According to a Zulu legend, “a solar eclipse occurs when a crocodile eats the sun. This celestial crocodile, they say, briefly consumes our life-giving star as a warning that he is much displeased with the behavior of man below. It is the very worst of omens.”
There is much life being taken away in white journalist Peter Godwin’s book When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa. Years after Zimbabwe’s independence, President Robert Mugabe declares war on the white farmers, causing many to be killed along with their families and black supporters at the hands of squatting War Vets or “wovits” as they are called. Through his actions, Mugabe appears hell-bent on destroying the country he helped free from British rule in order to remain in power.
When Godwin returns in July of 1996 to Zimbabwe to visit his sick father, he finds a country that is just starting to show small signs of its imminent descent into the chaos that a few years later will cripple the country under Mugabe’s fierce and capricious dictatorial rule. This descent provides obstacles to Godwin’s father getting the care he needs through the ensuing years, and is interwoven with the son’s struggle to understand his emotionally remote father.
During one of his many visits, Godwin arrives at his parents’ home to find his father with one of his eyes swollen shut. Days before, his father had been beaten and his car had been stolen just outside his own house. Godwin is of course stricken with fear for his parents’ survival. He then notices a black and white photo freshly hung on the wall in the living room. He doesn’t recognize the three people in the photo. He asks who they are and his mother informs him they are his father’s parents and sister.
And then she goes on to reveal a big secret that she and her husband have kept from their children: George Godwin’s real name is Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb. The father whom Godwin had thought was born and raised in England, had known as a distant, serious, very English man, is in fact a Polish Jew. Moments later, when Godwin sees his father, he finds himself “examining him for stereotypical Jewish features.”
The father has a much more vivid and haunting past than the son ever knew. Over the course of a few months Godwin’s father relates the story of his youth in Poland, how he came to England as a teenager one summer, how he was stranded there when Hitler invaded in September of 1939, how he fought in the war in a Polish regiment, and how he lost his mother and sister in the Holocaust.
Peter finds himself wondering who his father is, which leads him to question his own identity. He has a British wife, lives in New York city, speaks English and Shona (the language of black Zimbabweans), was born in what is now Zimbabwe, and, given his parents’ lineage, he’s a Polish-British Zimbabwean Jew. But the overriding identity is one that he shares with his parents and sister Georgina: a white Zimbabwean who is no longer wanted in the country of his birth.
Godwin’s sister Georgina, an actress and radio news reporter, quits the state-run radio when she can no longer stomach reading the government controlled news and propaganda. So she joins Capital Radio, an independent station, but that station is raided and shut down by the Mugabe government after six days on the air. Shortly afterward, she goes up to the Zambezi valley to view the solar eclipse. Aware of the Zulu legend, she notes to her brother that Mugabe’s clan is garwe, a crocodile.
She decides then to leave Zimbabwe with her husband and daughter and go to London. There she joins the staff of Radio Africa, broadcasting reports critical of Mugabe. The Mugabe government puts her on a Wanted List, making it impossible for her to return to Zimbabwe without being arrested and killed.
This puts the burden on Godwin, who can still travel freely to and from the country, to keep watch on his parents. He finangles freelance assignments in Africa as an excuse to make stopover visits to check on them. Every time Godwin returns, conditions in the country have worsened, and his father is further weakened by his health problems. With the rampant inflation of the Zimbabwean currency, his parent’s fixed pensions lose value with every passing month. Combined with the food shortages, a direct result of the killing and removal of the white farmers in a country once considered the African continent’s breadbasket, Godwin’s parents just manage to scrape by. Despite the country’s turmoil and their own slide into poverty, they refuse to leave.
This fascinating and at times harrowing memoir is written with such honesty and clarity that I was completely captivated by Godwin’s tale. He is a son who loves his parents and Zimbabwe, and still thinks of his family and their friends, white and black, as Africans. I won’t spoil it for you and tell you what Godwin had to do in order to fulfill his father’s desire to be cremated upon his death. Suffice to say that the surreality of the ordeal is fitting in a country plagued by rolling blackouts, hyperinflation, and rampant fuel shortages, and where there is a candidate from Mugabe’s ruling party who goes by the name Stalin Mau Mau and the “Hijack Update” in the opposition weekly newspaper is sponsored by a company that makes car-tracking devices “whose logo is a man pointing a pistol at a driver’s head.”
That Godwin managed to produce such a clear, heartfelt, memoir about those crazy, complicated, and difficult experiences in a country devastated by a despot, while avoiding mawkishness and melodrama, is a testament to his skill and thought as a writer, and we are richer for it.