Few authors have the power of perspective to elevate a memoir’s relevance beyond their individual story. Peter Godwin is the exception.
A former BBC foreign correspondent who now writes for publications including National Geographic and New York Times Magazine, New York-based Godwin blends his investigative journalist style, documentary experience and travel writing talent to create a memoir that gives voice to both the author’s personal identity crisis, as well as Zimbabwe’s broader political conflict.
The book’s title, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, refers to the African legend that a solar eclipse occurs when the celestial crocodile “briefly consumes our life-giving star as a warning that he is much displeased with the behavior of man below.” Like the legend, Godwin too laments the racial struggles destroying his native Zimbabwe.
Opening with the author lighting the pyre for his father’s cremation, the story then rewinds to explain the intimate details and national circumstances leading to that scene. For decades, the country has been jambanja d (in the Shona language: turned upside down with violent confusion) by President Robert Mugabe’s oppressive rule and post-colonial “righting of historic wrongs.” With Mugabe’s tacit consent, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association – known as the “wovits”, the local pronunciation of war vets – have killed millions of civilians, including two million black farm workers and their families, and contributed to the halving of Zimbabwe’s economy.
Reporting assignments – covering Victoria Falls, the “adventure capital of the world,” luxury hotels in Cape Town, or high-end safaris – serve as a stark contrast to most Africans reality. Yet, they afford Godwin the chance to travel back to his hometown of Harare, where his parents still reside and are affected not only by failing health, but also by gas shortages, road blocks and threats of losing their home.
Trapped between his past and present, Godwin fears he’s committing cultural treason: “Even as [Zimbabwe] gets poorer, more ramshackle, more dangerous, its slide accentuated for me by my periodic overviews, snapshots separated by absence, I am tempted each time to tear up my return ticket and stay.”
This fear of abandoning family and country is further complicated by his father’s mysterious past, disclosed only as his health deteriorates.
Godwin’s attempt to balance his current lifestyle with concerns for his parents safety amidst Zimbabwe’s violent rule makes for an honest, compelling narrative. He admits: “I feel like weeping. Weeping at the way Africa does this to you. Just as you re about to dismiss it and walk away, it delivers something so unexpected, so tender. One minute you re scared shitless, the next you re choked with affection.”
Through eyewitness testimony to injustice, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is a poignant memoir that captures the pulse of a nation and the individual struggle associated with it, while removing any temptation for the reader to romanticize Africa.