest Telegraph piece, part of their Around the World by Rail series, this on taking the Maple Line from Toronto to New York. My advice – do it in spring, summer or Fall, so it’s not completely dark at 4pm. Naturally, as with any article on Canada, it begins with a lame gag about the loft above the party.
My belated review of the book by Ben Freeth, which followed the documentary of the same name.
MUGABE AND THE WHITE AFRICAN
What if the violent invasion of white-owned farms launched by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in 2000 had little to do with land? What if they weren’t even much about politics? What if, instead, the catastrophe under way in Zimbabwe is a fundamental struggle between forces of light and darkness, good and evil; righteous Christian values on the one hand, malevolent African spirits on the other?
The premise would make for an intriguing novel, but it is in fact the underlying thesis of a memoir, Mugabe and the White African, by white Zimbabwean farmer Ben Freeth, an alternately inspiring, frustrating, and heartbreaking story about his family’s struggle to hold onto to their farm west of Harare as thugs and cronies of Mugabe’s government claim it for themselves.
If the title sounds familiar, Mr. Freeth and his late father-in-law, Mike Campbell, are the subjects of the powerful 2009 documentary, Mugabe and the White African, screened on PBS in the US and with a cinema release in the UK, about the landmark case they brought against Mugabe in a SADC human rights court, protesting the expropriation of their farm on the grounds that it was racially discriminatory. Incredibly, they won the court case. Whether they won back in Zimbabwe, however, where Mr. Mugabe plays by his own rules, is open to question.
The film, which centers around the court case and increasing violence taking place on the farm (Freeth shoots much of the footage himself, with a smuggled camera), only alludes to the family’s faith. The book, on the other hand, reads like a Christian morality tale – a deeply personal account of religious belief, truth and justice in the face of tyranny. Freeth sees evil around him. Literally. A black dog-like creature appears at the foot of his bed one night – a demonic spirit. “Go, in the name of Jesus,” he commands. It flees.
The Zimbabwean memoir has almost become a genre in its own right, possibly the only growth industry spawned by Mugabe the past dozen years. But while most have been written by journalists, diplomats, and white Zimbabweans from the safety of exile (I raise my hand), this is the first widely-published account by a farmer on the front-lines throughout the land war. It’s a brutal time, and Mr. Freeth has the scars to prove it.
British born, but married to the Zimbabwe-born Campbell’s daughter, Laura, Mr. Freeth was employed in the 1990s by the mainly white Commercial Farmers Union as an advisor in the Mashonaland West district. It was a time of prosperity and booming agriculture, and Freeth came to know the area as well as anyone. The region also happened to be Mr. Mugabe’s home district. When, in the early days of the land invasions, a white farmer protests to Freeth that a n’anga (witch doctor) whom Mugabe is said to personally consult, lives on his farm, Mr. Freeth advises him to evict him. You sense this isn’t going to end well.
When the invasions begin in force, the Campbell farm is listed for resettlement. Squatters move in, their animals are slaughtered, workers, friends and neighbors are beaten, and murdered. Freeth, his wife and four-month old son are attacked when they drive to check up on a friend whose home is under siege. The farm is soon allocated to a senior Mugabe minister whose son, spewing racist vitriol, visits in a fancy new car to tell Mr. Freeth to leave. Freeth calmly films their confrontation. Most of us would have got the hell out by now. The family decide to stay, and pursue the court case. Mr. Freeth writes an extraordinary letter to his four-year-old son, justifying their decision. “I feel so privileged to know you are growing up in such an environment, learning to know and appreciate the real things…” he writes. The average American would be calling Social Services at this point.
One of the myths about Zimbabwe is that white farmers were a monolithic block united in opposition to Mugabe. Not so. One of the best parts of the book is Freeth’s scathing insider account of how the CFU leadership tried to cut deals with the regime. He was appalled. They “had to feed the crocodile and hope we would be the last to be eaten.” When CFU leaders attend a ceremony with Mugabe officials in which they bow down to a chief who led many of the farm invasions – “Appeasing the ancestral spirits,” runs the photo caption in the state-run Herald newspaper – Freeth is incensed. And it’s here, in a long letter he writes to the CFU director, that he makes his case that the conflict in Zimbabwe is a spiritual one, and that what the white farmer’s did will only makes matters worse:
“The land issue is not a struggle for land. It is a struggle (politics aside) for control of the spiritual places, the High Places, the places of water spirits and the ancestral spirits that are part of the land. It is a struggle of good against evil ‘in the heavenly realms.’”
I’m not sure those white farmers thought they were appeasing tribal spirits. Most likely they were doing anything to protect their backs. In Freeth’s world of good and evil there’s no space for twilight. Yet, while it sounds extreme, it’s exactly this faith that gives Mr. Freeth and his family the strength to resist the regime. In the most harrowing scene, as the case is turning against Mugabe, Mr. Freeth, Mr. Campbell and Mr. Campbell’s wife Angela, the latter two in their 70s, are abducted and viciously tortured. During the assault, bloodied and semi-conscious, Mr. Freeth touches his attackers in turn: “May the Lord Jesus bless you,” he tells each one.
Mr. Campbell is so badly beaten he cannot attend the next hearing, but he is there when they win the case. Mr. Mugabe’s defense team walk out before it is handed down.
This book is not for everyone. Secular westerners will roll their eyes at talk of miracles, visions (that black dog), and signs of God in the clouds. And Freeth does his cause no favors with a hopelessly one-sided account of the 1970s Liberation War; not to mention the racist policies of the Rhodesian regime seems churlish. There’s also very little actual politics in the book. Zimbabwean elections – epochal moments – come and go with barely a comment. Mr. Freeth and his family are clearly heroic opponents of Mr. Mugabe, but it’s not apparent that they support the opposition MDC, whose members are killed and beaten in far greater numbers than white farmers.
But perhaps this is Mr. Freeth’s point. He is a man of God, not politics. He simply wants to be left alone to farm the land he and his family legally bought and paid for. If he gets such courage to do so from God, then we could all do with a bit of it.
The book has no happy ending. They may have won their case, but both Mr. Freeth and Mr. Campbell’s homes were subsequently burned to the ground. The family remain in Zimbabwe, but not on their land. In April 2011, Mr. Campbell, 78, died from injuries suffered in that 2008 assault. Mr. Mugabe, it must be pointed out, is a religious man, too. The same month Mr. Campbell died, Mr. Mugabe flew to the Vatican to attend the Beatification of Pope John Paul II. Exactly whose side is God on here?
Grace & Flavour, my UltraTravel piece on the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, featuring Inn at Little Washington, The Greenbrier and Blackberry Farm. Begins on Page 27.
My review in the Wall Street Journal of Rian Malan’s brilliant collection The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Malan, a musician, film maker and writer, was memorably described by Andre Le Toit as a “one-man cultural revolution.”
ugh, still depressed about rugby. how’d we lose that?
Richard Eatwell was my Grade 7 teacher at Chancellor Junior School in 1980.
Alexandra Fuller was in his class the following year.
I was fortunate to be given a copy of your wonderful book, to have known so many of those people from the tale and having lived through similar experiences myself during that period. Well I couldn’t put it down. As with your dad and mum at Drifters I was protecting my home and woodwork factory in the Vumba, everything I had worked for since I resigned from the Ministry of Education in 1987, by 1999 Fiona and I had created something quite unique, the ‘majig woodcutters’, 50 people were directly employed, all learning new skills along the way, we made creative wooden items mainly for the tourist market and exported a considerable amount. I felt very proud of what we all had achieved.
The referendum rejecting Mugabe’s plans for ZANUPF to rule forever was a great turning point. I had an idea where the country was heading, Fiona and I made plans to open a shop in Gibraltar, I knew we needed a safety valve, I advised my brother a successful tobacco farmer in Raffingora to get out. The only time he ever listened to me.
Fiona and I saw less and less of each other as the shop in Gib gathered momentum, my 2 eldest sons had left home, I spent many lonely nights in the dark in my home drinking myself to sleep. Waking up to watch my dreams disintegrate day by day.
On my way home from Mutare one early July evening with Elizabeth our domestic worker from a day’s shopping and hunting for vital items to keep the factory running, we were confronted by army and police chasing and arresting anybody that moved, very close to my house near the end of the Lauranceville Road, they ordered me to stop and get out of the car.
I was arrested along with about 100 hundred or so border jumpers, smugglers, farm and domestic workers, taken to Grand Reef and eventually detained for 5 days at Mutare Central. I was charged under POSA denigrating the name of the President in public, bollocks. I believe I am still ‘out on remand ‘ even today.
Upon my release I became morose, my 2 younger sons were at home at the time , Fiona was in Gibraltar, I became rude and irritable with them, I did not bother going to the factory anymore or eat any food just bottles of gin every night.
One morning I was seated in front of the computer, hadn’t even turned it on, hadn’t bathed, shaved or changed my clothes for several days, Elizabeth came to my office and said there was somebody outside who wanted to talk to me, I didn’t want any more crap from the cops or anybody, just to be left alone. I politely asked Elizabeth to tell them to go forth and multiply.
The second time she came back to me I lost it and stormed ranting and a raving to the back door, Douglas, before me in the door way stood an angel a blond haired young woman dressed all in white, she said
‘Mr E, I just had to come and find you, do you know who I am?’
‘You were the best teacher I ever had’ she purred, cooooooooooool!
‘Fuck you are Alexandra Fuller’ as I dashed off to the bathroom grabbing nail clippers and a razor on the way.
36 hours 3 bottles of Bols brandy, 2 cartons of Madisons and a stiff jaw later she left and flew back to Wyoming.
In 1994 I had headed to Vilankulo in Mozambique with a buddy, to take a look, I had previously seen an advert at the Harare camp site for a new backpackers lodge just opened in Vilankulo, there was no new lodge of course just some Mozambican guy on the beach with a bucket saying ‘I am a shower! You can put your tent there.”
The instigator of this deed that became the most famous joint in Southern Africa, has since become my closest friend, David Kimber, I now work with him running Sailaway Dhow Safaris, we have 5 dhows and take tourists to the Bazaruto National Maritime Park, fantastic job in fact the best since I taught 2 snotty white kids at Chancellor School!!
I offer you and your family a free Dhow Safari for writing that book.
The name of David’s backpackers before the authorities closed it down was the