Friday, July 02, 2010

When A Crocodile Eats The Sun

Living in this country, it’s hard to relate to the family life of Peter Godwin as portrayed in his 2007 memoir When A Crocodile Eats The Sun (a reference to a total eclipse), which is why I found this book to be a must read. The son of a British mother (a doctor) and a Polish/British father, he grew up in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe. In his second memoir, he chronicles the plight of not only the whites in Zimbabwe (most of whom were farmers), but the black middle class as well. Both are nearly eradicated with the rise in power of President Robert Mugabe, who might be better termed as a liberator turned dictator. A bloody and terrifying period began with his “land reform” program in 2000.

Peter uses his previous works as a journalist for National Geographic, etc to form the political and personal skeleton of this well written, coherent account of life in his Africa. Most Americans, myself included, have little knowledge of Africa. Crocodile is enlightening. Peter captures the political history along with citizen’s accounts of daily life, which makes for a captivating read. Following these realities will also sicken your stomach.

At the center of this book are Peter’s parents and family, specifically his father. Without giving anything away, Peter learns of his father’s well-kept secret, only after Peter himself becomes a father and is residing in New York. The story of his father’s survival is riveting and at times heartbreaking.

As a journalist, Peter digs deeper and as a reader I benefited. This book is not for the faint of heart. In 2008 I read an article in the New Yorker profiling Robert Mugabe and his nephew Leo written by Jon Lee Anderson, another journalist who embeds himself for the profound story. Leo is privileged by his uncle’s connections, was given the contract to build a new airport, has amassed wealth and was arrested for contraband export among other things but charges were dropped for lack of evidence. At the time this article was written, inflation was accessed to be around 230 million per cent! 80% of Zimbabweans were out of work and a bottle of water cost the equivalent of $19. No better way to cripple a country.

Peter himself seemed crippled in dealing with his past at the price of ignoring his present. He is able to get himself assigned to news pieces that will bring him back to Zimbabwe to frequently check on his parents and friends. Funerals and sick visits become the norm. His children know him more from his phone calls than his presence. By his writings, he is opening the eyes of an otherwise oblivious sector and I’m sure takes pride in knowing that he is affecting change.

At one point, Peter is listening to the music of local musicians Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi. Both are political, speaking out against oppression, aids, etc. Mapfumo left Zimbabwe and resides in Oregon. Mtukudzi still lives in the country. Both write songs whose upbeat melodies probably (I say probably as most of the music is not in English) disguise their real lyrical story. In listening to their music, I can’t help but think of The Specials, especially their song Free Nelson Mandela, which might be heavily influenced by these two musicians. All these artists are striving to make us aware.

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