Grieving Rhodie story


Title: When A Crocodile Eats the Sun (2006)

Author: Peter Godwin

Publisher: Picador ISBN: 978-1-770-010086-2

“HE came with nothing in his pockets and built an empire.” Peter Godwin’s “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun” can be summed as the quest of a man to establish an identity in a place he is struggling to call home. It is the story of the writer’s journey back to Africa, the land of his birth, the land he assumes for generations his children will call home. There is an immediate sense of nostalgia on the writer’s part because for the first time that he can remember, they are a people displaced. The land reform programme is taking place and the question that looms before the white man is that of identity; where does he belong? Godwin was born in Harare, then Salisbury in 1957, is now based in New York and is married with three children. He was a police officer in Rhodesia and then studied Law in England before becoming a journalist. When the war ended and independence came in 1980, the country welcomed this transition. The white man could stay and racial lines erased, or so the people thought? It was always a case of ‘them’ and ‘us’ between the blacks and the whites. When the ‘warvits’ as Godwin calls them in his story, began to take back the land by force, some white farmers declared, Lord forbid, they could not give up the inheritance of their fathers to the blacks. The writer acknowledges the coming of independence had diminished the divide between whites and blacks until the land reform programme of year 2000. But right through the story before 2000, one can detect underlying currents between the two races, one restless and the other weary. Of interest is the writer’s view of the continent and the home he claims to love. For example, his assumption that almost all Africans are either dying of Aids or going to, later confirmed by their black gardener, lsaac, among others. The writer does not want to deliberate on the various theories on the origin of the pandemic but rather that Zimbabwe’s sending of soldiers to Congo had something to do with it. When his father is hospitalised, he would rather have a white doctor attend to him and only consents to an African doctor after he is told he studied in England. The Government then issues a statement that those with dual citizenship should renounce them and decide whether they are Zimbabwean or other nationalities. This is a further blow to the writer who at that time is dealing with the illness of his father and about to discover his father’s hidden Polish ancestry. Godwin, who feels persecuted, equates the Zimbabwean Government to the Nazi regime and the whites to the Semites. The parents decide that one take up British citizenship and the other a Zimbabwean so they can vote. In a sense, the writer is saying that they are Zimbabwean citizens whose home really will be England, they love Zimbabwe but can never understand the people they share citizenship with. White farmers like Rob Webb, to the writer, are interested in the welfare of their workers, because they built a primary school for the labourers’ children and a fully staffed clinic. The writer continues to point fingers at the Government and the black elite that is supposedly enriching itself on the backs of the black masses. To the white farmer his workers would rather die with him than join those who are clamouring for their inheritance as Sani, an evicted farm worker, laments: “I was born at the farm, grew up at the farm, went to school on the farm, my father died on the farm. All we know is farming. That is what we want to do again” (p184). At this point it would seem the writer is contradicting himself. He is saying the school is there to produce farm labourers, nothing more. Is that all that he can dream about himself and his children? The title of the book is derived from the metaphor of the solar eclipse, the crocodile eating the sun. Hence when it eats the sun it means madness and bad times come upon the land. To Godwin the crocodile in this context might refer to President Mugabe. The writer describes labourers slashing the grass as “keeping Africa at bay”, symbolising the European desire of ‘taming’ Africa. Peter Godwin’s novel opens with a significant story that the writer claims he was told by a Zulu Prince in South Africa. The story tells of a time when the British and the Zulu were at war and the Zulus slaughtered the white pioneers and they found in one of the tents a young white man writing in the midst of the war. When asked what he was doing he said he was writing for his people. Godwin’s intended audience are the former Rhodesians. “When the Crocodile Eats the Sun” is therefore a Rhodesian story written by a Rhodesian for his fellow grieving Rhodesians scattered around the world. The shocking thing about it is that it shows the same ignorance that white men had about the black man more than 100 years ago.


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