Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Book Review: The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers

When Africa Moves Your Cheese

by Alan Brody

You might want to wait for Robert Mugabe and his henchman to exit Zimbabwe before you visit this resort, but you won’t be able to put down this riveting book about a spunky senior couple and their story of survival. Set at the edge of a country that has descended into economic disaster and official thuggery, this is about people who just want to hang on – and they do!

Part adventure tale, part family memoir and trip into the mind of post-colonial Africa, this amiable but gripping story is a also compelling business case study of sorts – a bush version of Who Moved My Cheese? The Rogers family, a white Zimbabwean couple with roots going back several generations, retire to a craggy estate near Mutare in the East which they turn into a backpacker lodge with chalets, a swimming pool and al fresco bar.

They thrive for several years during the early benevolent period of the Mugabe regime when whites were welcome and the struggle against the old supremacist Rhodesian government forgotten. White emigrants even returned, many encouraged to buy and build in the new majority African-ruled Zimbabwe. That all began to change around 2000 when Mugabe saw his lifetime presidency challenged and he turned to sacking white farms as a way to maintain support.

This took the life out of the economy and with it, the tourist business. Luckily for the Rogers, their craggy estate had little farm value - especially after poachers took out their modest game stock - so the shambling estate avoided the expropriation list. But that still didn’t pay the bills, so the author’s Dad, Lyn Rogers kept coming up with one survival scheme after another in a way that could make for a third-world-dictator version of the Harvard Business School case study. These included: subletting the premises to a brothel manager, running a marijuana operation and then, most famously, the resort becoming a hang-out for illegal diamond dealers. All along, as their food options dwindle, his mother Ros, punctuates these chapters with a scheme of her own: improvised meal ideas for her proposed cooking book, Recipes for Disaster.

At the same time, the resort serves as a refugee camp for displaced whites, government officials’ mistresses, Power Company engineers and political outsiders of several stripes. As for the illegal mining section, it is a relatively small a part of the book but thanks to the Blood Diamonds phenomenon and the kind of money at stake, this is what the media likes to talk about.

Written as a kind of family journal by our affable traveler, Douglas Rogers, we get drawn into many adventures in this troubled place. With a gentle inquisitiveness, he drinks and tokes with the locals who quickly recede from typical African stock characters into real people with their own unique drives, personality and logic. From the amusingly over-articulate John Agoneka to the savvy diamond dealer Fatso and his sidekick No Matter, this is the real Africa you don’t find in a tourist package or your typical bwana book where the white explore and the blacks carry. Likewise, his portraits of the diehard whites who somehow adjusted from white domination to African majority rule and then suffer their disillusionment is matter-of fact yet compelling. When the whites go native such as when the matronly Miss Moneypenny, their “private banker” dances naked at the instruction of a witch doctor to settle a score, it seems perfectly reasonable under the circumstances.

While less lyrical perhaps than Peter Godwin’s White Boy in Africa or Alexandra Fuller’s Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight and the near hypnotic Scribbling the Cat, it more than makes up for it as a page-turner, eye-opener and to the pin-striped set, an entrepreneurial cliff-hanger. This is an African journey by way of a survival plan B, C & D where good doses of bribery and connivance fill in for Drucker and Due Diligence. All along, you feel like you’re one of them, talking to these folks and listening to their stories in one of their own African languages.

Considering how dark the situation in Zimbabwe became with over 10,000% inflation, the book is almost optimistic. Compared to Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun it makes you feel like keeping an eye out for Mugabe’s one-way ticket out of there so you can visit this unsinkable lodge and its irrepressible owners and staff. In the meantime, you could just read the book and breathe in a sigh of democratic relief.

The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers - published by Harmony Books