When tragedy struck the author’s family and others in Zimbabwe
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. By Peter Godwin. Little Brown, 334 pp., $24.99.
By Janice Harayda
“In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue,” Peter Godwin writes in this elegant memoir of the terrors inflicted on his family and others during the nearly 30-year regime of dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Godwin’s older sister and her fiancé were killed in 1978, just before their wedding, when they ran into army ambush during the war for independence. No one can know the full effects of that tragedy on his mother, a doctor, and his father, an engineer, among the last wave of English immigrants to arrive before Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. But if Helen and George Godwin thought their lives couldn’t get worse, they were wrong.
The terror escalated after voters defeated a Mugabe-backed referendum to extend presidential term limits in 2000. Mugabe sent hit squads into the countryside to abduct, torture and murder his opponents. His victims included a white farmer, the husband of a Godwin family friend, who was forced to drink diesel oil before he was killed. The author’s father, old and ill, was beaten outside his home by thugs who took his car and wallet. A woman who had worked for 20 years as the family housekeeper returned with goons after her retirement and demanded money. The elder Godwins installed a “rape gate” to seal off their bedrooms in case their home was invaded.
Why didn’t the couple leave Zimbabwe? Godwin suggests that they stayed partly because his father had decided, as a young man, to suppress his Polish-Jewish roots after his mother and sister died at Treblinka. Africa allowed him to be “a new man.” That may be true. But this aspect of his parents’ decision seems slightly overplayed in the book. Godwin doesn’t quite persuade you that there weren’t more important factors in their unwillingness to leave than his father’s submerged Jewish roots. Many whites stayed without having such tangled backgrounds. And so few people want to relocate late in life that, at least in the U.S., most people do not move to another state in retirement but stay close to home. Perhaps the Godwins dreaded returning to England’s soggy climate after living for so long in a place “where the rose blossoms are as big as babies’ heads.”
It hardly matters to the success of this memoir, which joins We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families in the first rank of personal encounters with Africa. For all his family lost, Godwin writes poignantly — and with occasional bleak humor – about Zimbabwe. On a trip to Victoria Falls he visits a backpackers’ gathering spot and sees, amid the tourist brochures, a jar with a label that reads: “AIDS Kills So Don’t Be Silly, Put A Condom on Your Willy.”
“Inside is a single foil wrapper,” Godwin writes. “Years too late, Zimbabwe has launched an AIDS education campaign.”
The title of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun refers to the belief among some Zulus that a solar eclipse occurs when a celestial crocodile eats the sun, and it suggests the parallel eclipses of Godwin’s parents and Zimbabwe. Another metaphor presents itself when Godwin speaks to a doctor about his diabetic father’s gangrenous feet.
“The pain your father feels at present, ischemic pain, is the pain of a muscle being deprived of oxygen,” the physician says. “It is the very worst, most intense kind of pain there is.” Much like that of a nation being deprived of its freedom.
Best line: Godwin writes of flying over Africa in 2003: “Our flight takes us down a continent of catastrophe. Many of the conflicts 30,000 feet below I have covered in my career as a foreign correspondent. It unfolds like a geography of doom. Sierra Leone, where the hacking off of limbs was standard practice; Liberia, where peacekeeping Bangladeshis in blue helmets were struggling to separate teenage gunmen wearing women’s clothing; Ivory Coast, divided between bitter ethnic rivals; Congo, where civil war still raged in a nation that has ceased to be and probably never was; Sudan, where a civil war still rages and triggers frequent spasms of famine; Somalia, which has no government at all now, a country that deserves the description anarchic.”
Worst line: Godwin’s father says: “Being a white here [in Zimbabwe] is starting to feel a bit like being a Jew in Poland in 1939 – an endangered minority – the target of ethnic cleansing.” This is one of number of places where Godwin tries to draw needless parallels between African tragedies and others. The terror in Zimbabwe is horrific whether or not it resembles the Holocaust or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
Editors: Judy Clain and Marie Salter
Published: April 2007 (first U.S. Edition)
Furthermore: Peter Godwin was born and raised in Zimbabwe and has been a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times of London and BBC TV. He also wrote Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa (Grove, 2005), a memoir of his childhood.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.