Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Christina Lamb “explains” Africa to her British readers

Posted by CM on March 23, 2008

by Chido Makunike

Christina Lamb, a British journalist, has carved out a niche for herself as some sort of “Zimbabwe expert,”  supposedly brilliantly able to explain the intricacies of “the Zimbabwe crisis” to her fellow Britons and Westerners.

It has not been hard for her to do, as Western readers seem to like to have puzzling-to-them Africa “explained” to them by one of their own, rather than actually listen to what the Africans have to say about their own reality.

Lamb cemented her image as Africa-expert/explainer-to-the-British with her book ‘Zimbabwe, House of Stone.’ The publisher’s online blurb describes it as a “powerful narrative (which ) traces the brutal Rhodesian civil war and the hope then despair of the Mugabe years, through the lives of two people she met who find themselves on opposing sides.” It chronicles the perspectives of a white farmer besieged by war veterans at the height of the farm takeovers in 2002, as well as that of one of his African employees.

I may come back to the book another time, but for now, Ms. Lamb has written an article for the Sunday Times (UK) about Mike Campbell, a white farmer who has been fighting attempts by the Mugabe regime to take over and evict him from his Zimbabwean farm at the SADC Tribunal, based in Namibia. The tribunal was set up in April 2007 as part of  a peer review mechanism within SADC. It aims to ensure that the objectives of the SADC Treaty to which Zimbabwe is a signatory, such as human rights and property rights, are upheld.

I have a lot of trouble with Ms. Lamb’s writings on Zimbabwe, as I do with those of many other British writers. She tries, particularly in her book, to be careful to treat the racial and historical aspects of what has brought Zimbabwe’s to its present pass with objectivity. But to me, her understandable sympathies for the white farmers and revulsion for Robert Mugabe stick out like a sore thumb that makes much of her work, including the present article, an expose of white feeling about Zimbabwe/Africa as much as it claims to be just attempting to tell us about the genesis of “the problem.”

There is no sin in this. Similarly, much of black/African sentiment to “the Zimbabwe issue” is also informed by racial/political feelings that go deep into the past.

Coming back to Lamb, the kinship that she so clearly displays with the white farmers makes her, for me, an opinionist more than a journalist just relating what is going on. For many blacks all over the world the symbolism that “Zimbabwe” represents is far more complicated than just the issues of economic decline or political repression. Likewise for some white people, especially of British extraction, “Zimbabwe” has another set of racial, political and historical symbolisms. The contrasting symbolisms are not monolithic for either group, and obviously there are some white and black people who see and interpret the wide array of symbolisms “Zimbabwe” represents in similar ways.

I have long maintained that writers like Lamb and much of the British media have become so emotional about “Zimbabwe” that much of their reportage is more post-colonial catharsis than it is just reporting about a country in deep distress. This is not only because of the colonial link between Britain and Zimbabwe, but because of the presence of a continuing, though now very small, white “community” there, and also because of how Mugabe has so consistently, mercilessly hurled British “sins” in their faces.

Mugabe has long sunk into an ugly despot, but a lot of what he says about Britain and its colonial role resonates with Africans everywhere. It just as strongly discomforts the British. All this influences the many disparate and inflamed emotions over the symbolic “Zimbabwe.”

For supporters of Zimbabwe, particularly for many Africans/blacks outside Zimbabwe, this means a “Mugabe is right” posture that transcends the mess he has caused to become of the country he rules. To others, and I would argue that people like Lamb fall into this group, the sting of Mugabe’s utterances, coupled with his repression and the economic ruin he has visited on Zimbabwe, gives them a way to subtly make statements about deeply held negative feelings about Africa and the Africans under the guise of “we are so concerned for their oppression and penury.”

In the short Sunday Times article  in question (Zimbabwe: white farmer Mike Campbell mounts last stand over land grab), Lamb paints Campbell in heroic terms while the Africans, not just Mugabe, are the traditional bad guys in a quite classic way that has become typical of much of the British press.

This is not at all to say that Campbell has not been subjected to shabby, unjust treatment by a Mugabe regime that selectively, cynically interprets and applies its own laws to ride roughshod over anyone standing in its way.

In going so over the top in portraying Campbell as a “white knight” and the natives as evil, shifty characters of low moral worth (obviously Lamb does not say so; this is my own interpretation based on reading her book, whose style is very much reflected in this latest Sunday Times article by her), she simplifies and distorts the complicated reality of the long black-white conflict of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. She does so in a way I suspect is appealing to much of her readership. But what this pleasingly skewed reportage does is also to leave them with a distorted, limited understanding of the complicated, still evolving African reaction to the whole experience of British colonialism.

Lamb tells us of the trauma of the farm invasions of the early 2000s by the experiences of the Campbell’s horse, Ginger, who was so frightened that “she has followed Campbell’s wife Angela everywhere since she was attacked by Mugabe’s war veterans. ”

I am not in a position to doubt the trauma that Lamb says Ginger suffered at the hands of the purpoted war veterans, nor is it my point to want to do so. My point is that we are being set up by Lamb to understand just what nasty, nefarious characters these war veterans must have been. Imagine ow evil must be a group of people who would so scare the wits out of a nice, sensitive horse sweetly named “Ginger!” It is quite clear that what we are being told at some level is a group of cruel, vicious natives with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. “No wonder the country is such a mess,” is just one of the messages behind the words, unintentionally or otherwise.

This possibly subliminal, un-nuanced but not at all uncommon portrayal of the African is a far more powerful message than the mere recitation of facts. Just as Africans like me recoil at this historical Western stereotyping of our humanity by the likes of Lamb and The Times, The Telegraph and publications of that ilk, I am sure there are many Westerners to whom this stereotypical “reporting” appeals because that is how they see Africa and the Africans. On a certain level Lamb is merely providing modern-day fodder for what the West believes it “knows” about Africa and the African.

But if it is a comforting re-assertion of Western stereotypes, it leaves the really inquisitive non-African reader non the wiser about the complicated, sometimes contradictory reality of African feeling towards the continent’s experiences with the West. It leaves the target audience perhaps somewhat smug about their prejudices towards “those puzzling natives” but with their understanding of them no deeper, and perhaps more twisted and confused than before.

We are told about the skull of a young giraffe that caught its head in a snare. Campbell’s “British son in law Ben Freeth” explains how the skull grew around the wire, eventually cutting into the brain and killing the giraffe. “To me, this symbolises what has happened over the last eight years here – the slow strangulation of everything,” Lamb quotes Freeth as saying. The mention of Freeth’s being a Briton automatically makes the British/Western reader sympathise with whatever the writer is going to relate about his experiences in deep, dark Africa at the hands of the natives. And hearing the “reasoned” voice of a Briton lends an extra authenticity to whatever he says, and to Lamb’s account to her British readers, unlike the utterances of those unreliable, irrational , possibly even pro-Mugabe natives!

I do not disagree with Freeth’s poetically presented description of what Mugabe has wrought in Zimbabwe. What causes me discomfort and suspicion is how that is consistently used to cast pre-land upheavals Zimbabwe as an idyllic country of blameless, hard working white heroes like the Campbells. Again, this is not to question that they are hard working or perhaps even heroic in one way or another. I don’t know them. It is, instead, to say that British writers like Lamb ever so subtly juxtapose positive and negative racial stereotypes in such a way that the whole weight of a long complicated history of inter-racial mistrust and violence that explains the group feelings of whites and blacks about themselves and each other is dispensed with.

To the non-Zimbabwean, non-African reader of narratives like Lamb’s, the stage has been set for them to see the symbolic “Zimbabwe” in its complexity reduced to good, hard working and peaceful white versus shifty, lazy, violent native, a massive distortion of the historical record. Once this mental, psychological stage has been set, the native just can’t win, and all the subsequent details of whatever the particular article is about merely confirms what a loser that native is. And Mugabe serves as the perfect villain to confirm this because of his excesses, not just against the whites, but even against the very people he claims to love so much that he wants to “empower.”

Particularly for observers like Lamb, it becomes very difficult to separate antipathy towards Mugabe from the appeal of much of his message to many Africans. That appeal is only strengthened by the slant of the writings of people like Lamb. Instead of explaining “Mugabe may be a cruel despot but this is why parts of his message have such appeal to many Africans,” Lamb and much of the British press have conveniently simplified things to “Mugabe is a cruel despot so everything associated with official Zimbabwe is bad/negative/wrong/invalid.” They go further to then paint his opponents, and particularly the white farmers, as the therefore all-good opposite of Mugabe.

Certainly neat and simple, but also wrong and misleading. Lamb’s Western readers do not know enough about the history, the present it has wrought or the resulting African sentiment to see and question her on the simplicity of her accounts. And as said before, they are not inclined to doubt the depth and veracity of her accounts when they serve to entrench long-held Western stereotypes about the African.

African protests at reportage like Lamb’s can easily be dismissed as the normal complaining of the natives, who are to be studied but cannot be relied on to express their own narratives or explanations. That is best done by Western “Africa experts” like Lamb.

Lamb tells us how Campbell “admits he would not be able to carry on without the support of his family and their strong Christian faith.” No doubt true, and very touching. Call me overly cynical, but here is invoked the Western imagery of the decent, brave and “civilising” missionary out to do good amongst the unruly natives. The subliminal message here goes far deeper than that of a journalist who is merely telling her readers about a farmer attempting to legally defend his interests against a repressive regime.

What these consistent subliminal messages from much of the British media about “the Zimbabwe crisis” serve to do is make me immediately suspicious of their accounts, fairly or unfairly.

The most absurd example of “white-good, African-bad” subliminal messaging in Lamb’s article? The almost comical, “The war vets who took over  Bruce’s (Campbell’s son) farm brought cerebral malaria into the valley, killing 11 workers.”

How on earth could Lamb epidemiologically back up such a claim? And if she can, such an assertion would surely demand that she cite some sort of proof of it. But no, it is not necessary: having already been conditioned to understand what nasty characters the war veterans are, we are not expected to be surprised by or question how these bad guys could be proven to be the source of the malaria that killed the workers of the hero of the piece! Besides, being agents of the hated Mugabe, obviously the war veterans would have been quite up to “bringing” the cerebral malaria that not only wiped out a chunk of Campbell’s work force, but that also “killed Bruce’s wife Heidi (who) was four months pregnant with twins, leaving him a single parent to their five-year-old daughter. ”

Now of course the deaths were tragic, whatever the source of the cerebral malaria. My point here is that Lamb has long gone beyond merely telling the story of Campbell’s court challenge of the attempts to expropriate his farm. Ms. Lamb is in completely different territory now, where she is subliminally (consciously or otherwise on her part) telling the reader other racial narratives.

None of this necessarily suggests that Lamb is a cynical writer with some purposefully diabolical anti-African agenda. It is merely to suggest that in staring into the pool of “the Zimbabwe story,” she is no longer an objective observer/explainer. She has been sucked into the pool and reports from a jaundiced viewpoint, based perhaps  on her own background, just as many defenders of Mugabe view and report the story from other non-objective viewpoints.

Lamb’s work represents tragically horrible stereotypes that distort all the characters of “the Zimbabwe crisis,” both the natives as well as the white farmers whose understandable sympathy for informs so much of her work. Rather than making Zimbabwe any clearer to her readers, she instead caricatures its people and their tortured history and present.

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