Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging by David McDermott Hughes
Article first published online: 6 FEB 2013
© 2013 by the American Anthropological Association
Volume 40, Issue 1, pages 223–224, February 2013
How to Cite
SUZUKI, Y. (2013), Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging by David McDermott Hughes. American Ethnologist, 40: 223–224. doi: 10.1111/amet.12015_7
- Issue published online: 6 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 6 FEB 2013
Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging . . New York : Palgrave Macmillan , 2010 . 224 pp .
Through an exploration of shifting articulations of entitlement and belonging, in Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging, David Hughes presents us with a gripping account of white farmers who face the end of an era. In what he calls the “imaginative project” of colonialism (p. xv), Hughes beautifully intertwines literary, political, and economic threads that come together in the making of white identity in Rhodesia and, subsequently, Zimbabwe. The argument highlights the link between race and landscape, illustrating how an exclusive focus on the environment was instrumental to the colonial project. This turn toward nature enabled a disavowal of African society and, thus, an ideological emptying of the land. Both the physical features and meaning of landscape were then refigured; lakes and dams were constructed in a “hydrology of hope,” altering the terrain to align with visions of nature from the metropole. Cleverly, these changes were often designed to improve agricultural productivity as well, fusing the economic with the aesthetic. Borrowing Coetzee's term, Hughes describes this dream topography as a landscape transformed, yet never entirely subdued—always a work in progress.
In the second half of the book, drawing from extensive interviews both in Zimbabwe and abroad, Hughes explores the lives of farmers following the dramatic occupation of their properties in the early 2000s. Amidst the majority of families that lost the battle for their farms, a number of individuals emerged who learned to adapt and negotiate ways to continue residing on their lands. Relinquishing their previous mastery, these farmers embarked on new forms of collaboration with war veterans and local people, born out of a simple motivation for economic survival. Many had to acquire skills for placating local politicians while staying below the radar of national politics. In this context, Hughes offers a fascinating typology of three colonial models that farmers revived to this end: they transformed themselves into conservationists, missionaries, and native commissioners. Advocates of the environment, the bible, and black farmers in turn, farmers have “played the game,” some more successfully than others. However, arising out of necessity, these farmers’ entrance into a greater social plurality with Africans may, according to the author, finally mark the end of a settler mentality.
Throughout this work, Hughes deftly addresses this fragile balance between race, ideology, and historical context. He suggests, for example, that whites created an “enclave of the mind” based on skin color, thus justifying a complete absence of engagement with Africans. Tensions between this mindset and the more recent realization that such prejudices are no longer tenable surface continually, as Hughes's informants are often inclined to outbursts of anger and indignation, followed by more tempered statements of conciliation. The author, moreover, is careful to identify differences between individuals in their racial politics; some acknowledged their debt to Africans long before it became politically imperative, and others remain uncompromising even to this day.
One of the most provocative aspects of this monograph lies in its insistence on highlighting parallels between white privilege in southern Africa and places such as North America. As such, the author suggests that this story is by no means an isolated one but, instead, has universal resonance. Hughes exhorts his readers to consider what whites elsewhere have long taken for granted by virtue of their skin color, underscoring the connections between environmental escapism and racial privilege. Understanding the Euro-Zimbabwean case, therefore, is essential if we are to unveil the obfuscatory effects of nature loving in other parts of the world. In presenting such an argument, Hughes never shies away from drawing a clear moral position. Indeed, there is something unmistakably exuberant and fearless about many of the fieldwork encounters he describes: he challenges farmers’ proposals at political meetings, raises questions that discomfit his informants, and always pushes to elicit more than the usual stock answers. He asserts that his objective is to engage Euro-Zimbabweans as “objects of both criticism and charity” (p. 141). While a difficult balance to strike, Hughes is largely successful: his unflinchingly candid representations of these farmers make no apologies for them, yet he also demonstrates that they are products of very specific historical forces. At the same time, it is hard not to wonder what the author's informants made of him, the risks he undertook in his research, and where exactly he fit into the mix of war vets, farmers, and politicians. While a more in-depth discussion of his fieldwork circumstances would have been illuminating, Hughes's determination in tracking down and interviewing white Zimbabweans dispersed throughout the world is nothing short of astounding.
Another significant contribution of this book lies in its rich exploration of the literary worlds that constitute white experience. No stone is left unturned in examining fiction, autobiography, and memoir as a window onto the inner thoughts and imagination of whites. Writing, Hughes suggests, bestowed an extraordinary power; one could conjure water, for example, where there was none, and import the “sensibilities of a continent's edge” (p. 45) to Africa's interior. Writing thus became an indispensable technique in the “art of belonging,” enabling whites to write themselves into the landscape, and Africans out of it.
However successful such projects once were, they were only temporary. For Euro-Zimbabweans today, Hughes highlights an emergent form of postbelonging, a term that by definition disallows the comforts and claims that usually accompany this idea. If whites are to stay, he contends, they can do so only “by taking steps towards humility, [according] recognition and respect to their black interlocutors” (p. 140). Never veering from this stance, Hughes expertly navigates the murky waters of race, land, and colonial–postcolonial politics, offering a remarkably thoughtful, forthright portrayal of the predicaments farmers find themselves facing now. Beautifully and provocatively written, Whiteness in Zimbabwe deepens our understanding of forces that come together in the making of a racial elite, and how individuals come to terms with the world once belonging is no longer possible.