In Peter Godwin’s memoir of Africa, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, one image serves as a potent metaphor for the political, economic, and social meltdown of Zimbabwe. Godwin’s aged parents, who lived in a house on the edge of Harare, had carefully cultivated a hedge around their home that shielded them from the hawkers, homeless, and thieves who plied the road in front of their home. One evening, after retiring to bed, he is awoken by the smell of smoke. The bougainvillea hedge surrounding their home is burning. As the fire engine takes more than an hour to arrive, the hedge is destroyed and, along with it, their cultivated privacy and sense of security from the near anarchy outside. As Godwin says: “[A]s the day lightens, we see that we are completely exposed, looking directly into the hawker’s camp and the busy throng of curious passersby beyond. . . . My parents have spent the last fifteen years tending this barrier against the huddled masses outside, reinforcing it until they have judged it impregnable, and it has been incinerated in an hour.” The barrier is gone, and with it the illusion of security. They are exposed.
Better than anyone I have yet read, Peter Godwin is able to vividly and personably record the sights and sounds of an unraveling civilization, of the impending collapse of a society. An African-born white Zimbabwean, Godwin grew up in a white-ruled Rhodesia under siege from guerilla forces. After white Rhodesians conceded to majority black rule under still governing Robert Mugabe, it initially seemed as if a multi-party, multi-racial democracy might work. Soon, however, Mugabe began “awarding” productive white-run farms to “wovits” (war veterans) and party loyalists. Productivity came to a standstill and, by some accounts, because of famine and oppression, over half the population left the country. Infrastructure fell into disrepair. Opposition political groups were targeted. And while Godwin’s account ends with his father’s death in 2004, we know that nothing has improved since that time.
Godwin is able to document this decline well, but more than serving as a political history, the memoir is also a family history. He comes to grip with a secret his father has withheld from him that deeply affects his own identity. He portrays how his parents coped with their decline in status in a society that no longer wanted “colonialists” around. Ultimately, he records his emotional journey to exile from his own country, a sense that his country has been stolen from him and he can longer live there and yet never feel at home anywhere else.
With all this misery, there’s not a lot of hope available, particularly for someone who does not embrace Christian faith. Yet, even here, there are both white and black people who demonstrate hope and heroism. In a grocery store line one day, his father finds that he is short of cash. As he begins to give the clerk items to put back on the shelves, a black woman he does not know that is farther back in the line pays the remainder due, something he had done for other black Africans in better times. Faced with an epileptic homeless man outside the gate to his parents’ home one day, Godwin himself sets aside the real danger of AIDS and reaches in the man’s mouth and pulls out his tongue, whereupon his fit settles. There are more such examples, and yet all this is like a narrow crack of light in darkness. The overwhelming emotion that can overtake you in reading such an account is deep sadness over the inhumanity of man, of his great capacity for evil, and of the awesome challenge of bringing hope to a place so charred by despair.
While there may not be a prescription here for how to effect change in a country and continent racked by disease, warfare, and corrupt and inept governments, it is a reminder that individual acts of love and charity matter. No amount of financial aid will cure Africa’s troubles. They are desperately in need of not just revival but of a deep and wide reformation that will extend to family, social, economic, and political life. This book is a compellingly human, richly detailed, deeply personal, and richly informative account of a world gone wrong. Yet for hope and salvation, one must look elsewhere.