Exile's Bittersweet Return to Africa

IN her latest book, "African Laughter," British writer Doris Lessing uses four return visits to her native Zimbabwe to test the accuracy of her memories of growing up there.

She probes the animosities and hopes of the people she meets and finds that irascible whites and bitter blacks have much in common.

Lessing has spent much of her life in exile. She lived in Southern Rhodesia (which in 1980 became independent Zimbabwe) until age 30, when she became a "prohibited immigrant" for her communist activism. After moving to London in 1949, she published novels such as "The Grass Is Singing," short stories such as "African Stories," and poetry, as well as nonfiction.

Yet the dry heartache of exile demanded that Lessing make an attempt at reconciliation with the country that threw her out. Almost three decades later, she found whites and blacks in various stages of panic and exhilaration about their intertwined histories and prospects.

In Lessing's view, both races have a common love of the land, respect for each other, and rich material resources. But they have different perspectives on a brutal war for independence that tore the old order apart. On her first trip back in 1982, Lessing searches through the fading embers of that war to try to understand what people are thinking.

In the process of traveling and interviewing Zimbabweans, she begins to unravel her own closely guarded feelings about the past. With each trip, Lessing's memories are increasingly tempered by the reality she finds. At first, the book seems badly written and edited. Wording is imprecise and the language tortured. As the book progresses, Lessing sounds less like an old Brit on holiday. Choppy writing grows more evocative and vibrant.

By her second trip in 1988, blacks and whites in Zimbabwe have made common cause of their freshly minted country. Peoples' laughter - finding enjoyment in the unexpected - is the hopeful theme of this trip. At the same time, Lessing finds that her role as observer is complicated. She quotes another white: "They [black Zimbabweans] are not interested in us.... We assume they are fascinated by us, the way we are by them." For any self-appointed professional observer, that is a sobering recognition.

Lessing finds that white farmers who cross paths with her in Zimbabwe have much in common with farmers everywhere. "The government and the weather, between these two anarchic tyrants farmers are for ever ground down," she writes. Black Zimbabwean farmers do not get the attention they deserve as the guardians of the country's future hopes, she says.

Lessing is tuned in to the frustration about Zimbabwe's slow progress toward economic and political development. She recounts examples of failed efforts by Western aid agencies and the useless British-style education offered to farmers' children. By the end of her second trip, Lessing leaves optimism behind.

In her final two visits (1989 and 1991-92), she finds Zimbabwe growing less hopeful. Corruption, wasted resources, and increasing rancor almost over- whelm the laughter.

Fat, self-satisfied bureaucrats insulate themselves from the life of the countryside. Cynicism reigns among average Zimbabweans. Yet a valuable portrait of Zimbabwe's women emerges. It points to an inescapable fact: Women are the movers and shakers in African countries today. If something is going to get done, women will be the ones doing it.

Lessing repeats a question she has heard: "Why is it that poor women everywhere are taking hold of their lives like this?" It is a powerful question, but Lessing does little to tie the answer together. Unfortunately, her observations end abruptly. The reader is intrigued, but not satisfied.

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