Muzungu – A Rhodesian Testament by Rod Madocks – a memoir of an African childhood and beyond

Muzungu – A Rhodesian Testament by Rod Madocks.

Rod Maddocks spent his childhood in Africa. This book reveals that it was so memorable, so vital, that those years were to dominate his life, even though he has spent decades in Britain and Europe. It is not surprising that his memories, clarified in a stream of photographs which illustrate this book, are so vivid as his birth and first formative years were spent in observing the last decade or so of a colonial government. His father was a senior government official whose position took him away from home frequently, leaving Rodney to be supervised by black servants and later to theoretically supervise them. Indeed, the opening chapter of the novel recalls a solo trip he made into the bush in pursuit of guinea fowl and how he lost his way. This was not a minor incident as the bush was full of dangers both seen and unseen, and the event typifies his childhood of his determination to pursue his goal whatever the risk.

This is a fascinating memoir of a complex life, one shaped and defined by his early experiences, his volatile mother, his ambitious father who was eager to ensure his only son had the education and opportunities he missed, and the wartime experience that meant he was lucky to survive.

 Madocks is honest in his assessment of his life and has a phenomenal memory for the African section of it. His experience of school life in Britain is a hard one; his African origins, his self-sufficient personality and his physical ability to be aggressive is not enough to protect him from the other students and the casual abuse of staff. He also saw his new surroundings through the eyes of his African perspective, where being outside in the dark was to be exposed to danger from both creatures and to a certain extent, other people. He is aware of the cruelties of another way of life, with weaker babies being abandoned, of the extreme poverty of the black native people, and the beginnings of violent resentment against the white administrators and their families.  This was a country, a continent undergoing seismic changes of government, of expectations and much more. In comparison with his life in Africa, which is brought back so vividly by the objects imported by himself and his parents, his adult life is one of disappointment and struggle. He wanders around Europe with little money and having to adopt a dubious way of life, his relationships with women are temporary and inconclusive. He experienced the first effects of the Chernobyl disaster, he worked in care and prison sectors, he was confronted by the hard and aggressive side of life repeatedly. It was only when he discovered an ability to write that he found his true vocation, especially when he could call on his African background.

This is a powerful and well written book which captures the sense of a life lived. He reveals much about himself and his background, his parents and his somewhat wary attitude to other people. It conveys effective portraits of people from all backgrounds, from the most unsophisticated and superstitions of Africans to academics in American universities. This is a phenomenal memoir of a life, with thoughtful reflections on the politics of a changing continent and its effects on those who lived there. Madocks is a perceptive and skilled writer, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.