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When a Crocodile Eats the Sun
By Peter Godwin
345 pages; $24.99
Zimbabwe, formerly Southern Rhodesia, is the setting for this unforgettable autobiographical memoir. That once prosperous country is now reduced to a shambles by the cruel dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. The title of the book is based on the belief among some Africans in Zimbabwe that a solar eclipse takes place when the crocodile eats the sun. This indicates that the crocodile is unhappy about the behavior of human beings.
Author Peter Godwin was born and raised in Southern Rhodesia. He described his early life there in Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa. Godwin studied law and international politics at Cambridge and Oxford before becoming a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times of London and BBC TV. His reports on the massacre by the Mugabe government in Matabeleland resulted in his being banned from Zimbabwe. However, he had defended an African who became the minister of home affairs and who later saw to it that Godwin could return to Zimbabwe without being thrown into prison.
He eventually settled in New York, where his future wife, Joanna, a reporter for The Guardian, had accepted an assignment.
Before they were married, they attended the wedding in Zimbabwe of Godwin's sister Georgina. Her strident opposition to the Mugabe government eventually led to her being banned. She moved to London where she continued to broadcast news about the repression in Zimbabwe. With Georgina in London and Peter in New York, their parents were on their own in Zimbabwe. Their mother was a physician and their father was an engineer. Now in their 70s and suffering from several debilitating illnesses, they struggled to survive under increasingly difficult conditions. They refused to leave, having lived in Africa for 50 years.
Godwin managed to visit his parents by securing journalistic assignments from such publications as The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic that called for his reporting on developments in Zimbabwe or on game parks in South Africa. The book focuses on his seeing the impact on his parents of the country's deterioration into mob rule by aggressive and murderous gangs.
Senseless "land reform" and out-of-control inflation have turned a once-prosperous country into a basket case with an economy in shambles and with AIDS inexorably reducing life expectancy.
On one visit, Godwin's mother revealed a secret to him about his father. As far as Godwin knew, his father was born in England, served in the British army during World War II and then studied engineering at London University before being sent by his employer to Africa where he remained. It turns out that George Godwin is actually Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb, a Polish Jew who, in the summer of 1939, was sent by his parents to study in England. He remained there after World War II began and joined the army of the Polish government in exile. He saw a good deal of fighting in Europe and, after the war, married an ex-Wren who came from "four generations of Anglican churchmen." She went on to become a doctor; Goldfarb changed his name to Godwin and they moved to Africa, where she practiced medicine and he ran copper mines and timber estates, eventually writing industrial standards.
Godwin seeks to find out more about his father and his family. He visits the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and writes to the American Red Cross. He learns about the Holocaust, the death camps and the killing of his father's family by the Nazis. As Godwin reflects about his discovery, he likens the condition of whites in Africa to the plight of Jews everywhere.
The book begins and ends with the death of Godwin's father and with honoring his request that he be cremated. This powerful memoir starts out to be an exposure of the terrible things happening in Zimbabwe and that objective is fully realized. It also brings to light a family secret that enables the author to reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust. These two themes come together in a well-written book that compels readers to keep turning the pages.
The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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