Hannah Swamidoss

Fittingly, Alexandra Fuller begins Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness with a story of her vibrant mother, Nicola Fuller, taking flying lessons from Mr. Vaas whom Nicola refers to as “My Dashing Little Sri Lankan.” During her first flight with Vaas, Nicola realizes that flying will be “good-bye to one more dream,” yet she still manages to see the triumph of having flown, if only once, and the romance of adventure amidst the ordinary happenings and failures of life. This anecdote also reveals the intricate layers of political and socio-economic events which Africa inherits from its colonial past. Significantly, Fuller’s story of her parents’ lives on different parts of the African continents begins with no interactions with Africans, but rather with British settlers/expatriates and a Sri Lankan: all representative of the movement of peoples that colonialism created. Likewise, the Fullers and Vaas fall into minority groups in Africa (Vaas being part of the Indian subcontinent), but under British colonial rule these minorities ranked higher than Africans. The opening chapter also quietly indicates the struggles and violence that this movement of peoples created. After decolonization, Vaas ends up in Zambia to escape the violence of his native Sri Lanka, and Fuller’s parents, Tim and Nicola, move to Zambia to leave behind the political transition of colonial Rhodesia becoming independent Zimbabwe. 

Through the story of her parents, Fuller presents an interesting, if sometimes troubling, picture of the colonizer in Africa. Nicola grows up in colonial Kenya and witnesses the growing rebellion of the Mau Mau. Tim, conversely, begins his life in England, but forsakes his family’s tradition of entering the navy and instead looks for a different frontier. Arriving in Kenya in 1963, Tim meets Nicola and marries her the following year. Shortly after Tim and Nicola’s marriage, Kenya gains independence which, according to Fuller, Nicola barely acknowledges. Fuller chronicles her parents’ colonial, sometimes blatantly racist mindset, from Nicola’s pronunciation of the word “Kenya” (reflecting its colonial heritage) to her desire to stay in “White-ruled Africa.” Fuller communicates Nicola’s feeling that the movement for independence seemed to indicate a rather persnickety and uppity attitude. Other aspects of colonial culture become apparent. Nicola’s passion for horses and riding and the social activities that took place in this context were typical of colonial Africa. Similarly, Nicola understands that the English look down on her colonial accent, and one of Fuller’s childhood memories is of listening to the radio with her sister to master Received Pronunciation. Yet despite Tim and Nicola’s seeming obliviousness to the Africa around them, Nicola’s sparkling personality, Tim’s quiet reliability, and their genuine affection for each other becomes apparent.  

The Fullers move to Rhodesia to remain under a colonial government, and their arrival in Rhodesia occurs after the Rhodesian government defies British authority and declares independence. Consequently, Tim fights with the Rhodesian forces against rebel groups. Tim and Nicola’s most difficult years occur in Rhodesia; they lose three children and brave the vagaries of the land. The backdrop of war pervades these years; Fuller herself shares a memory of lying under mattresses in her boarding school while the town was being bombed. Fuller also writes of the chilling measures the Rhodesian government took: “Rhodesian Special Forces with the help of South African military had salted the water along the Mozambique border with cholera and warfarin; they had injected tins of food with thallium and dropped them into conflict zones they had infused clothes with organophosphate and left them our for the guerilla fighters and for sympathizers of the guerilla cause.” Fuller notes that the anthrax that the Rhodesian Special Forces also used caused “the largest outbreak of anthrax among humans in recorded history.” While Fuller’s parents certainly do not commit atrocities at this level, the silence that they display to the brutalities of the war and the Africans around them, while maintaining their commitment to the minority-led government, vividly and disquietingly puts individual faces to colonial rule.  

Where Fuller’s writing shines is when she captures the cultural peculiarities of expressions such as “pukka-pukka sahibs” or the use of varying numbers like “one million percent” to express commitment. Likewise, Fuller deftly brings in the oddities of colonial rule such as the early British settlers in Rhodesia naming parts of the new territory with reference to Asia; consequently, the Fullers settle in the Burma valley of Rhodesia which lies opposite the Himalaya Hills. Fuller’s delightful humor comes across when she shares her mother’s comparison of Fuller to “Christopher Bloody Robin” who betrays his father (A. A. Milne, most well known for his children's series Winnie the Pooh where his son, Christopher Robin appears as a character ) by writing a disparaging account of him. In being compared to “Christopher Bloody Robin,” Fuller’s love for the continent becomes apparent – a love so strong that she can look at her parents and her own childhood critically. Elsewhere, Fuller has described herself African by “accident, not by birth” and writes, “Africa — as an idea — dawned on me gradually. I am forced to acknowledge that almost half my life in Africa was realized in a bubble of Anglocentricity, as if black Africans had no culture worth noticing and as if they did not exist except as servants and (more dangerously) as terrorists.” This reorientation of thought fuels Fuller’s writings about Africa, and she observes with poetic flair, “I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Africa, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me.”

Ultimately, Fuller’s parents represent the legacy of settlers in colonial Africa who remain after decolonization. Historian John Darwin poignantly defines such settlers as “historiographical orphans” in his book, Settlers and Expatriates: Britons over the Seas. Although the negative aspects of this “orphanhood” proves true for Tim and Nicola, Fuller shows an element of healing through the Tree of Forgetfulness on the Fullers' new Zambian farm. An African, Mr. Zulu, explains, “‘if there is some sickness or if you are troubled by spirits then you sit under the Tree of Forgetfulness and your ancestors will assist you with whatever is wrong….all your troubles and arguments will be resolved.’” Nicola immediately subscribes to this sentiment “‘two million percent.’” While the complexities of colonialism and its aftermath may take some time to be resolved, Darwin makes a telling point when he states, “it is not necessary to sympathize with settlers and expatriates to find them interesting or to acknowledge their importance.” Alexandra Fuller accomplishes this portrayal of the settlers – her parents – without unduly extolling or demonizing them.

Hannah Swamidoss was a freelance writer who wrote articles and reviews on children's book and authors. She decided to pursue her interest in literature and completed her PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas with an emphasis on British fiction, children's literature and postcolonial studies. She currently teaches courses at the college and high-school level.