Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Book Review: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

A passionately written memoir about Zimbabwe
Almost 20 years ago I had a white colleague in Hong Kong who was from Zimbabwe. I'd never met anyone from there before and he told me about the beautiful African landscapes and how his parents had a farm there.

But then when President Robert Mugabe began the forced land redistribution in 2000, blacks started to violently take over white farms, including my colleague's parents' piece of land.

People just literally took over their farm they had lived on for generations and the experience so profoundly shocked his father that he had a heart attack and died soon afterwards. His mother, now displaced, had to move to a small apartment where she only had a balcony to tend to her small plants.

My colleague was angry at Mugabe, for destroying what his family had built for decades. He said that the blacks told them to go back to their homeland and he retorted, Where? We are Zimbabwean like you! We were born here -- where else can we go?

Many years later my colleague told me when he went back to Zimbabwe for a trip, he visited what used to be their farm. He said the blacks occupying it were nice enough to let him see it again. There was no malice, but disappointment at what had been done.

I remember feeling my colleague's anger and frustration of what had happened to his family and country, but I didn't fully understand it until I read When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin. It was a book YTSL lent me and it was a powerful read.

Godwin is an author, journalist and former lawyer. In this book he talks about this period when farms were being forcibly taken and documents his family's friends fates, many of them meeting horrific and depressing ends.

He too, like my colleague, writes about his frustration and inability to fully comprehend the irrationality of it all -- farms that were previously profitable, organized and efficiently run by whites -- were all of a sudden taken over by blacks who didn't have much first-hand knowledge or experience in farming and basically ran them into the ground, so there was nothing to harvest, nothing to eat and people resorting to violence and the black market to feed themselves.

Meanwhile inflation jumped exponentially to the point where people had to carry around bricks of cash just for a loaf of bread.

Author and journalist Peter Godwin
Godwin talks lovingly of his parents who immigrated to Zimbabwe to make a new life for themselves and devoted their careers to helping develop the country. However in the end they were hardly thanked for their efforts.

There is another interesting aspect of the story when his aging father cryptically reveals to his son that he is actually a Polish Jew who managed to escape the gas chambers because he went to school in the UK, but is unable to reunite with his father again. Godwin's grandmother and aunt died in the concentration camps.

And so having lost his family, Godwin's father starts a fresh chapter in his life with a new identity with his British-born wife in Zimbabwe. As a result Godwin has a new appreciation for his parents, why his father seemed restrained yet witty and totally in love with his wife.

Godwin also describes his childhood and how he was totally integrated into the culture of Africa, how he grew up learning voodoo chants and the Shona language, the friends he had and of course the natural environment that he so passionately describes.

The title of the book, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, is an African way to explain how eclipses of the sun happen, but also foreshadows other bad things, particularly the forced land redistribution. The memoir was such a powerful read that it was so difficult to put down, the images so vivid, dialogue witty and events thoroughly researched.

I now have a greater appreciation for what my colleague and his family experienced, what upheaval Zimbabwe had gone through and hope that somehow the country will eventually awaken from the madness...


  1. I'm glad you finally read the book and that it had an impact on you.

    I had a white Zimbabwean friend at boarding school and in part because of stories of Zimbabwe, I visited that country back in 1995. While there, I was told that unemployment stood at 50% and definitely could detect some dissatisfaction.

    At the same time, I saw a lot of wonderful things there -- including Victoria Falls and Great Zimbabwe -- and met some really interesting and nice (black) people too. I also remember thinking how much well off economically the country as a whole was from Tanzania, where I was visiting from at the time. I imagine though that these days, it's the other way around.

  2. same story in china when the communists came and consecrated lands from the landowners, tortured them at public trials. there are too much injustice in the world.