Book Review – A parable of hope

Christina Lamb: House of Stone
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: £14.99
Zimbabwean farmer Nigel Hough knew that one day he would eventually have to deal with the war veterans, who had been living at the bottom of his garden for the past couple of months. In August 2002, whi

lst in Harare on business, he received the dreaded telephone call; a woman named Netsai had arrived to take over his farm. Returning to his house, Nigel was confronted by a crowd of people in his driveway. The thing that shocked him the most was not the fact that they had raided his house, helping themselves to his possessions, but that standing in the thick of the crowd was the woman who had worked as a maid and much loved nanny to the Houghs’ children for over 6 years. Aqui had become part of the family, “now she was transformed. ‘Get out or we’ll kill you!’ she spat at him, eyes rolling with hatred.”
So begins Christina Lamb’s true story about how two people from very different backgrounds were affected by Mugabe’s destructive land policy. Lamb, a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times, met the Houghs and Aqui in August 2002 and she was impressed with their close relationship. When she later heard that, just a week after her visit, Aqui had lead the farm invasion, she was understandably shocked. Her book is an attempt to explain how “warm, vivacious” Aqui, a trusted friend and employee of the Houghs, could end up on the opposite side of the land issue to Nigel “a model white farmer for all his involvement with the local community”.
Lamb has a knack for painting vivid scenes with her simplistic journalist’s style of writing. Her first visit to Zimbabwe where she got “giggling-drenched” at Victoria Falls could not have been more different to one of her more clandestine trips to the country where she wandered horror-struck through Mbare market, devastated after Operation Murambatsvina. Instead of the normal cheerful bustle she was confronted with “drift-piles of smashed wood, twisted metal and broken bricks”.
Lamb’s outrage about what has happened to Zimbabwe is evident throughout her book. The history of Zimbabwe is woven into the life stories of the two main characters, Nigel and Aqui. Through their lives, depicted in alternating chapters, Lamb attempts to understand and explain how a country held up as an example of democracy and conciliation in Africa, could become one of the tragedies of the modern day world with an escalating human rights crisis and the worst economy outside of a war zone.
The contrast between Nigel and Aqui’s lives is what makes House of Stone such a gripping read. They are presented in a sympathetic light, the reader is meant to identify and empathise with them both. It is not Lamb’s intention to put either Nigel or Aqui at fault, rather she presents them as victims of circumstance; victims of a man who has gone “from liberation hero and darling of the left to tyrant with much blood on his hands.”
Lamb’s book is essentially about Nigel and Aqui but the presence of a third character cannot be ignored. The spectre of Mugabe haunts almost every page of Lamb’s compelling tale. House of Stone, Lamb tells us, is not a story about race. “Rather it is about power and one violent man trying to save his skin even if he destroys the whole country.” It is a story of betrayal, not Aqui’s perceived betrayal of the Hough family but, much worse, it is about Mugabe’s betrayal of an entire country. He promised land, education and freedom for all, what he has delivered to Zimbabweans has been a legacy of extreme violence, suppression, unemployment and starvation. He preached racial harmony and acceptance, now the radio pumps out “Rwandan style racist hate-speak.”
By the end of the book, the Houghs have lost everything, the farm that they have sunk their life savings into and most of their possessions. Aqui has seen Mugabe’s promise of land for all exposed for what it really is, an attempt to stay in power and ensure his survival by garnering support from an increasingly jaded electorate. The world seems to be looking on in helpless resignation as Zimbabwe self-destructs and yet for Lamb, in the midst of this tragedy, Nigel and Aqui’s lives are a parable of hope.
Mugabe’s land policy divided a nation pitting those who seemed to have everything against the “have-nots”, in the case of Aqui and the Houghs he failed. Lamb holds them up as an example and an inspiration to all Zimbabweans; they have managed to overcome their differences and they are now reconciled.

Post published in: Arts

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