When a Crocodile Eats the Sun By Peter Godwin
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, by Peter Godwin, was published April 17, 2007, on the 27th anniversary of the independence from British colonial rule of the African country of Zimbabwe; ruled by President Robert Mugabe, from the capital city of Harare. A country where repressive laws limit the scope of foreign journalists, where the BBC has no correspondent. Where Peter Godwin was born and where his parents George and Mary lived all of their adult lives. A country where it is too dangerous for Peter Godwin to admit to being a journalist, and from which his sister Georgina, a television and radio journalist, fled to England. An eclipse of the sun is a bad omen to the Zulu - “it drew down terrible times”. There was an eclipse of the sun when the independent Zulu nation was defeated by the British. The crocodile was also referred to by Winston Churchill as he warns his people “Appeasement is feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat you last”. Two so very different situations, but so much the same.
Journalist and author Peter Godwin grew up in Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe. His wife Joanna did not and has no desire to live there or to visit. When she does visit Zimbabwe with Peter, she “compares up, to the First World, where privileges are treated as rights.”
Peter sees the “functioning schools, a near-universal education system producing Africa’s most literate population”. He “compares down” to the apocalyptic Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Uganda, Somalia and Sudan – countries that make Zimbabwe feel like Switzerland to him. There is no doubt about the fact that over the years of this memoir, 1996-2004, Zimbabwe is rapidly falling into chaos and ruin.
Peter Godwin has made his home in New York City. As a journalist he seeks assignments that will take him home to Africa as often as possible.
Each visit to his elderly and increasingly fragile parents finds him in a country that has become more and more dangerous and less and less a place he wants to be. His parents, however, refuse to leave and he has no choice but to visit as often as he can, bringing essential medical supplies and other necessities that have become hard to acquire in Zimbabwe.
Peter and Joanna were at home in New York City when it was attacked on September 11, 2001. In this changed world they marry just before the birth of their second child.
It is at this time that George Godwin tells Peter about his Jewish heritage. George Godwin had grown up in Warsaw – the son of an affluent couple, he lived a comfortable life of education and affluence.
Just prior to World War II George was sent to England – to improve his English – never to see his family again. He later realized they sent him out of the country to save his life.
George hid his Jewish past in an effort to prevent his children from ever having to lose their home and country, as he had. George married in England – his wife, Mary, did know of his past and respected his wish to withhold it from his children. After the war George found work in Africa, in an effort to be as far away from Europe as possible.
Peter is asked by his father to find out what happened to his Polish family and, in so doing, Peter discovers his own past and learns about the world of European Jews and the Holocaust.
At the same time his father is writing about what he can remember of his own youth and attempting to compile a family tree - of 24 family members living in Poland, sixteen were killed in the Holocaust, including George’s mother and sister.
By September 2002 ,Zimbabwe is increasingly a place of danger - the farm resettlement program has become a chaos of black civil war veterans terrorizing farmers, ruthlessly killing any who resist.
George comments “Being a white here is a bit like being a Jew in Poland in 1939 – an endangered minority - a target of ethnic cleansing”.
In November 2003 Peter is doing research at the Holocaust Centre in Cape Town, and reflects that he must make his life in America – and leave Africa behind.
He must turn his back on this place, the language, the history and the memory; as Poland was to his father, Africa is to Peter. “A white African is like a Jew everywhere, on sufferance, watching warily, waiting for the next tidal swell of hostility”.
One of the Godwins' neighbours came to Africa in 1927 when “Come to Romantic Rhodesia” was advertised in England. Now, 75 years later, his descendents are being evicted from their farm.
These farms were well managed businesses; the white owners employed hundreds, sometimes thousands, of local black people, providing schools and medical care, caring for family members of all ages.
When Mugabe’s farm resettlement program is put into action the land is given to the black populace – many of them government employees from the city who use it as country homes. Many farms are destroyed by the marauding war veterans – the animals slaughtered, the land burned or neglected.
The country that was once the bread basket of Africa is now one of the most poverty stricken.
Inflation runs at 2,000 per cent and people who were once able to live a comfortable life are living in poverty in a country where education and health care have been decimated.
When Peter Godwin visits his parents in November 2003 he realizes that they can barely afford to eat, there is no real coffee and their pensions are now worthless.
His mother had worked as a doctor all of her life and now cannot find adequate medical care for herself and her husband at the end of their lives. It is a tragedy.
One of the reasons they refuse to leave is that their eldest child, Jain, is buried in Zimbabwe – she was killed on her wedding day during the civil war in 1978, an event that had torn the family apart, and created two worlds for them - before and after.
We know at the beginning of the book that George Godwin dies in 2004 and that Peter returns to arrange the funeral. As he and his mother prepare the guest list for the funeral “many of the names are crossed out because they have died, and the rest have their African addresses crossed out and replaced with new ones in England and America, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.”
“So few of us remain,” Mary Godwin says quietly.
This is one of the most fascinating books I have read in a very long time - and one I am definitely passing along to family and friends.