Books: A Haunting Zimbabwe Memoir

The wall around the Harare cemetery is gone. Corn grows among the graves. From the soiled clumps of paper and the fetid smell, it's clear the burial ground in Zimbabwe is being used as an open-air toilet. The garden of remembrance is still shaded by wild musasa trees, but the brass plaques inscribed with the names of the cremated are missing—every single one. Thieves melted them down, explains a cemetery worker, "to make brass handles for coffins for the people who died of this AIDS."

Peter Godwin's account of this 2002 visit to his sister's tomb comes midway through "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun," his memoir about his family in southern Africa. It is one of many poignant moments in a book that serves as both a stark chronicle of the devastation wreaked by President Robert Mugabe and the pain of a son trying to care for his aging parents. Godwin, 49, shuttles between New York and Harare as his father's health deteriorates and his mother's hip collapses. Each visit is complicated by his country's decline: the lack of drugs to treat his father's heart attack, the shortage of artificial joints for his mother's transplant and the AIDS fears that make her refuse a blood transfusion. When his father finally dies, Godwin finds that the local crematorium is out of butane gas and no one else will help. "I'm sorry," says the local Hindu leader. "We can't burn whites." But Godwin persuades the man to declare his father an honorary Hindu so he can use their traditional pyre himself.

Of course, any story of southern Africa has to be seen through the prism of race, and Godwin makes no apologies for his focus on color. He tells the story of a white American who leaves Zimbabwe after employees' greed and tribal superstition stymie his efforts to help black villagers grow pepper to stop elephants from eating their crops. He has more personal tales as well: the Godwins' black housekeeper brings thugs to their house to extort money, and their black gardener shows scant appreciation when the family pays for his daughter's private-school fees. Whites, Godwin says, may never feel securely rooted on the continent again. "A white in Africa is like a Jew everywhere—on sufferance, watching warily, waiting for the next great tidal swell of hostility," he says.

In an earlier memoir, "Mukiwa," Godwin described growing up in Zimbabwe when it was still called Rhodesia. "Crocodile"—which takes its name from an African superstition that a solar eclipse occurs when a crocodile consumes the sun—revisits the country two decades later, when Mugabe's mismanagement and disastrous land reforms have sent it spiraling into crisis. Life expectancy has almost halved—to 33—since he won office in 1980. The economy, too, is in free fall. Hyperinflation makes a mockery of the currency. When a stamp rises to 2,300 Zimbabwean dollars (about US$1.15), Godwin's middle-class family stops sending Christmas cards.

These accounts aren't new, but part of the strength of Godwin's memoir is his detailed narrative of how mobs forced white farmers out of their homes yet left the soil uncultivated. The 80-year-old Dubble Draper hurls herself at eight men—one wielding an ax—who attacked her daughter in their farmhouse. The intruders leave, only to spend the night outside beating on a large drum and chanting "Kill the Drapers!" The Bayleys, ages 79 and 89, barricade themselves in their house for weeks while their racehorses and pigs starve, die and rot outside. Police escort an animal-welfare official onto their property to rescue their dogs but refuse to help the couple leave the house because they consider their situation a "political matter."

Godwin doesn't want his book seen solely as a work about Zimbabwe. "It's about the idea of home, about identity, about family secrets," he tells NEWSWEEK. One such secret: the discovery that his father is not a British Christian, but a Polish Jew who lost his mother and sister in the Holocaust. His father's childhood upheaval is part of the reason the parents insist on staying in a crumbling adopted country. But "Crocodile" isn't just about Godwin, or his country. The question of whether a white African is an ideal or an oxymoron goes to the heart of one of the world's most difficult problems: can ethnic strife ever be stopped?

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