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Peter Godwin, When a crocodile eats the sun

August 10, 2009

[WARNING: SOME SPOILERS]

Saltwater crocodile

Saltwater crocodile

We know it happens – is happening – but it is shocking to come face to face with it, that is, with the experience of living in a situation which was once ordered and safe but which, almost overnight, becomes chaotic and downright dangerous. This is the story Peter Godwin chronicles in his most recent memoir of life in Zimbabwe, When a crocodile eats the sun. The title comes from an old Zulu and Venda belief that a solar eclipse occurs when a crocodile eats the sun. They see it as the worst of omens, “as a warning that he [the celestial crocodile] is much displeased with the behaviour of man below”. Two eclipses occur in the space of two years during the writing of the book. If you were not superstitious before, you might be after reading this! There is, however, an added layer to the crocodile motif: an old woman now living in a nursing home spends her time reading and rereading an old English magazine containing an article in which Churchill warns the English that “appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat you last”. There’s a reason I think that Godwin tells us this story twice in the book.

I might as well come clean now. I am not very good at keeping up with all the world’s trouble-spots and so was rather horrified last year by the events surrounding the elections in Zimbabwe. I had thought Mugabe was doing a good job – and I think he did in the very beginning – but clearly I had taken my eyes off the ball long ago because as most of you will know I’m sure things had been going downhill there for well over a decade. It is the political change in Zimbabwe since about 1996 that forms the backdrop to this book.

Morgan Tsvangirai, 2009 (Photo: Harry Wad)

Morgan Tsvangirai, 2009 (Photo: Harry Wad, using CC-BY-SA licence)

Godwin recounts how with increasing violence Mugabe (who is 80 by the end of the book), through various groups and organisations such as his ZANU-PF, seizes land, uprooting both white and black farmers and workers – any one who appears to oppose him – in his quest to retain power.

Excluding the prologue, the book starts in July 1996 and ends in February 2004, with each chapter titled by the date of a visit Godwin, now residing in the USA, makes back to his home country. During these trips, many of them justified by a journalistic assignment, Godwin visits, with some bravery it seems to me, besieged white farmers and the families of people who have been murdered. However, while the conflict between Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC and the ZANU-PF is central to the book, Godwin also explores his family, particularly in relation to his discovery, in middle age, that his father was a Polish Jew who had been sent to England to avoid the coming Holocaust. Without labouring the point, Godwin draws some parallels between the experience of Jews and of white farmers in Zimbabwe. He also, on a more personal level, parallels himself with his father: “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”. In a lovely bit of – hmm, je ne sais quoi – his father, who started life as Polish Jew but who lived most of it as an English Christian, is buried as an African Hindu.

Godwin has a lovely style – some nice turns of phrase without being over-florid. Here’s one such: “It is winter in Africa, when the warm breath of day dies quickly on the lips of dusk”. The book is rich in anecdotes and observations. Topics as wide ranging as the legend of the hippopotamus’s creation, the story of Livingstone, and the life-cycle of the aid worker are all neatly fitted into the narrative. He  tries a little to explain and perhaps even justify the role of whites in Africa – methinks he is on somewhat shaky ground here but I suppose, like all colonial societies, what’s done is done and we need to find ways for peaceful co-existence. Too late now I suppose to worry about the rights and wrongs of the past…but he could perhaps have been a bit more cognisant of the entrenched inequities beneath the current strife.

At the heart of the book though is the people – the strong-willed parents who despite themselves start to become the children, the rebel-broadcaster sister who flees to England, the white farmers and black supporters of the MDC who face each day with amazing (to me, anyhow) bravery, the black workers and labourers who struggle along often quite loyally while nothing really improves for them, and so on. This is its richness.

Near the end of the book, Godwin makes one albeit backhanded concession to Mugabe:

Mugabe has managed to achieve something hitherto so elusive; he has created a real racial unity – not the bogus one portrayed in the beer commercials of the new South Africa, but something more substantial, a hard-won sense of comradeship, a common bond forged in the furnace of resistance to an oppressive rule.

Perhaps the crocodile hasn’t quite yet had its day!

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