Christina Lamb is a veteran British journalist with a penchant for visiting global hotspots, and who has also published several books: The Sewing Circles of Hirat, The Africa House, and Waiting for Allah. Her most recent book, House of Stone, is a culmination of thirteen years reporting experience in Zimbabwe.
This book aims to tell the history of modern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe (from 1970 through 2006) through the personal stories of two of its citizens. Nigel Hough is the son of white farmers who attends the most prestigious private boy's school in the nation, while Aqui (pronounced Ak-wee) grows up in a poor village, where her family is considered well-off because the daughters wear shoes. Interwoven with the triumphs and tragedies of their own lives is the tale of a country changing from white supremacist Rhodesia into an independent, hopeful, black-majority Zimbabwe, and finally into the destroyed plaything of dictator Mugabe. The magic of this book is in the way that Lamb manages to make national, and even international, politics and events feel personal through their impact on Nigel and Aqui. Furthermore, the reader becomes quite close to both of these people, which helps bring about an understanding of life in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, regardless of whether or not the reader has ever visited. By choosing two such different people to focus on, Lamb also reminds the reader that people on both side of the conflict are still essentially human. The book's dedication is quite telling: "To my parents, who taught me there are always at least two sides to a story."
Nigel Hough excelled at sports throughout his childhood. In Rhodesian society, with its heavy emphasis on outdoorsmanship, this was a definite asset. Indeed, once he was sent away to boarding school at age seven, his skills at squash, rugby and cricket allowed him to get away with a generally mischevious nature. Despite setting the record for number of canings, Nigel wasn't expelled. Mixed with his reminisces of running about his farm on holidays and worrying about girls at the school dances is a darker aspect of Rhodesian life:
"'Let me, let me!' The white boys on the train took turns at holding the lighter flame to the pennies until they were burning hot, then placed them ready at thewindow ledge....Then one of them wound down the windows a little to toss out the scalding pennies. They laughed uproariously as the black children jostled each other, hands outstretched, only to drop the coins in wide-eyed agony.The matter-of-fact racism will probably be shocking to many twenty-first-century readers, but through stories such as this, Lamb displays the attitude that led Rhodesia to declare independence from Great Britain in an attempt to avoid giving blacks the vote. This was a country that felt, to Brits visiting in the 1970s, like the last bastion of Victorian mores. White Rhodesians often felt like they were bringing civilization to the blacks, and their history books glorified figures such as Cecil Rhodes. However, such a situation could not remain static forever, and soon change swept Rhodesia in the form a guerilla war. While both the white "Rhodies" and the black guerilla fighters felt that their prowess and committment would lead to victory, villagers like Aqui and her family were caught in the middle. They experienced in the war years not glory but terror, as both black and white soldiers abused them and stole their food. Finally, in 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and independent nation with an enfranchised black majority.
'Works every time! shouted Nigel. 'The piccanins are so stupid.'"
Unfortunately, the next decade brought problems - for Nigel, Aqui, and their homeland. While Aqui's husband began to beat her and drink away the money that should have fed and clothed their children, Nigel experienced more than one bankruptcy following business attemps as varied as computer contracting and ostrich selling. Meanwhile, Mugabe's promises of land reform and a better standard of living for the millions of impoverished blacks dissolved amidst corruption and an increasingly strict regime. Although the '90s brought improvements in both Nigel and Aqui's lives, the country's situation became worse and worse. Finally, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, tensions boiled over, and unemployed blacks began seizing white farms while Mugabe stood by. Under Mugabe, violence became more and more common in Zimbabwe, until he became osctracized by the international community that had once welcomed him as an example of strong African leadership. Lamb seems to effortlessly weave together these three stories, allowing the reader to understand and sympathize with both the whites and the blacks, and to see just how heinous Mugabe's rule has been. Once known as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe now has an estimated seventy percent of its population at risk of starvation.
This is one of those books that might lead to a couple of sleepless nights or extra-long lunch breaks. It is an important work of nonfiction, since it personalizes the stories we've all read in the papers and brings the victims of an iternational crisis into our hearts, yet it reads like fiction. The writing is polished, the story compelling, and the overall effect is to bring the tumultous history of Zimbabwe and her people to life.