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When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
By Peter Godwin
Little, Brown and Company
HC, 352 pgs. US$24.99
ISBN: 0-3161-5894-1

Death of a people

By Steven Martinovich
web posted April 30, 2007

When a Crocodile Eats the SunWe in the west take for granted the apparent stability of our civil societies. Few of us have experienced when the social compact that we all take for granted begins to collapse and society turns cruel. For many parts of Africa that reality is part of daily life. Perhaps no more so than Zimbabwe, a once promising state which has encouraged its citizens to turn on themselves as it degenerates into a violent frenzy of self-destruction.

Peter Godwin juxtaposes the tragic story of Zimbabwe with that of his dying father in the profoundly moving When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, a follow-up to his acclaimed Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa. Where Mukiwa extensively dealt with the history of Zimbabwe, Godwin uses his latest effort to chronicle how the nation's collapse affected his family.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, which derived it's name from a tribe's belief that a mystical crocodile was responsible for eclipses, opens in 1996 while Godwin is in South Africa interviewing a Zulu prince for a National Geographic article. He learns that his father, a British expatriate living in Zimbabwe since the end of World War II, has suffered a heart attack and needs medication. Although he has moved to New York years earlier, Godwin often seeks out journalistic assignments that will send him back to Africa for visits with his parents and sister.

Over the coming years those trips become increasingly surreal as Zimbabwe begins to collapse thanks to its leader Robert Mugabe. Although Godwin fought on the wrong side of the civil war that ended white rule, he was initially optimistic about the nation's future. That confidence slowly begins to disappear as he watches Mugabe increasingly turn to authoritarianism to maintain power. With his controversial land reform, which sees alleged war veterans simply claim farms owned by whites, Mugabe effectively legalizes theft.

Gradually Zimbabwe begins to implode. As Godwin chronicles, the average life expectancy in the nation falls by nearly half to 33. From 1988 to 2003 the economy lost half of its value. The AIDS epidemic runs rampant through the country claiming untold numbers of men, women and children. By 2006, outside of an elite few, Zimbabwe has turned into a nation of beggars and thieves.

Mirroring the nation's collapse is the condition of Godwin's father. A distant, meticulous and very proud man, he gradually loses the ability to take care of himself and his wife, a retired doctor. As hyperinflation strikes Zimbabwe, the couple become impoverished but also increasingly targets for everyone looking to merely survive. Their decaying home in Harare eventually becomes a fortress in the hopes of holding back the hostile world which surrounds them.

The retired engineer, however, is not all that he seems. As Godwin relates, his father has long avoided talking about his side of the family. After some prodding he finally reveals that he is actually a Polish Jew, hiding behind the stereotype of the proper Englishman, who made it to England as teen just before the Nazis invaded. Much of his immediate family perished in Treblinka and Zimbabwe, known then as Rhodesia, provided him with a chance to begin anew.

The parallels – though hardly exact – between the two eras strike the reader, particularly when Godwin notes that being white in Mugabe's Zimbabwe is like being a Jew everywhere else: always waiting for the next onslaught. Kristallnacht occurs on a daily basis in the African nation as whites are attacked and often murdered by thugs, thieves and even former friends. Godwin's parents refuse to leave, however, in the belief that they are as much citizens of the land as anyone else.

As much as Godwin loves the land of his birth, he is ultimately of two minds about it. Although he records and acts of kindness and bravery, crimes in the land of Mugabe, he seems to believe that it is not enough to save Zimbabwe. It is a country too far gone to end its madness. Citizen has been turned against citizen and the end result is a slow dance of death. One government minister even goes so far as to say that mass starvation would be welcome because it would eliminate millions of opponents to the regime.

Although Godwin is heartened by it, there seems forlornness even when blacks and whites gather to comfort his mother after his father's death. One can sense the racial divide even while Godwin fights to avoid an "us vs. them" point of view. Ultimately, Godwin becomes his father, writing that, "I will turn my back on the land that made me. I will dispel from my head all the arcane details of this place. Like Poland was to him, Africa is for me: a place in which I can never truly belong, a dangerous place that will, if I allow it to, reach into my life and hurt my family."

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is a difficult but compelling read. While many people will be drawn to it as a sort of documentary on the fall of Zimbabwe, its real attraction should be as the story of a family who struggles to maintain normalcy in a sea of insanity. It is a son discovering who his father is, and by extension who he is. It is also one of the most powerful instances of personal journalism in recent memory. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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