Zimbabwe Through a Lens
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun author Peter Godwin
By John Freeman
It would require some luck to peg the trim, thoughtfully bearded 50-year-old man sitting in the fading afternoon light as a foreign correspondent. Indeed, dressed in a sweater and jeans, wearing pink argyle socks that flash as he crosses a leg, Peter Godwin seems about as far from a war zone as one can get in a room of ceiling-high bookcases and an elegant symmetry of lamps and décor. In its lush, ordered calm, this salon is a world apart. Even Manhattan's nearby West Side Highway has been reduced to a soft whisper.
And then Godwin begins to speak about Zimbabwe. “Its very painful," he says, trying to describe how it felt to witness his native country dissolve from Africa's success story into abject poverty and corruption. Godwin was born there in 1957, when it was the colonial state of Southern Rhodesia, a period he described in his vivid memoir, Mukiwa. He left for university, then watched as the wild dreams of the country's newfound independence were squandered. His sister and her fiancé were murdered during the country's independence birthing pains.
In the years since, Zimbabwe has spiraled ever further downward as President Robert Mugabe has begun to resemble a dictator, enacting land reform in a way that pitted angry war veterans against white farmers. “I worry when you get to see the country through the lens of this contrived crisis," Godwin says, remembering that Mugabe toured the same farms in the ’80s and told white owners, “We need you." “These farms were looted and then given away, and now they are doing the same to industry. It all helps to create a smokescreen behind which Mugabe can operate.''
Zimbabwe was heading toward this crisis a dozen years ago when Godwin learned his father had suffered a heart attack. This rupture forms the focal point of his latest memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, another engrossing journey back to Zimbabwe, which Godwin reports on with the style and urgency of a combat zone veteran. “It's more or less irreparable," Godwin says about the way Zimbabwe's state has affected him emotionally. “It's your cultural history ... the loss does make you kind of wobble.''
But he kept taking notes. Traveling around Zimbabwe to the farms of friends and acquaintances occupied by angry, often drunk and menacing war veterans, he keeps a keen eye trained on the restraint at the core of the whole ugly situation. “The bizarre thing is that the government gave them free reign,'' Godwin says of the war veterans, who were promised reparation. “They said, Do whatever you want. Just go for it. There will be no consequences, and in the whole thing, 15 whites got killed. That's never looked at ... There was a huge hesitation to commit violence.''
To the outside world this may have been a surprise, but to Godwin it was not. He began traveling around Africa as a graduate student, making his way from North Africa to Harare overland, filing dispatches to The Times without any sense of whether they would be published. Upon arriving bedraggled in Harare, he had a stack of clippings and a much enriched sense of the complicated racial components of life in Africa, and especially Zimbabwe. He went on to apply this empathetic understanding to conflict zones around the world as a reporter and BBC producer.
“This rupture forms the focal point of his latest memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun , another engrossing journey back to Zimbabwe, which Godwin reports on with the style and urgency of a combat zone veteran.”
That Godwin is a white Zimbabwean is at once utterly irrelevant and entirely the crux of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. He was, as he remembered in Mukiwa, schooled in an era when white children were taught to practice putting down a Black rebellion. He could leave, and did, traveling to England for university and then abroad to America, where he has lived on and off for many years. But he also comes from a family with deep roots to the Black community; his mother was a physician whose patients were often Black Zimbabweans suffering from the ravages of AIDS.
Flying in and out of this situation in the late '90s, his father's health failing, the country growing ever worse, Godwin tried not to belabor his guilt but was struck by it over and again. “I am fascinated by that juxtaposition," he says, looking around himself at the walls of hardback books, the accoutrements of the life he lives with his wife Joanna Coles, editor of the U.S. edition of Marie Claire. There were times during that period, he says, when his life in Manhattan seemed a little surreal. “That idea that you can insulate yourself.''
One of the most striking things revealed in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is the degree to which Godwin is not alone with this feeling—that it was, in fact, his heritage. In the course of coming home, Godwin discovers his father had made up an entirely new identity. George Godwin, an Anglo-African in a safari suit and desert boots, was born Kazio Goldfarb, a Polish Jew from Warsaw. As George reveals in a memoir he writes and mails to his son, his mother and sister vanished during the Holocaust. He changed his name and relocated to Zimbabwe after marrying a woman in the Royal Navy. “My father was gone by 14,'' Godwin says, “his story is massively one of dislocation, of being wrenched from his background.''
There was something ironic about this discovery, that in moving to the most Jewish neighborhood of the most Jewish city in America, Godwin discovered he was at home. But he didn't want to think too hard about his identity. “As if I didn't have enough things to think about," he laughs.
In researching his father's true background, he couldn't help but find some terrifying similarities between the growth of anti-Semitism in Poland and the way Mugabe used anti-white sentiment to bolster his popularity in Zimbabwe.
Godwin is careful not to say that When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is a book about his own victimhood as a white African. Nor does he believe it's a report on Black Zimbabwe. It is rather the story of his family and his country, as he sees it, from his experience. “In an autobiography, you care implicitly about what happens," he says, making a rather neat definition. “In a memoir, to use a film term, the camera is on your shoulder, as a writer, and it turns when you turn.''
Writing Mukiwa and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, then, are not just literary endeavors for Godwin, or even inspired acts of Proustian retrieval. It is almost as if he sees them as afterimages from a portrait of the country Zimbabwe as it is, showing the country it could have been. “I want them to understand they have this plurality of heritage," he says of his countrymen, “if only to keep this corridor open, because I think in the end it's often cultural heterogeneity which gets exploited—you see it happening in Kenya right now.''
Godwin has been closely following the American presidential election. He is excited about Barack Obama, the Kenyan-American who represents plurality and hope for a lot of voters. “The quickest way to habilitate this country's image in the world would be to vote for Obama,'' Godwin says, without having to elaborate the reasons. He might be right. One thing is for sure: He knows what it's like when things fall apart.
John Freeman is president of the National Critics Circle.