British journalist Christina Lamb's new book, House of Stone: The True Story of a Family Divided in War-Torn Zimbabwe, opens with a dramatic scene: a white Zimbabwean farmer returns home to find his house invaded by an angry crowd, chanting antiwhite slogans and demanding his farm. To his shock, at the head of the crowd – leading them, it seems to him – is his family's beloved maid and nanny, Aqui Shamvi.
That incident captures the essence of the crisis that launched Zimbabwe onto the front pages, especially in Britain. Since 2000, most of Zimbabwe's 5,000 white-owned commercial farms have been seized, either by violent government-backed mobs or through a quasi-legal process of "land redistribution."
At the same time, black opposition supporters were being beaten and tortured, and democratic institutions dismantled. But that didn't receive much attention in the international media until later on.
The story of a small white minority being turned on by the black majority state – and of a once-heralded liberation leader, Robert Mugabe, turned dictator – played into an all-too-easy narrative of postcolonial African decline. British papers in particular seized on it with a sometimes unrestrained glee. Lamb is well aware that by focusing on the plight of white farmers, she and others in the Western media played into the hands of those who, like Mugabe, wanted to portray the conflict as one of white against black, colonizer versus colonized.
Despite her protests that "House of Stone" is "not about race" and her attempt to place the land seizures into a broader historical and political context, Lamb's story is fundamentally about the seizure of a white farm. This is a weakness, but Lamb effectively uses the relationship between the white farmer and his black maid to frame a textured, multifaceted story that says much about Zimbabwe and how it got to where it is today.
The book is at its best when telling the country's history through their differing perspectives. Zimbabwe's civil war and independence have starkly different meanings for Shamvi, born to a poor family surviving on subsistence farming, and Nigel Hough, a privileged white farmer.
For Hough, independence brought little change, despite fears that it would herald the end of the comfortable lifestyle of the white minority. Shamvi was initially "drunk with freedom," but her hopes were soon dashed, stolen by a handful of new elites – this time black instead of white.
"We knew we were a rich country, you could see it in the white man's land, and I thought we'd live comfortably, all of us," she says. "But instead they were grabbing everything just for themselves and leaving our children with nothing."
"House of Stone" disappoints near the end when the conflict between the Houghs and Shamvi turns out to be less stark than Lamb first hints. The ending seems rushed, and Lamb's explanation of Shamvi's betrayal of her employer not entirely convincing. Still, "House of Stone" succeeds – in some ways better than any other recent book about Zimbabwe – in describing the trauma of a land claimed by two peoples and the bitter, lingering legacy of colonialism.
Zimbabwe has proved to be fertile ground for writers in recent years – among the recent releases about the country are Peter Godwin's "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa" and Alexandra Fuller's "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood" – but most are either memoirs by Zimbabwean whites (albeit generally liberal ones) or chronological descriptions of the country's decline by Western journalists, who had been expelled from Zimbabwe under Mugabe's tough new media laws.
Lamb, in contrast, tells someone else's story, an altogether more difficult task and one not made easier by the difficult conditions she and other reporters faced in Zimbabwe during this period.
In particular, she does something few others have tried to do: tell the story from the perspective of the poor black majority who have suffered most under Mugabe's rule. The result reads like a novel, with characters who are flawed – and at times even hateful – but ultimately human.
• Nicole Itano covered Zimbabwe for the Monitor from 2001 to 2005. Her book, 'No Place Left to Bury the Dead,' about the AIDS epidemic in Africa will be published in November by Atria Books.