Increasingly, the literary genre of the memoir has come to be associated with the second-rate politician and fourth-rate celebrity. In a self-obsessed, confessional world, the memoir—and its Internet derivative, the blog—has tweaked Descartes’ famous maxim: I write, therefore I am.
More troubling than recent, surely ghost-written, memoirs by Paris Hilton or the rapper 50 Cent, is the navel-gazing foisted upon us by professional journalists whose books fall into the “white man in the third world” subgenre. Andrew Meldrum’s Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe is such a book, less a memoir of the country than an account of a Guardian journalist’s time there. As such, it is not an outgrowth of Meldrum’s fine reporting for the British daily so much as a corruption of it. A journalist finds interesting stories and tells those stories through the eyes of interesting protagonists. But here Meldrum offers himself, and he is not very interesting at all.
The book begins as Meldrum’s time in Zimbabwe is drawing to a close. He is being hounded more and more by the bureaucratic minions of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe for exposing the dictator’s nefarious dealings. Meldrum arrived in Harare in 1980, just after Zimbabwe won its independence. It was a heady, optimistic time. By May 2003, when Meldrum is expelled by dictatorial fiat, Zimbabwe’s future looks grim, held ransom by Mugabe’s despotism. It is a tragedy that has been played out in all too many African countries, but Meldrum does little to place Zimbabwe’s story in a larger context.
As a writer, Meldrum is no enemy of cliché. “The country seemed polarized and locked in old enmities,” he writes—an easy and banal description of a country emerging from a bloody struggle for independence. In the same paragraph Meldrum describes Zimbabwe’s whites, still Rhodesians at heart, as carrying “an angry chip on their shoulder.”
Yet in spite of his gift for stating the obvious, Meldrum provides a useful account of Zimbabwe under Mugabe. Mugabe, a former schoolteacher, a Catholic from the country’s majority ethnic group, the Shona, came to power after surviving 11 years of imprisonment by the Rhodesians and winning control of the Zanu rebel group (which, with independence, was reinvented as Zanu-PF, Mugabe’s political party). After ending Ian Smith’s Rhodesian rule, Mugabe quickly and brutally moved against his Zimbabwean rivals, both real and imagined.
Mugabe marginalized popular rebel leader Joshua Nkomo, the father of Zimbabwean nationalism; put down brutally and indiscriminately a rebel movement in the northern province of Matabeleland; launched in 1998 an ill-advised military adventure in the Congo to prop up its new leader, Laurent Kabila; and shortly afterward ordered the invasions of the farms of white landowners, which not only displaced more than two million black farmers but also effectively ruined the country’s agricultural output. Throughout his long reign, Mugabe, keeping to the universal script of dictators, has done his best to stamp out political opposition, rig elections, eliminate free speech and enrich himself and his cronies. In May of this year, Mugabe launched Operation Murambatsvina (“driving out trash”), bulldozing Zimbabwe’s shantytowns, where support runs high for the Movement for Democratic Change leaders and other opposition politicians.
Meldrum introduces us to these brave opponents, women like Margaret Dongo, originally a Zanu-PF member of Parliament, who was forced out of the party for her outspoken criticism of the regime and won back her seat as an independent candidate. Even in Zimbabwe there have been some democratic successes. In February 2000, despite vote-rigging, Mugabe lost a constitutional referendum that would have rendered Zimbabwe a one-party state. There are also Meldrum’s brave Zimbabwean colleagues, the black journalists whose torture would be unlikely to bring the same international attention as the mistreatment of Meldrum and Beatrice Mtetwa, Meldrum’s indefatigable lawyer, who is not intimidated by Mugabe’s thugs.
Why not tell Zimbabwe’s history through Beatrice’s or Dongo’s eyes? Meldrum only hints at the depths of their lives, offering a few hundred words of back story that belong in a magazine feature. Perhaps books on Africa that focus on Africans themselves don’t sell. Just as with all Mugabe’s misdeeds, it is his regime’s persecution of white farmers—former colonialists, we must remember—that draws the most international attention. (Meldrum, to be fair, is no apologist for the farmers.)
And yet, even as a tale of a white man in Africa, Where We Have Hope falls short. Meldrum offers very little of himself, of his wife, Dolores Cortes, of their marriage. But that is a novelist’s terrain—recently and imperishably limned by Norman Rush in Mortals, set in Botswana—and Meldrum is not a novelist. He is a reporter, whose book on Zimbabwe might have profited from the early intervention of even a hack newspaper editor, who would have taken a red pen to the words “me” and “I.”