– The Last Resort – Re-Membering Zimbabwe’s land reform programme

By Gracious Madondo

Zimbabwe’s historic land reform programme needs more literature written by those who directly participated in it. A casual glance on the internet and in bookstores reveals a very sad development of scanty narratives in the form of biographies, autobiographies or scientific studies written by indigenous blacks.

The narrative on land and land reform in Zimbabwe is dominated by accounts written by whites whose land was either expropriated, are closely related to someone who lost land or white journalists who witnessed the upheavals of that dramatic episode on the country’s calendar.

Douglas Rogers, an offspring of a white farmer in Mutare, clearly compels one to yearn for alternative narratives detailing the country’s fast-track land reform programme spearheaded by government at the turn of the century.

Rogers is the author of ‘The Last Resort’, a moving historical account from one who not only experienced it but used his journalism background to connect all the nuances and dots regarding an exercise that was to permanently alter the country’s national trajectory.

A journalist, travel writer and memoirist, Rogers was born on 11 November in 1968 in the then Umtali, Rhodesia, now Mutare in Zimbabwe. Rogers grew up in Zimbabwe at his parents’ chicken and grape farm later called Drifters Resort.

His memoir is intriguing and enlightening in that it captures the lives of whites on farms and estates at the height of the land reform programme in Zimbabwe. Part-memoir and part-travelogue, ‘The Last Resort’ focuses on the author’s parents’ struggle to stay afloat in modern-day Zimbabwe.

Set between 2000-2009  a period critics generally refer to as the decade of crisis, ‘The Last Resort’ is the story of Rogers’ parents’ day-to-day struggle to keep their land in the midst of a whirlwind of landless black people clamouring for an equitable land redistribution exercise.

What makes the text exceptional is not just the lucid diction but its effect in being an aperture or a window through which the reader experiences the anxieties, fears and attitudes prevalent within the white farming community at the time.

It is the period of economic meltdown characterised by high inflation, plummeting of the Zimbabwean dollar, fuel shortages, electricity cuts, increased migration in search of jobs and better opportunities.

The land reform programme is regarded as the third and final stage of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. It is a historical phenomenon that saw the distribution and allocation of land by the government to the people as a way of empowering the indigenous people of Zimbabwe.

‘The Last Resort’ gains its significance in Zimbabwe’s post-colonial literature as an addition to narratives on the land reform programme.

Despite the socio-economic and political significance of this historical epoch, it is sad to note that there is very limited literature written by black authors, something that augurs badly for a balanced historical trajectory in future.

‘The Last Resort’ has a double-barrelled meaning. Rogers’ parents’ land has a “resort” called Drifters where travellers, backpackers and local farmers occasionally come to seek accommodation or refreshments. Every other farmer around them has had his land taken and theirs have been left due to its peculiarity of having a resort and generally unsuited for farming. They have managed to keep wild animals for tourists.

Literally speaking, the place is the last “resort” in the area where people can still come to relax amid the upheavals going on around.

The actual act of defiance that the parents go through, as they resist occupation and the urge to flee like all other farmers, including his father’s desperate resort to joining the opposition MDC, signify the last and only chance Rogers’ parents have in salvaging the only place that could give them a sense of belonging as Zimbabweans.

His father’s indefatigable spirit is captured when the narrator says: “But my father’s mind was set…the fierce pioneering streak of his own people. His mother Gertruida Johanna Gauche, was an Afrikaner Dutch and Hugue descent whose ancestors arrived in the Cape in the mid-1600s. He had roots here, blood in this soil.”

Rogers wrote ‘The Last Resort’ while he had moved to London in 1994 working as a travel journalist. He would occasionally visit his parents in Mutare and it is during these visits that he penned this memoir.

As the story goes, Lyn and Ros Rogers are unwilling to leave their resort and are constantly on the lookout every day with Rogers, Douglas’ father, always with his shotgun by his side ready to defend his territory. For some time, Rogers becomes a “lone-ranger” eluded until his land was the only roadside convenient resort in the eastern highlands housing other run-away white land owners.

Rogers, like other migrating Zimbabweans, left the country for London in search of better opportunities with very little hope of returning.

Talking to his wife, Grace Cutler, Rogers remarks; “Zimbabwe seemed like a regression to me. I had left it behind and moved on”.

His return was because of his parents who were still in Zimbabwe, who were “trapped”, as he thought as well as their refusal to leave for Mozambique or South Africa to restart their lives.

One gets the sense that while Rogers acknowledges the need for an equitable land reform, he inevitably falls into the same stereotypical depiction of the exercise as leading to futility and complete disaster.

Thus in one paragraph he throws a value-laden statement: “The wider situation wasn’t all fun and games. The country was heading straight to ruin.”

Typical of the pioneering Rhodesian stoke, Rogers looks at the African landscape as once a vast, unoccupied and untamed land before the coming of the white man. He believes that the land reform was nothing but an inhuman violent invasion of white farmers’ property, which, in his view, his “parents had taken the barren range hill in Africa with nothing on it but bush and stone and turned it into a thriving resort. They had staked claim on the land in Africa and were sitting pretty”.

Not until Zimbabwe gained independence and the indigenous people were demanding their dues and his attitude towards the newly resettled farmers in understandably abhorrent.

But not everything is racially constructed. Rogers manages to construct a socially realistic narrative, especially his depiction of life during the hyper-inflation period. Everyone, whites and blacks were affected by fuel shortages, both faced the same shortages of basic commodities and indeed there was a diamond rush in Marange during the time.

Maybe it was not Rogers’ duty to give a balanced account. Autobiographies are by their nature one-dimensional and not academic thesis. It is probably not his fault that he fails to articulate the criminality of a tiny minority population owning acres and acres of land while the majority inhabitants wallow in arid, infertile and rocky lands. Like squatters in their own country of birth.

So ironic that one of his parents’ servants is called John Muranda. Muranda is a Shona word that refers to someone not a native or a slave. Yet Muranda is an indigenous Zimbabwean born in 1942 in Honde Valley where he was a sub-chief but ends up being a “foreigner” at the Rogers’ Drifters Resort.

One cannot fault the author’s lack of understanding of the value of land to the African being. Land is not merely a source of physical sustenance for men but plays a significant role in the spiritual realm. It defines the African’s identity, his bond with his ancestors, his dignity and his whole being. Muranda was robbed of his dignity and identity after fleeing the violence of the liberation war and forced to live off a stipend provided by the Rogers.

All in all, ‘The Last Resort’ is a good read. It is not meant to be a thesis but one’s account of critical episode of a country that he said was a “regression”. A country he swore never to return to.

Maybe if those who participated in the land reform programme are to read this book, they will be inspired to write their own narratives. Preserving history is the most important function of the written word. There is urgent need for indigenous blacks to cultivate a culture of writing and keeping record of critical historical episodes. This is not just the duty of historians.

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