Thursday, June 3, 2010


When a Crocodile Eats the Sun
by Peter Godwin

Apparently, in some parts of Africa (including Zimbabwe), when a solar eclipse occurs, folklore says that a crocodile has eaten the sun. Such an eclipse is believed to be a terrible omen. I do not share that belief, but reading Godwin's work has helped me understand how the Zimbabwean people need something to blame for the misery that has befallen them. Eclipses are a natural occurrence, but there is enough tragedy in this one small country to make one believe in supernatural instances of evil.

I wrote a post about Godwin's first book, Mukiwa, at the end of December 2008. It is a memoir of growing up as a white Zimbabwean, trying to straddle the gap between his European ethnic and colonial heritage and the only home he had ever known. Godwin's parents were the rare Anglo expatriates to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) who supported the end of British rule and the turning over of the country to the native Zimbabweans to run for themselves. When that finally happened (early 1980s), there was widespread optimism, and the new president, Robert Mugabe, managed to raise the standard of living for the native people.

The sad thing, though, is that Mugabe has become one of the most vile dictators in Africa's history. Well into his 80s, he is still in power through the use of torture, intimidation, and countless cold-blooded murders. The man has a record of human rights abuses much longer than a crocodile's tail. Periodically, when the people of Zimbabwe rise up and demand democratic elections, Mugabe loses. The election results have no effect, though, because Mugabe just sends his thugs on a killing spree and no one else ever assumes power. As Mugabe has grown more paranoid and senile, he has thrown the country into an economic tailspin that has made their currency almost worthless. It is a terrible situation with no end in sight.

Godwin's book lets us into his own love/hate relationship with Zimbabwe. As a journalist, he has written material that is critical of Mugabe, and has been banned from the country at times. He lives now in New York City, although he discreetly visits Zimbabwe as often as he can. In Crocodile he tells the recent history of his homeland alongside his changing relationship with his parents, George and Helen Godwin. The elder Godwins elected to stay in Zimbabwe as the nation descended into chaos. Helen Godwin was still a practicing physician until a few years ago, and she did not want to leave her patients. George Godwin had adopted Zimbabwe as his home after he fled Poland during World War II (a secret that only came out in Peter Godwin's adult life), and he had no intention of leaving. Peter Godwin's anxiety and sadness about his parents' health and safety is palpable throughout the book.

Zimbabwe's story is a sad one, but Godwin also does an excellent job describing the beauty of the land, the warmth of many of its people, and the hope that many of them still have for a better life against all odds. He is an excellent writer with an important story to tell.

Reverent Reader


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