Old Rhodies never die. The whites are in final retreat in Southern Africa. Once again the mysterious continent has swallowed up all those who seek to change it. By Richard Dowden

Don't let's go to the dogs tonight: an African childhood

Alexandra Fuller <em>Picador, 310pp, £15.

To borrow the Duke of Wellington's thought: I am not sure what imperialism may have done to the natives, but by God it messed up the imperialists. When she was about 40 years old, Carolyn Slaughter woke out of a dream that sparked a memory of her childhood in Africa. The memory that had lain hidden was that her father had raped her when she was about six and several other times before she was 12. Her mother and elder sister knew what had happened, but said nothing.

Unless you read the dust cover, you do not learn this until the epilogue. The body of her book is a precursor to this explanation. This makes the title, taken from a poem by Sylvia Plath, inaccurate because Slaughter has few memories of a time before she was six. She has written a tale of an utterly miserable childhood that happened to have been in Africa. Her father was a policeman in Swaziland and then in Bechuanaland, now Botswana, an apoplectic, violent little martinet who vented his sadism on wogs and niggers and on his own daughter. Her mother was a neurotic, unloving, self-obsessed woman who spent most of Slaughter's childhood lying in deep depression under a mosquito net. Her elder sister escaped into her own world, surviving by keeping the rules and avoiding conflict. What kept the family going was the belief that they were better than the people who lived around them, and they expressed that superiority in contempt and exasperated fury.

Fury is Slaughter's predominant feeling, and it makes her a difficult and antisocial child. Although there are glimpses of her escapes into the African bush and her admiration for the people who have survived in it for centuries, she admires them from afar. They are not part of her. She is rarely allowed to play with African children and when she does, her mother wipes any toy they have touched with Dettol, boils it or throws it away. Her burning hatred for her parents and their life dominates her childhood, as it does this book. The nearest thing to a friendship she forms is a crush on an older girl at a boarding school in South Africa. The only relief from the unrelenting bitterness is a loving, caring Afrikaner family with which she stays when her parents leave her for a couple of months, while they visit England on holiday. For a brief moment, there is a glimmer of warmth from Slaughter as she realises that the world could be a different one.

Slaughter is a novelist; her childhood may have given her the intensity of experience to write creatively. Told as fact, her story is banal and depressing and, without wishing to belittle her horrific experience, self-indulgent. Her experience may be not an uncommon one and it may have been essential for her to eructate it from her system, but her imagery is repetitive and cliched. She is too self-obsessed to offer much insight into the characters around her or to explore the wellsprings of her father's evil or her mother's sadness.

In complete contrast, you put down Alexandra Fuller's account of her childhood in Ian Smith's Rhodesia and wonder how anyone could make the period of the vicious war for white supremacy so moving and funny. Slaughter's book does not sound like childhood. Fuller's captures it exquisitely. This may be partly because the Slaughter family was imperialist; they had come as aliens to rule and impose their values on the natives. Fuller's family was colonialist: they went to settle there, take land and make a life. Fuller was there, involved. Slaughter was in exile, the experience of an outsider.

Fuller's eccentric parents escaped to Africa from dreary postwar Britain and borrowed money to buy a farm in Rhodesia. They worked hard, cared for the land, but were poor. Yet, while they shared all the prejudices of other white colonialists about Africans in general, they loved and cared for the Africans who worked for them. They and their workers respected each other. This is a paradox that I have never been able to resolve, and Fuller's book only makes it starker.

She looks the truth in the eye, writes it down and adds a twist of humour or irony. She describes things as they felt at the time, using the language she would have used at the time. On page one, there is a picture of her, aged about five, loading her father's FN rifle as if she were dressing a doll. She hears the BBC World Service announce Greenwich Mean Time and thinks that African time, in contrast, is kind.

Much of her childhood is painful, but she never becomes a victim. Two of her siblings die as toddlers. Her boozy, exuberant, sentimental mother never ceases to mourn them. Other things are ugly. Her mother is proud of their decision to come to Rhodesia because it is still run by whites and they fought to keep it that way. Fuller and her father try to soothe her mother's violent views, gently sending her up. When their farm is designated for expropriation and taken over by squatters, her mother mounts her horse and rides into the squatters screaming, "Fucking kaffirs." Soldiers from the new Zimbabwean army come and kick the door down, but everything is resolved with heart-warming apologies and a gentle reprimand. When much later, her mother goes crazy, Fuller manages to find a vein of stoic humour. "All of us are mad . . . I'm the only one with a certificate to prove it," she quotes her mother saying.

When Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe and her boarding school starts filling up with the children of "black terrorists", who are now running the country, she makes no attempt to say: that is how I felt then, but now I know better. She simply describes her reactions. The new black matron tells her to share bathwater with them. Aged 12, Fuller climbs into the bath "lukewarm with floating skin cells of Margaret and Mary Zvobgo. Nothing happens. I bathe. I dry myself. I do not break out in spots or a rash. I do not turn black."

She has new illusions about how the whites took the land. "Under the steely, acquiring eye of Cecil John Rhodes", the settlers arrived. The African kings welcomed the white visitors, but "the welcome mat had only been out for a relative moment or two when the Africans realised that a welcome mat was not what they needed for their European guests. When they saw that the Europeans were the kind of guests who slept with your wife, enslaved your children, and stole your cattle, they saw they needed sharp spears and young men who knew how to use them. The war drums were brought out . . ."

William Sheppard was another outsider who came to live in Africa. Unlike the colonialist and the imperialist, Sheppard was an American missionary who came to save souls and dispense civilisation. But Sheppard was extraordinary; he was black and therefore not regarded as civilised in his own country. Not that this worried Africans. They called him "the black white man", another foreigner with strange ways who happened to be black. That is how most Africans regard African Americans who go to Africa today, black white people. This is frequently a source of great pain to African Americans, who think they are "coming home to Mother Africa" and should be welcomed as such.

Despite Pagan Kennedy's best efforts to put similar feelings into Sheppard's heart and politically correct thoughts into his head, there is not much evidence of what he felt. He said nothing that was recorded about the Jim Crow laws in America at that time, but does record his delight at coming to London, where he was welcomed at dinner parties and allowed to go into any shop or railway carriage. He felt accepted, and marvelled at London's lack of racism. In Africa, like a few other extraordinary and charismatic people, he carved out his own kingdom, populated it with refugees from the nearby Kuba kingdom in the Congo, and ruled it with western-style justice. On his fundraising trips back home, he loved recounting his exploits among the savage cannibals of Africa, his slaughter of wild animals, and his explorations of the jungle.

Later, he became famous as a witness in the "red rubber" atrocities, where the Belgian King Leopold's agents cut off the hands of those who did not collect their quota of rubber from Congo's forests. Yet the evidence suggests that he did this reluctantly and, on the whole, did not naturally side with the Africans against European colonialism. He was far more disturbed by the practice of trial by poison, where the king of the Kuba casually administered poison as a way of determining innocence and guilt in his courts (if you lived you were innocent, but not many did).

Sheppard's kingdom disappeared, destroyed by the Kuba. Slaughter's and Fuller's empires were also swallowed up by Africa. Such a strong, mysterious continent, so unforgiving to outsiders who try to change it.

Richard Dowden is a former Africa editor of the Economist