Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun


Today I burnt a pot and overcooked the beans. I am yawning and sleepy. I am suffering from slight vagueness and staring into the distance. This time it is not from staying up dancing with Germans, but from staying up reading a great book. I finished it at 01:30 this morning, which is fine in theory except that Ollie invariably rises 06:00. Four and a half hours’ sleep is not really enough for me to function usefully, but the book was worth it.

So, what kept me gripped and awake until the early hours of this morning was Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, the story of Zimbabwe’s recent tragic decline. Once the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe is now a devastated country, where the life expectancy is 33, where a packet of mince costs thousands of Zim dollars and where crops no longer thrive. Godwin is a New York-based journalist, but he grew up in Zimbabwe and his story is based on his frequent visits home to see his aging parents. It combines a bleak overview of how badly things are going wrong politically with moving accounts of his parents’ increasing frailty. It begins and ends with the death of his father, George.

We honeymooned in Zimbabwe in 1994, and were so impressed with its success in achieving genuine racial harmony (something which was a mere pipe dream in South Africa at the time), that we talked about moving to Harare. Godwin describes his homeland as the “Switzerland of Africa”, a ridiculously peaceful country with a strong economy surrounded by nations rife with war, civil war and racial injustice. His book details how in ten short years, Zimbabwe became one of the poorest countries in the world. The title, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, is the English translation of the Shona expression for an eclipse. It also aptly describes what has happened in Zim: the country has been eaten by a dictator and his thugs.

I was particularly moved by Godwin’s concerns about his parents, because of course I worry about my own. As things deteriorate in the country, their life becomes more and more difficult. Having lost one daughter to an ambush during the country’s civil war, both their other children emigrate. Their pensions are reduced to funny money, they struggle to afford groceries, their retired housekeeper – who they had treated as a member of the family – returns with a bunch of goons to try to extort more money from them, and their increasing ill-health means they have to put their lives in the care of doctors and hospitals that barely function.

Godwin’s empathy is not only for his own family. He describes the hundreds of thousands of farm workers who become refugees when farms are “redistributed”, the struggles of the opposition party against an increasingly repressive state, people who cannot feed their families, the fate of animals left behind on farms, the millions dying of AIDS. It is a bleak picture.

Of course, as a South African, I feel very tied to Zimbabwe. Cousins and friends grew up there, I know many Zimbabwean immigrants who are trying to make a new life in my homeland. What I have to hope is that South Africa’s future does not hold the same bleakness. I have to hope that the “Rainbow Nation” is not just a pretty metaphor, that the rule of law will hold, that it will never became a one-party state, that the current land redistribution system will continue to work, that the medical system won’t be ruined, that the recent government anti-retroviral programme will take hold, and that white people who have given their lives to South Africa – as Godwin’s parents gave theirs to Zim – won’t become second-class citizens. I also hope that the ANC government will never turn on South Africa’s population the way Mugabe has turned on his, that they will treat the people who voted them into power with respect and that they will never, never try to eat the sun.


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

15 thoughts on “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

  1. I remember when my A-level law class got into a discussion about Zimbabwe, about 6 years ago, specifically about his agricultural policy. It’s heartbreaking and shameful what Mugabe has done to Zimbabwe.

  2. Half of me really wants to read that. The other half knows I’d cry through the entire thing.

    it’s incredible how little time and effort it takes to break a country.

  3. Charlotte. Happy you finished the book — a wonderful one at that. Although, heartbreaking. I had read a blurb about this in the The Economist. I’d like to know 8 things you know — so I tagged you.

  4. Imani, it is both those things. History will not look kindly on Robert Mugabe, and neither will it look kindly on the present South African government who are not doing anything to stop the madness.

    Thordora, I tend to cry easily and for some reason I didn’t, but I was incredibly moved.

    Susie, it is a wonderful book.

  5. I share your concern. The ironic part is how fast we forget how it was before things went wrong it those unfortunate countries. Who remembers how Zimbabwe was before? Who remembers how Beyrut, Pyongyang, Rangoon were before?
    I do not think I’d have enough strength and courage to hang on through a Mugabe or a Kim Il Sung era.

  6. This sounds like a great book.

  7. I worry about supermum’s sister in the same way – she lives in Kenya and isn’t looking good. The book sounds very impressive and now my exams are over, I might finally have time to dig out some of the reads you’ve been recommending.

  8. I mean “it” isn’t looking good. Not supermum’s sister.

  9. This month’s Vanity Fair magazine (my regular guilty pleasure reading) is all about Africa. I have to admit it’s a continent that I know very little about. I was shocked to read that Kinshasa has 9 million people…I guess that other than Cairo and perhaps Johannesburg I never thought of Africa as having large populations. Just another instance of ignorant American insularity I guess.

    It’s hard to know where the solutions to these problems will come from. Foreign aid so often is diverted and stolen, and aid doesn’t itself solve the inherent problems like dictatorships, civil wars, and AIDS. It’s always been an assumption in the US that everyone wants to be democratic and capitalist eventually, but do they? And if so, how do they get there?

  10. This sounds like an excellent book …

  11. A university friend of ours came from Zimbabwe and her stories over the years have become more and more terrible. It must be an awful worry to people who have loved ones out there, and such an awful thing to happen to a beautiful, resource-rich country.

  12. What an agonizing disappointment Mugabe turned out to be. If you have not read Doris Lessing’s amazing memoir, African Laughter, it’s a perfect companion to Godwin’s book.

  13. Hi Charlotte, having grown up in Zim and having seen my father work his heart out for 30 years and now be in a situation where the Zimbabwean government refuses to send his pension (now worth about 50 euro cents) out of the country and where his medical aid refuses to pay for any kind of treatment, I find the situation so tragic. However as I constantly remind my nearly 80 year old father, as he fights with the depression of seeing his lifes work result in nothing, at least he has us, the people who got out in time, to support him – imagine the millions of mainly black and some white, zimbabweans who have nowhere else to go, who have no one to support them, what of them? If you want to hear more about the daily tragedy that is Zimababwe you should sign up for Cathy Buckles newsletter . If you liked this book you should also read Mukiwa, I loved the book as it brought back so many beautiful memories of a fantastic childhood. By the way did you know there is an animal called a Charlotte Otter? A queen Charlotte Otter to be exact! Give my regards to Thomas. Riccardo

  14. Thanks for a great review Charlotte. I have had this book on my “to read” list for a while although, as some other commenters have said, I suspect there will be a lot of crying while I’m reading.

    I remember reading Zimbabwean court cases while I was studing for my LLM in South Africa about 11 years ago and some of them were leading human rights decisions – I recall one in particular in which corporal punishment in schools was held to infringe basic human rights – a very enlightened idea at the time. It does not seem possible that things have deteriorated as far as they have. Like you, I live with an unspoken fear that South Africa could head down the same dark road. I don’t think it is a huge possibility, but then neither did people think Zimbabwe, poster-kid of African renaissance, could sink as low as it has. All it takes is one madman at the helm, and sadly I can think of a few in SA politics…

  15. Thanks Jeanne for your considered comments.

    Mr Vellies, whose comments I have deleted: as you predicted, I didn’t publish your words. Had you managed to keep out the sweeping generalisations and the racism, there is a chance I would have.

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