Tuesday, December 30, 2008

How Could We Have Been So Clueless?

Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa
by Peter Godwin

For people interested in the colonial history of Africa, and in how certain countries got to the point where they are today, this is an excellent choice for reading. Godwin has a more current book out,When a Crocodile Eats the Sun , that I hope to read at some point as well. Mukiwa is about his childhood and young adult years as a British citizen living in what was then Rhodesia (and is now Zimbabwe). Godwin was firmly entrenched in the life of white Rhodesia - he went to white schools and was enmeshed in British culture. However, his parents did not see colonialism as a good long-term way of life for Rhodesia, and were among the few whites who supported turning Rhodesia over to majority/native rule. For that reason, Peter Godwin always, even as a young child, perceived the oddity of white privilege and rule. He acknowledges his own participation in that privilege, and the ways that he benefited from it, but is and was much more aware of the inherent unfairness of colonialism than your average British kid. As an adult, he found a way (journalism) to express this injustice and make the wider world more aware of it.

Mukiwa shows us Godwin's struggle as he is drafted into the Rhodesian army (he trained as a police officer) in his late teens and tries to do what he can to develop good relationships with black Rhodesians and to deal with them fairly and honestly in spite of the inequality built into the relationship from the start. Godwin also traces the beginning of Zimbabwe as an independent country (beginning in the early 1980s) and the hope and optimism that characterized that time period. Sadly, it did not take long for old tribal conflicts to emerge in brutal, vicious ways and the government seized the opportunity to solidify their own power by means of fear and intimidation.

Mukiwa is relevant right now, as Zimbabwe struggles to become a true democracy. This book gives us a lot of background as to how they got to this point. Their first prime minister, Robert Mugabe, now in his 80s, continues to hold onto power by means of torture and murder even though he has been defeated in a democratic election. Meanwhile, the country faces the worst economy on the planet and an outbreak of cholera that so far has killed several hundred people.

Godwin's book also forces white people to take a hard look at our own contributions to the misery of Zimbabwe and other African countries. I do not take personal responsibility for colonialism, as it went on for several centuries, but I do wonder how we as a people could have been so clueless to let it go on for as long as it did. I mean I get it about the resources available in Africa and the reasons why England and France and other countries would go to almost any means to get their hands on those resources (I may not like it, but I can understand it), but it amazes me that white people could not see that such a system could not sustain itself indefinitely. Plus our sense of entitlement is just staggering.

Mukiwa and other books like it go way beyond the parameters of memoir - it is history and social commentary and even a little bit of theology as well. Those of us who read these books inevitably must ask ourselves the question now "What can we do to help make things right?" Zimbabwe needs our prayers now as much as ever, but there must be something else we can do to ease the suffering of her people. Suggestions?

Reverent Reader


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