Out of Africa

Reviewed by Wendy Kann
Sunday, May 27, 2007


A Memoir of Africa

By Peter Godwin

Little, Brown. 344 pp. $24.99

In 2000, Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, held a referendum to perpetuate his decades-long rule. He lost. Incensed, he annulled the results and set about destroying his suspected opposition. The economy imploded, and Zimbabwe fell into chaos. In When a Crocodile Eats the Sun-- a reference to solar eclipses, the most apocalyptic of African omens -- Peter Godwin, an acclaimed Zimbabwean journalist now living in Manhattan, masterfully weaves the political and the highly personal. An eyewitness account of that cataclysmic time, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is also a tribute to Godwin's aging parents and a searing exploration of the author's own soul.

The Godwins had immigrated from England to Africa in the early 1950s, where Peter's father, George -- nearly broken from the traumas of World War II -- reinvented himself, managing copper mines, timber estates and government transport. He was a fierce believer in fairness and integrity, sending letters decrying the political corruption of Mugabe's government to the state-owned Zimbabwe Herald under the pseudonym "Rustic Realist." His wife, Helen, an adored doctor at a cash-strapped government hospital, began work before dawn and treated more than 80 patients daily. The couple had three children. Jain, their eldest, was killed on the eve of her wedding in a tragic car accident; Peter was exiled in 1983 for breaking the story of Mugabe's massacre of thousands. Georgina became a Zimbabwean media darling, lately banished for her independent coverage, who now beams hard-to-hear news to her homeland from a lonely London studio.

Mugabe's violent reclamation of mostly white-owned commercial farmland destroyed Zimbabwe's food supply, fostered lawlessness, and shattered the country's economy. Increasingly isolated as their friends flee the repression and hyperinflation, and barely surviving on now worthless Zimbabwean pensions, the elderly Godwins pointedly avoid buying much needed gasoline and medical supplies on a growing black market that they feel benefits only the privileged few. They would rather walk to polling stations and wait in long lines for hours in the hot sun to participate in ultimately farcical local elections. They eat mainly bread and cabbage but consider Peter's attempts to replenish their pantry using American dollars as vulgarly extravagant in light of the extreme poverty suffered by most of the country's inhabitants. As hundreds of the starving and unemployed spill into Harare's suburbs, a swelling camp of the indigent lingers just beyond the Godwins' hedge. Belligerent officials shoulder into their modest yard, claiming bogus infractions and demanding bribes. George is hijacked at his gate by men who beat him to the ground and then toy with killing him.

As his parents' health quickly deteriorates -- George has heart trouble and gangrene, Helen has sciatica -- the frantic author risks slipping into Zimbabwe on frequent magazine assignments despite his exile status. He finds himself on the front line as Mugabe's murderous, pillaging mobs invade farms and smash agricultural infrastructure. An interview with an opposition candidate evolves into a nightlong ordeal fending off goons. Incognito at a political rally, Peter watches farm workers get selected for "re-education" while sullen armed teenagers prowl the remaining crowd, prodding people to raise fists higher, to cheer louder.

And yet much of the book is wryly comic as Godwin describes the absurdities endured by Zimbabwe's white middle class. George's battered Mazda 323 is jerry-rigged with locks and alarms and practically roped to the side of their house. Peter, entertaining his parents with an outing to gawk at McMansions being built by political favorites, takes a wrong turn and finds himself on the prohibited dead end street leading to Robert Mugabe's new palace:

"As we round the bend . . . we see that the soldiers have been reinforced by a dozen more. These new ones carry machine guns, and the brass bullets in their bandoliers shimmer with menace as they catch the sun. At least ten weapons are now pointed directly at us.

" 'Oh, God!' mutters Mum. 'We're all going to be shot. I told you we should have gotten a new atlas, Dad.' "

As Godwin faces both his parents' mortality and his country's collapse, he is tormented by the devastating loss of his own identity. One evening, while still mourning George's recent death, Peter stumbles across a roadblock. When he refuses to offer the expected bribe, an armed and angry policeman forces him to pull over and wait, possibly all night, as punishment. Minutes later, a bus rattles up and as sacks are hurled out for the police to plunder, an old woman pleads for her meager bag of maize. Godwin, fully aware he could be killed for interfering, cannot bear the injustice of the woman's predicament and offers money on her behalf. He is viciously ordered off, but we are left with no doubt at all that Peter Godwin has inherited George and Helen's fortitude. ยท

Wendy Kann is the author of a memoir, "Casting with a Fragile Thread: A Story of Sisters and Africa."

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