The overarching storyline of this, British journalist Christina Lamb’s second non-fiction book set in Africa, is tried and true: two people, from very different backgrounds, come to know each other, arrive at a place of mutual admiration and respect, and form a friendship that — despite cultural norms and societal upheavals hell-belt on splitting them apart — prevails. While this plot may be less then riveting, the setting where it transpires more than compensates, spanning, as it does, the final throes of colonialism, civil war, independence, the rise of a dictator and his country’s precipitous decline. House of Stone succeeds not as a narrative tour de force, but in the way it uses a simple story to illuminate the complexity and paradoxes of present-day Zimbabwe.
Aqui is a black woman who grows up in rural Rhodesia, the country’s name during colonial times, when it was ruled by the white minority. In 1974, the civil war between the black “freedom fighters” and the Rhodesian security forces comes to her village. Fearing for her safety, Aqui’s family takes her out of school and sends her to live with an aunt in a nearby town. There, she marries young and becomes a community mobilizer — recruiting men and women to join the freedom fighters.
Nigel, who is white, is born in the same country. A mischievous boy, he dreams of great adventure — which, to him, means fighting for the Rhodesian army. Just before Nigel graduates from school in 1980, the war ends, Zimbabwe gains independence, and the people vote into power a black leader, Robert Mugabe. Nigel suddenly feels aimless and unsure of his future. Eventually, his sense of adventure leads him to London and Asia and then, homesick, back to Zimbabwe, where he marries and buys a farm. In 2000, his wife hires Aqui as the family’s maid and nanny. It is 20 years later, but President Mugabe is still in power.
The year Aqui begins working for Nigel’s family is the year Zimbabwe’s “war veterans” begin taking over commercial farms owned by whites. Many of these war veterans had not actually participated in the civil war, but they held a more important qualification: loyalty to the President and his ruling party. The invasions occur with the tacit, and sometime quite forthright, support of the government. It is when the “war vets” arrive at Nigel’s farm that Aqui must decide whether to join the invaders or help Nigel and his family. The entire narrative sits poised on the cusp of this decision.
In the end, what strikes you is how similar Nigel and Aqui are — both take paths that lead them away from the place where they grew up and both are independent, fighting spirits who face adversity head on. In fact, if there is anything that characterizes Zimbabweans today — white and black — it is this adaptability, resilience, and the ability to always, as they say, “make a plan”. Maybe their shared history together has actually created cultural characteristics that span the white-black divide.
Lamb says that this book is not about race; that, instead, “it is about power and one violent man trying to save his skin even if he destroys the whole country in the process”. True, the story of Aqui and Nigel is inextricable from the larger narrative of their country, narrative driven by the policies of President Mugabe. But whatever Lamb claims, the book is about race. Without race, Aqui and Nigel would not have such compellingly different histories and there would be no tension as to what side Aqui might take as the war vets plunder Nigel’s farm.
More importantly, however, the book is about the lingering aftershocks of colonialism. Mugabe came to power after fighting a war against a colonial government, using all the tactics of guerilla warfare — ambush, assassination, divide and conquer. This experience honed his leadership skills, and he has not switched tactics during his 28 years of rule. He also easily assumed the levers of power originally employed by the white-led government to repress the majority, including state-controlled newspapers and radio stations and censorship of public expression.
He even has the same enemies. The groups and leaders that Mugabe vilifies today — and blames for his country’s rocketing inflation and inability to feed its own people — are Blair, Bush, trade unions, non-governmental organizations, the International Monetary Fund, the BBC. These are, as Lamb says, “a remarkably similar ‘axis of evil’ to that which was the bane of his white predecessor”.
There are a number of books available about Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, many written by people who grew up in the country — Peter Godwin’s excellent When the Crocodile Eats the Sun, his previous work Mukiwa, and Strife by Shimmer Chinodya are three shining examples. For a vivid depiction of the initial promise of Mugabe’s rule, and the evaporation of this promise, nothing beats African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe by Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing.
Zimbabwe is a complicated country, and, in the end, the more perspectives and insight are captured the more the world can maybe, maybe, try to understand the situation that Aqui, Nigel and the millions of other Zimbabweans are facing as the economy implodes, the health system collapses, the crops fail, inflation rises to record-breaking levels, and the path to the end of the suffering — in whatever form that may take — seems itself without end.