Tomorrow I'm meeting the brother in Old Colorado City for Christmas shopping. Then I plan to bake Christmas cookies and go to to the library. I need to take back various books, including When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, by Peter Godwin. I just finished it today while I was working out and I would definitely recommend it. It's a memoir of Godwin's relationship with his father and his life in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. Admittedly, I'm a little tired of memoirs about fathers and sons; however, there is more to the book than just that, and more to Godwin's father than just their tense relationship.
The book is, foremost, about identity. Godwin is a white African and he admits from the start that he's among one of the few groups in the world that garner the least sympathy, no matter what their situation. I did find it very hard to sympathize with him at first. He fought on the side of the white government in Rhodesia before independence, and then he just ... left, first for London and then for America. In the process, he abandoned his family and his life in Africa, a daughter in London, a law career, and then started a half-life in New York with a new girlfriend and new kids. But even then, with a new job as a freelance journalist, he couldn't stay put and traveled from Poland back to Africa for every publication he could find.
It's only later, as he begins to talk about the death of his sister in the war for independence that I can begin to feel anything for him. He grabs my attention further when his sense of self becomes even more muddled. It turns out that he's not just a white African (Rhodesian - now Zimbabwean)/Briton/New Yorker, but also a Jew. His taciturn father isn't who he claims to be (a stodgy, old Englishman), but is instead a Polish Jew whose mother and sister died in Treblinka. Godwin doesn't deal well with this revelation. This, of course, comes on top of the fact that his home (or the place he was born, at least) is falling into ruin.
The central conflict of the book -- beyond Godwin's search for identity -- is President Mugabe and his policies in Zimbabwe. Since independence (from Britain) in 1980, and under Mugabe's reign, Zimbabwe's economy has gone from one of Africa's strongest and most promising -- a "breadbasket country" -- to one of the world's weakest. There is runaway inflation (on scale with the Wiemar Rep.) and rampant corruption. But the real story is the "land reform."
Statistically, most of the arable land in Zimbabwe was owned and farmed by the white minority. Mugabe has, over the years, confiscated and the redistributed land mostly as favors, or to militias of "war vets" completely unprepared to work the land. Production on Zimbabwean farmland (and whether you approve or not, they were the second largest producer of tobacco in the world) has dropped to almost nothing as a result. Life expectancy in the country has fallen to 37 and 34 for men and women respectively, the lowest in the world, and over five and a half million people live in the country with HIV.
Godwin, as a journalist, maintains his neutrality about all of this unless he's talking about his parents and their refusal to leave the country or the plight of the white farmers driven off of their land, beaten, and sometimes killed in the process. His father, the catalyst behind Godwin's desire to write the book, dies in Harare, devastating Godwin who is still struggling with getting to know who his father was. Even in death, his father remains elusive. This Polish/British/Zimbabwean dies as a -- wait for it -- Hindu. The situation in Harare is so dire that the Elder Godwin has to be cremated within a certain amount of time following his death or he will be buried in a mass grave.
There is no fuel anywhere in the city for the crematoriums to continue working.
The only place that can burn bodies is the Hindu temple and the only way they'll burn the body is if it's the body of a Hindu. No one in the Godwin family objects, and by this point in the memoir, with this last tragic twist, (for some reason) I finally feel connected to this family that there was no way I could relate to before. Still, the point Godwin makes at the beginning of the book sticks with me: it is hard to alter my viewpoint to feel for the white Africans. But that's what the books does, it challenges me to look at Africa differently and to look at a part of Africa that gets less press (if that's possible) than the rest of the continent.