The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe

The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe

by Douglas Rogers

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Overview

Thrilling, heartbreaking, and, at times, absurdly funny, The Last Resort is a remarkable true story about one family in a country under siege and a testament to the love, perseverance, and resilience of the human spirit.

Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Douglas Rogers is the son of white farmers living through that country’s long and tense transition from postcolonial rule. He escaped the dull future mapped out for him by his parents for one of adventure and excitement in Europe and the United States. But when Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe launched his violent program to reclaim white-owned land and Rogers’s parents were caught in the cross fire, everything changed. Lyn and Ros, the owners of Drifters–a famous game farm and backpacker lodge in the eastern mountains that was one of the most popular budget resorts in the country–found their home and resort under siege, their friends and neighbors expelled, and their lives in danger. But instead of leaving, as their son pleads with them to do, they haul out a shotgun and decide to stay.

On returning to the country of his birth, Rogers finds his once orderly and progressive home transformed into something resembling a Marx Brothers romp crossed with Heart of Darkness: pot has supplanted maize in the fields; hookers have replaced college kids as guests; and soldiers, spies, and teenage diamond dealers guzzle beer at the bar.

And yet, in spite of it all, Rogers’s parents–with the help of friends, farmworkers, lodge guests, and residents–among them black political dissidents and white refugee farmers–continue to hold on. But can they survive to the end?

In the midst of a nation stuck between its stubborn past and an impatient future, Rogers soon begins to see his parents in a new light: unbowed, with passions and purpose renewed, even heroic. And, in the process, he learns that the "big story" he had relentlessly pursued his entire adult life as a roving journalist and travel writer was actually happening in his own backyard.

Evoking elements of The Tender Bar and Absurdistan, The Last Resort is an inspiring, coming-of-age tale about home, love, hope, responsibility, and redemption. An edgy, roller-coaster adventure, it is also a deeply moving story about how to survive a corrupt Third World dictatorship with a little innovation, humor, bribery, and brothel management.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307459848
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/22/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 391,200
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

DOUGLAS ROGERS is an award-winning journalist and travel writer. He was born and raised in Zimbabwe and now lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

One

Phoning Home

I was five thousand miles away, drunk and happily unaware at a friend's birthday party in Berlin, when I learned that the first white farmer had been murdered.

Someone had left a television on in the corner of the apartment. I knew, even with the sound off, that it was a news report on Zimbabwe. There's something about rich red earth the color of blood that you can never wash away, no matter how far you've traveled, or how long you've been running. It was a Sunday afternoon, April 16, 2000.

For the previous month back in Zimbabwe the government of President Robert Mugabe had been threatening to take away land from the country's forty-five hundred white farmers. Gangs of armed men--said to be veterans of the liberation war that had ended white rule twenty years earlier--had begun invading white-owned land, assaulting black farmworkers, looting homes, burning tobacco barns, and stoning dogs, pigs, and cattle to death. Still, it was a shock to discover that a farmer had now been murdered. His name was David Stevens. He had been savagely beaten, and then shot in the face and back at point-blank range with a shotgun, after a mob abducted him from his farm in the district of Macheke.

I had been out of Zimbabwe for seven years, traveling, writing, drinking away my late twenties and early thirties in the rootlessness of London, but I knew that Macheke was only an hour's drive from my parents' game farm and backpacker lodge in the eastern mountains of the country, and that they were in terrible danger. If they didn't leave fast, they would surely be murdered as well, and it would be a brutal, bloody, all-too-African end. They would die like this man Stevens.

I frantically dialed their number and waited for what seemed like hours to get a connection. My mother finally answered.

She sounded on edge, her voice high-pitched through the static.

"Hello, yes, who's this?"

"Mom, it's me, Douglas. Jesus, what's happening? Are you guys all right?"

"It's terrible," she said.

I pictured her and my father barricaded in the house, a mob rattling their gates.

"What's happening? Mom, what's happening?"

"We've already lost four wickets."

"Four what?"

"Four wickets, darling. Not going very well at all. It's ninety-one for four. . . ."

Christ. She and my father were watching a cricket match. I could hear the crackle of the commentary on the TV in the background. I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or horrified.

"Jeez, Ma. Not the cricket. The farm. Have you any idea what's going on? This guy has been murdered up the road from you. Are you sure you're okay?"

There was a long pause, as if I had sucked the air out of a balloon. I heard her take a drag of her cigarette. She would have a drink nearby. Bols brandy on the rocks. She'd switched from Gordon's gin years ago. Said it gave her headaches.

I could picture my father clearly now, too, down the passageway, around the corner in the living room, feet up in his leather recliner. The remote would be in one hand, a mug of Coke in the other, and he would be cursing at the new batsman for playing a loose shot: "Move your bloody feet! Get into line! Agh, hit the ball, for Chrissake!" Dappled late-afternoon sunlight would be streaming through the arches of the veranda, illuminating the purple crests of the mountains behind and setting on the wheat fields of the farms in the valley below.

Those farms could have been on fire for all my parents knew.

"Oh, that," my mother finally said, her voice fading through the static. "Yes, well, it doesn't look very good, does it? I guess we're just going to have to wait and see."

Wait and see didn't seem a wise option to me.

I told her I thought it best they pack up fast and lie low, whether in Mutare, the closest town, in another valley over the mountain pass twelve miles away, or, even better, across the border in Mozambique. Mozambique. It sounded absurd just suggesting it. Mozambique had been at war for most of my childhood. People fled Mozambique for our side of the border. But like the seasons, in Africa the state of nations turns and occasionally comes full circle. Yes, Mozambique. Anywhere would be safer than Zimbabwe.

But my parents, I discovered on that phone call, were not going anywhere.

"Darling," my mother said, "don't be ridiculous. We are Zimbabweans. This is our land."

And then I heard steel in her voice, fury rise in her throat.

"Over my dead body will they take this place. Over my dead body."

By the time I put down the phone my mother was asking me how I was, and when I was going to come and visit again. She had the stoic, breezy air of someone who had lived through a lot and expected to live through this, too. She had seen worse.

"How are they?" my friend asked when I returned to the party.

"They're watching cricket," I said. "They have no idea what's going on."



Two

If We Build It, They Will Come

The plane dropped out of a cloud and arrowed in on a black strip bordered by wilted maize fields. A midmorning glare rippled the wings and glinted off the few modest skyscrapers of Harare, the capital city. Exiting the aircraft, I was smacked square in the face by the bright fist of an African sun. My pasty skin, from another English winter, told me I was a foreigner in my own country. My travel document said the same thing. After nine years in London I had finally qualified for a British passport and put my useless Zimbabwean one--the old green mamba--back in my desk drawer. At last: no more interminable queues for visas in the second-rate consulates of the First World countries I really wanted to be visiting at that time--yet I couldn't help feeling a slight flush of embarrassment as I handed it to the immigration official. You lose something of yourself when you return to the country of your birth under the convenience of another.

The officer thumbed through it with exaggerated indifference.

"Occupation?"

I could have said journalist, the title I usually gave myself as a struggling freelance writer in London, and I was here on an assignment from a British newspaper to write about the upcoming presidential elections. But it wasn't a good time to be coming into Zimbabwe as a journalist. The Mugabe government was detaining reporters, expelling foreign correspondents, rejecting media visas. It had recently firebombed the offices of a local newspaper.

"Cocktail bar critic," I said, repeating what I had written on the form.

It sounded ludicrous, but it wasn't even a lie. I had found a rewarding sideline the past three years reviewing fashionable cocktail bars around the world for the Web site of an Irish whiskey company. I had a slick, laminated business card. I could even give him the Web address if he needed it. Besides, I was much more of a travel writer anyway, a leisure and lifestyle guy, not the fearless kind of foreign correspondent Zimbabwe clearly needed right now.

"You're not coming to write anything on our elections?" he inquired.

"No, shamwari, I'm a Zimbabwean. Just visiting my parents in Mutare."

He looked me up and down, weighing my threat to national security. Then he laughed.

"Mutare. A beautiful town. Have a good holiday."

Outside the terminal the familiar scent of diesel, wood smoke, and ripe fruit floated on the hot, dusty air. Already the grimy chill of London, which I had left only twenty-four hours earlier, seemed a lifetime and a world away. I didn't have money for a rental car, so I woke a taxi driver I found asleep on the hood of his clapped-out Datsun 120Y and got him to drop me ten miles down the Harare-Mutare road, from where I would hitchhike the 180 miles to my parents' farm.

I loved hitching in Zimbabwe. I had thumbed all over the country in my late teens and early twenties. It was always so safe and easy, as if the country's very geography, landlocked in southern Africa between the great currents of the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers and the towering Rift Valley mountains, had somehow preserved some of the old-fashioned manners and courtesies that you can no longer count on in Europe, America, or the rest of Africa.

At least it used to be that way. It took me two hours now to get a ride. There were few cars. A fuel shortage had severed the country's transport arteries. The vehicles that did pass seemed to speed up when they saw me. Buses belched black fumes in my face. An old black man in a straw hat driving a rusted jalopy weighed down with a harvest of ripe tomatoes pulled over to explain why he wasn't able to give me a lift.

"It is dangerous for me to be seen with a white man in this area," he said.

"Dangerous? Why's that, sekuru?"

"There are militia here. Sorry, young man, I cannot pick you up."

Butterflies danced in my stomach.

It was March 2002 and the elections were only four days away. Everyone was jittery.

I read the Daily News, one of the few independent newspapers left in the country. The front-page picture showed a black man whose back and buttocks had been whipped raw. "Militia Attack Opposition Activists in Ruwa," read the headline. Ruwa lay ten miles ahead. The butterflies fluttered. The sky seemed to darken and rumble, as if acknowledging my anxiety.

The land invasions had continued with a brutal efficiency in the two years since the murder of the first white farmer, David Stevens, and that frantic Berlin phone call I'd made home to my parents. Nine white farmers had been murdered now, and two thousand had fled their lands.

President Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union--Patriotic Front party, or ZANU-PF, in power since liberation from white rule in 1980--maintained that the farm invasions were intended to return land to black peasants who had been dispossessed by whites in colonial times, as far back as the 1890s. Living in England, I had found it easy to believe that a violent race war had been launched in Zimbabwe against the last thirty thousand whites left in the country, a fraction of its thirteen million people. But it was apparent to many within Zimbabwe that the real reason for the violence had less to do with race than with the rapid rise of a popular new opposition political party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which for the first time in twenty-two years posed a serious threat to Mugabe's long rule.

The deaths and evictions of white farmers had made front-page news around the world, but hundreds of thousands of black farmworkers and their families were being beaten and driven off the land at the same time, accused of supporting the MDC, and across the country black activists of the opposition party were routinely tortured, disappeared, killed. A government militia--olive-uniformed youths, dubbed "Green Bombers" after a poisonous fly--had joined the war veterans on drunk, drugged-up rampages through farms and townships. Now, two years after the start of the violence, a country that once had been known as the Breadbasket of Africa, able to feed itself and its neighbors, a model of tolerance and development, was turning to bush, its economy in free fall.

Eventually a white farmer in a diesel pickup pulled over.

"Where you going?" he asked.

"Outside Mutare, a place called Drifters," I told him.

"Drifters? The backpacker lodge that had the pizza night?"

I did a double take.

"Ya, the lodge with the pizzas. It's my parents' place. You know it?"

He laughed. "Everyone knows it. We used to drink there all the time. Hop in."

He was stocky, ruddy-faced, with a thick black mustache and skin tanned to the color of stained oak. He made my doughy northern flesh look white as an albino's. As we drove he chain-smoked throat-searing toasted Madisons and ground the gears of his bakkie as if it was a tractor.

We headed east, away from the sun.

"Are your folks still on their place?" he asked with a hint of surprise.

"Ya, so far. It's not really agricultural land. Accommodation mostly, a tourism business, the backpacker lodge. They should be all right."

He looked at me like I was deluded, touched by the sun.

"I wouldn't be so sure about that, my friend."

After two hours, rolling blond savannah gave way to tumbling hills of granite and grassy woodland, and in the distance a giant barrier of purple cloud-topped peaks rose like a tidal wave out of the geological jumble: Manicaland, the Eastern Highlands, the Mozambique frontier, the area I was born and raised in and which, when all was said and done, I had been in a hurry to leave.

The farmer dropped me at the bottom of my parents' drive, and I walked five hundred yards up the dirt track toward their house in the hills, the late-afternoon sun pressing through the leaves of sycamores and mango trees shading the road, bright-winged loeries and weaverbirds plucking at the ripe, low-hanging fruit. I was surprised to find the rusty gates to the house flung open to the world like the arms of an innocent child, but then when had my parents last locked their gates? Not since the liberation war twenty-two years earlier, when we'd lived--under siege, grenade shields on our windows and a loaded automatic rifle by the bed--on a grape farm in the northern part of the valley, and before that on a chicken farm farther east. "If you lock things up, people will think you have something to steal," my mother always said, and although I now thought this philosophy utterly foolish, I was impressed they still stuck to it, given the current situation. Tello, my father's springer spaniel, ran out to lick my legs, and I walked up moss-covered brick steps onto the high front lawn.

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