This remarkable book defies simplistic categorization. On its surface, it is a narrative account of an African-born white man’s return visits to his African homeland between 1996 and 2004. The author, journalist Peter Godwin, is a keen observer and compelling writer who has an extraordinary ability to convey powerful emotions without resorting to sentimentality. He is that paragon of the journalist, a true reporter who observes almost everything, writes so that his readers see with his eyes, and allows his readers to find their own emotional responses.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun tells several stories, each of which is powerful in its own way. On one level, the book is a straightforward memoir of Godwin’s many return trips to look after his retired parents in Zimbabwe. As a travel account, the book is full of interest, with details of the complications of getting in and out of that troubled country and fascinating anecdotes about the rigors of everyday survival inside Zimbabwe. On another level, the book is a sober journalistic account of the descent of one of Africa’s most promising countries into poverty and repression under President Robert Mugabe, the nation’s only head of government since independence in 1980. Zimbabwe’s awful decline is one of the most important and ominous developments in recent African history, and Godwin’s book is a valuable firsthand document of that decline. There is, however, still more to When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, and that is the author’s moving voyage of rediscovering his father, who kept secret his true origins throughout most of his life. After Godwin learned his father’s secret, he had to reevaluate his views about his own African background and about white settlers in Africa generally.
Having been born and raised in Zimbabwe, Peter Godwin knows the country intimately and has a deep affection for it that shines through his objective and almost entirely unsentimental prose. During the eight years and approximately ten return trips that his narrative covers, Zimbabwe fell ever deeper into a steep economic decline. That country had been one of Africa’s most prosperous and self-sufficient nations at the time of its independence in 1980. However, by the mid-1990’s, it had reached the bottom of world scales in virtually every economic and quality-of-life index, becoming what Godwin calls “undisputed leader of the comparative economic decline,” with “the world’s fastest shrinking economy.” By 1996, when Godwin paid the first return visit described in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Zimbabwe’s once strong agricultural industry was nearly ruined; basic goods, such as food and fuel, were becoming increasingly difficult to obtain; modern health services were disappearing; and the population’s life-expectancy ratesparticularly among black Africanswere dropping to among the lowest in the world. Meanwhile, hyperinflation was making the national currency nearly worthless, and, as Godwin points out, the country’s foreign reserves were so low that it could not even pay to have new currency printed abroad. These and other factors were causing commerce to regress into barter trade.
In some ways, Zimbabwe’s precipitous economic decline resembles those of Weimar Germany during the early 1920’s and post-World War II Hungary, when hyperinflation nearly destroyed those countries’ economies. However, two things make Zimbabwe’s case different from those of the European nations. First is the fact that much of Zimbabwe’s decline is attributable to the systematic dismantling of the national economic structure by Mugabe’s government, which almost seems intent on self-destruction. The second difference is that Zimbabwe lacks the kind of solidly entrenched infrastructure needed for recovery after Mugabe’s regime is gone.
This is a tragedy of a large order. Before its independence, Zimbabwe had the most diversified economy, most fully developed infrastructure, and most productive agricultural system of any tropical African nation. This was true despite the fact that the nation made its transition to independence almost directly from a devastating civil war and a decade of living under international economic sanctions that had severely restricted external trade. Indeed, sanctions had actually helped make the country more self-sufficient than it would have been otherwise by forcing it to produce goods it could not import. However, the industrial base built up before independence was created and managed by white settlersthe very people whom Mugabe’s government has targeted for removal. At independence, the population of Zimbabwe included about 220,000 white settlers, most of whom were at least second-generation residents of the country. These people controlled the overwhelming bulk of the modern economyfrom factories and mechanized farms to banks and retail stores. Moreover, they also accounted for disproportionate numbers of high-level government bureaucrats, engineers, physicians, and other professionals. By the mid-1990’s, the settler population had dwindled to about half its preindependence level and was significantly shrinking every year. Not surprisingly, the flight of this segment of the population left gaping holes in the economic infrastructure and health services that could not be readily filled by educated black Africans. Indeed, many of Zimbabwe’s most highly educated Africans were fleeing the country to escape political repression.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is a revealing firsthand account of Zimbabwe’s frightening decline. In each chapter in which Godwin describes another return to the country, it is evident that things are worse than they were during his previous visit. Many of his chapters are taken up with moving stories about ousters of the Godwin family’s friends and neighbors from their farms, along with descriptions of his growing concern for his parents’ security, the increasingly desperate condition of unemployed Africans, the runaway prices of ordinary goods,...
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