When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

A Memoir of Africa


By Peter Godwin

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After his father’s heart attack in 1984, Peter Godwin began a series of pilgrimages back to Zimbabwe, the land of his birth, from Manhattan, where he now lives. On these frequent visits to check on his elderly parents, he bore witness to Zimbabwe’s dramatic spiral downwards into the jaws of violent chaos, presided over by an increasingly enraged dictator. And yet long after their comfortable lifestyle had been shattered and millions were fleeing, his parents refuse to leave, steadfast in their allegiance to the failed state that has been their adopted home for 50 years.

Then Godwin discovered a shocking family secret that helped explain their loyalty. Africa was his father’s sanctuary from another identity, another world.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is a stirring memoir of the disintegration of a family set against the collapse of a country. But it is also a vivid portrait of the profound strength of the human spirit and the enduring power of love.


Copyright © 2006 by Peter Godwin

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group USA

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10169

Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroupUSA.com

First eBook Edition: April 2008

Map by George W. Ward

ISBN: 978-0-316-03209-4

Also by Peter Godwin


A White Boy in Africa

Wild at Heart:

Man and Beast in Southern Africa


The Three of Us: A New Life in New York


"Rhodesians Never Die":

The Impact of War and Political Change on White Rhodesia, c. 1970–1980



For the next generation

Hugo, Thomas, Holly, and Xanthe


MY FATHER IS NOW more than an hour late. We sit on a mossy stone bench under a giant fig tree, waiting for him. We have finished the little Chinese thermos of coffee that my mother prepared, and the sandwiches.

Tapera looks up. The motion pleats the base of his shaven skull into an accordion of glistening brown flesh.

"At last," he says. "He is arrived."

The car, long and low and sinister, glides slowly toward us, only the black roof visible above the reef of elephant grass. It passes us and then backs up into position.

Keith jumps out of the passenger side.

"Sorry we're late," he says. "We were stopped at a police roadblock up on Rotten Row. They wanted to check inside. Can you believe it?"

He hands me a clipboard. "Sign here and here."

The driver reaches down to unlatch the tailgate. It opens with a gentle hydraulic sigh. Inside is a steel coffin. Together we slide it out and carry it over to the concrete steps. Keith unlatches the lid to reveal a body tightly bound in a white linen winding-sheet.

"Why don't you take the top," he says.

I ease one hand under the back of my father's head and my other arm under his shoulders, and I give him a last little hug. He is cool and surprisingly soft to my touch. The others arrange themselves along his body, and on Keith's count we lift it out of the coffin.

We shuffle up the concrete stairs that lead to the top of the iron crib. We have woven fresh green branches through its black bars. And on top of the tiers of logs inside it, we have placed a thick bed of pine needles and garnished it with fragrant pine shavings. Upon this bed we lay my father down.

Gently, Tapera lifts Dad's head to place a small eucalyptus log under his neck as a pillow. As he does so the shroud peeks open at a fold, and I get a sudden, shocking glimpse of my father's face. His jaw, grizzled with salt-and-pepper stubble; the little dents on his nose where his glasses rested; his mustache, slightly shaggy and unkempt now; the lines of his brow relaxed at last in death. And then, as his head settles back, the shroud stretches shut again, and he is gone.

Tapera is staggering up the steps with a heavy musasa log. He places it on top of the body.

"Huuuh." My father exhales one last loud breath with the weight of it.

"It is necessary," Tapera says quietly, "to hold the body down in case . . ." He pauses to think if there is a way to say this delicately. "In case it explodes because of the buildup of the gases." He looks unhappily at the ground. "It happens sometimes, you know."

Keith slides the empty coffin back into the hearse and drives away down the lane, where it is soon swallowed up again by the green gullet of grass.

The old black grave digger, Robert, has his hand in front of me now. His palm is yellow and barnacled with calluses. He is offering me a small Bic lighter made of fluorescent blue plastic.

"It is traditional for the son to light the fire," says Tapera, and he nods me forward.

I stroke my father's brow gently through the shroud, kiss his forehead. Then I flick the lighter. It fires up on my third trembling attempt, and I walk slowly around the base of the trolley, lighting the kindling. It crackles and pops as the flames take hold and shiver up the tower of logs to lick at the linen shroud. Quickly, before the cloth burns away to reveal the scorched flesh beneath, Tapera hands me a long metal T-bar and instructs me to place it against the back of the trolley, while he does the same next to me. We both heave at it. For a moment the trolley remains stuck on its rusty rails. Then it groans into motion and squeaks slowly toward the jaws of the old redbrick kiln a few yards away.

"Sorry it's so difficult," says Tapera, breathing heavily with the effort. "The wheel bearings are shot."

The flaming pyre enters the kiln and lurches to rest against the buffers. Robert, the grave digger, clangs shut the cast-iron doors and pulls down the heavy latch to lock them.

We all squint up into the brilliant blue sky to see if the fire is drawing. A plume of milky smoke flows up from the chimney stack, up through the green and red canopy of the overhanging flame tree.

"She is a good fire," says Tapera. "She burns well."


July 1996

I AM ON ASSIGNMENT in Zululand for National Geographic magazine when I get the news that my father is gravely ill.

It is night, and I am sitting around a fire with Prince Galenja Biyela. I am sitting lower than he is to show due respect. Biyela is ninety-something — he doesn't know exactly — tall and thin and straight backed, with hair and beard quite white. Around his shoulders, he has draped a leopard skin in such a way that the tail lies straight down his chest, like a furry necktie. A yard of mahogany shin gleams between his tattered sneakers and the cuffs of his trousers. His long fingers are closed around the gnarled head of a knobkerrie, a cudgel.

"All is well," he declares.

It is his only English phrase. He speaks in classical Zulu, his words almost Italianate, lubricated by vowels at either end.

His tribal acolytes start chanting his praise names.

"You are the bull that paws the earth," they call.

"Your highness," they sing, "we will bow down to the one who growls."

Prince Biyela's grandfather, Nkosani — the small king — of the Black Mamba regiment, was the hero of Isandlwana, the battle in which the Zulus famously trounced the mighty British Empire in 1879. Tonight, the old prince wishes to revel in the glory days, to relive the humbling of the white man.

He tells me how the British watched in awe as twenty-five thousand Zulu warriors stepped over the skyline and began to advance, chanting all the while, and stopping every so often to stomp the ground in unison, sending a tremor through the earth that could be felt for miles. He tells me how the impi, the Zulu regiments, were armed with short stabbing spears, ixlwa, a word you pronounce by pulling your tongue off the roof of your mouth, a word that deliberately imitates the sucking sound made by a blade when it's pulled out of human flesh.

As the warriors advanced, he says, their places on the ridge above were taken by thousands of Zulu women, urging on their army in the traditional way by ululating, an eerie high-pitched keening that filled the air.

Biyela tells me how the Black Mamba regiment was cut down by withering gunfire until, he says, after nearly two hours, the force "was as small as a sparrow's kidney," and the remaining men were on their bellies, taking cover. And how his grandfather, Nkosani, seeing what was happening, strode up to the front line, dressed in all his princely paraphernalia — his ostrich plume headdress and his lion claw necklaces — and berated them. Electrified by his example, the young warriors leaped up and again surged forward, overwhelming the men of the British line, even as Nkosani was felled by a British sniper with a single shot to the head.

And in the final stages of the battle, when the handful of surviving British soldiers had run out of bullets, a most unusual event occurred. The moon passed in front of the sun, and the earth grew dark, like night. And the Zulu impi stopped their killing while this eclipse took place. But when the light returned, they resumed the bloodletting.

Biyela tells me that night how his grandfather's warriors, having overrun the main British camp, dashed from tent to tent mopping up the stragglers — the cooks and the messengers and the drummer boys — until they crashed into one tent to find a newspaper correspondent sitting at his campaign table, penning his report.

"Just like you are now," he says to me, and his acolytes all laugh until Biyela raises his hand for silence.

"They said to him, 'Hau! What are you doing in here, sitting at a table? Why aren't you out there fighting?' And this man, he was a local white who could speak some Zulu, he said, 'I am writing a report on the battle, for my people.'

"?'Oh,' they said, 'all right.' And they left him.

"But soon afterward, when they heard that my grandfather Nkosani had been shot, they ran back to the tent and said to the journalist there, 'Now that our induna [leader] has been killed, there is no point in making a report anymore,' and with that they killed him."

Biyela's men nod. I keep writing.

At the end, according to the few British soldiers who escaped, the Zulus went mad with bloodlust, killing even the horses and the mules and the oxen. They disemboweled each dead British soldier so that his spirit could escape his body and not haunt his killer. And if an enemy soldier had been seen to be particularly brave, the impi cut out his gallbladder and sucked on it, to absorb the dead man's courage, and bellowed, "Igatla!" — "I have eaten!"

And that night Biyela tells me how, once the battlefield fell quiet, a great wail was heard from the retinue of the Zulu women, as they mourned their dead. And this wail moved like a ripple through village after village until finally it reached the Zulu capital, Ulundi, fifty miles distant.

And here, Prince Biyela ends his telling, choosing not to dwell on what followed the Zulu victory. For the eclipse of the sun was a bad portent, and it drew down terrible times — the British re-inforced and quickly snuffed out the independent Zulu nation. But still their spirit was not entirely doused. Their ferocity was merely curbed, and there was a sullen dignity to their defeat. It is said that before they would sign the surrender proclamation, one old induna stood and said to Sir Garnet Wolseley, "Today we will admit that we are your dogs, but you must first write it there, that the other tribes are the fleas on our backs."

Prince Biyela pauses to gulp another shot of the Queen's tears, as the Zulus call Natal gin, and the silence is jarred by a ring tone.

"uMakhalekhukhwini," says one of his acolytes — it means "the screaming in the pocket," Zulu for cell phone — and they all grope around in the dark in their jackets and bags. It turns out to be mine. I reach in to cut it off, but it's my parents' number in Zimbabwe, eight hundred miles to the north. They never call just to chat. I excuse myself.

My mother's voice sounds strained. "It's your father," she says. "He's had a heart attack. I think you'd better come home."


July 1996

THAT NIGHT I climb up out of the valley to my car, which is parked on the red-basalt plateau above. Trumpeter hornbills, disturbed from their sleep, call as I pass by, a sound like an enraged cat's screech. The hillside is peppered with thorny leafed aloe, a plant sacred to the Zulu. They dig their graves under aloes because these succulents are poisonous to hyenas, which might otherwise dig up the bodies and eat them. Many of the aloes here mark the graves of Zulu warriors felled at Isandlwana.

From my school days in rural Zimbabwe come fragments of a gory Kipling poem. It is called "The Hyaenas," and it starts like this:

After the burial-parties leave

And the baffled kites have fled

The wise hyaenas come out at eve

To take account of our dead.

How he died and why he died

Troubles them not a whit

They snout the bushes and stones aside

And dig till they come to it.

They are only resolute they shall eat

That they and their mates shall thrive,

And they know that the dead are safer meat

Than the weakest thing alive.

"When I die," I told my mother, after learning the poem at the age of nine or ten, "will you make sure you cremate me?"

"Good heavens, don't be silly," she said brightly. "You're not going to die. And anyway, we're going to die before you. But no one's going to die yet. Not for a long, long time, anyway."

But now, this is that long, long time away. And soon, I expect, I will have to foil Kipling's hyenas on my father's behalf.

I drive fast through the night toward Johannesburg, where I will catch the plane home. Along my left flows the dark towering spine of mountains, the range the Zulus call uKhahlamba, "the Barrier of the Spears," though in the atlas they bear a more recent Afrikaans name, Drakensberg (Dragon) Mountains. I am familiar with these mountains, with this country. As a boy, growing up in Zimbabwe, I used to come down here occasionally on vacation. The first snow I ever saw was on these peaks, bright white upon these dark spear tips. And I came back here as a foreign correspondent for five years beginning in 1986, covering what turned out to be the death throes of apartheid. Since then, I have been based out of London, though I come back often to Africa, and I know in my bones that I will return here to live one day, that this is still my home. Contemplating my father's death, I realize how seldom we have lived in the same place. How remote I have been from him all my life. I have been a largely absent son, at boarding school from the age of six, then military service, university in England, working abroad.

As I drive, I dial my mother to make sure my father is still alive.

His heart is racing at nearly two hundred beats a minute, she says — that's faster than the pulse of a teenage sprinter, unsustainably high for a man in his seventies. They've tried everything to lower it, but he's just not responding. My mother is a doctor, so she knows about these things.

"Is there anything I can bring?" I ask.

"No," she says. "Just get up here as quickly as you can."

AHEAD OF ME, a golden glow slowly appears. Soon, this sodium dome obscures all but the brightest stars. It is Johannesburg. The sun rising behind me catches on the latticed steel headgear above the gold mines, and shimmers the glass of the high-rise offices in the city center. On my left, from the elevated highway that swoops across the city, I can see Soweto, a township I knew well when it was burning and barricaded. Dawn is heralded there with the switching off of the stadium-style floodlights perched on tall gantries around the township.

The screaming in the pocket starts again.

"He's still hanging on," my mother quickly reassures me. She has called to tell me of a new class of drug she has just heard about, one for exactly this condition. "It's not available here, but it might be in South Africa," she says with a sigh, and that's all it takes. Now I have a task, a way to help my father.

I CHECK INTO the Grace Hotel in northern Johannesburg and sit with the open Yellow Pages, making calls to pharmacies and hospitals. I recruit various friends to help, but we get nowhere. Some say the drug has not been approved yet. Others say it is not yet commercially available. No one in South Africa appears to stock it.

But seven hours later, I am on the way to the airport, and on the seat beside me is a small white insulated box containing rows of precious glass vials. Dozens of phone calls tracked down the new drug at a private clinic in the northern suburbs, where it is being tested as part of a pilot study. In a stroke of serendipity, the pharmacist there happens to be a Zimbabwean, and she has bent the rules to save my father's life.

I am very late for the last flight of the day to Harare, driving feverishly fast, fearless, invincible. I cannot die while my father is on his own deathbed; I am statistically immune. Coming off the highway, I run a red light and accelerate away.

MY FATHER'S EYES are shut. His head, resting on the thin hospital pillow, is monumental, a head fit for Mount Rushmore. He is seventy-two, but his hair is still thick, drawn back off his wide sloping brow in a solid silver spume. Usually tamed by some sort of pomade, it has become unruly, sprouting out in small pewter horns over his ears.

He pants fast and shallow, like a hot hound. The cadence of the electronic heart monitor is all wrong, my mother explains. His pulse rate is still twice what it should be. Nurses pad around us on the chipped linoleum floor in their laceless sneakers. One unbuttons the collar of my father's pajamas so she can get at his heart-monitor connection. The buttons below his wattle open to reveal a ruddy V, tidemark of the sun. It is the tattoo of the rooinek, the English who came to Africa, mocked by Boers for our pale skin's propensity to burn in the sun. She buttons him back up and moves to adjust the IV in the vein on the back of his hand, settling his arm on the overdarned bedspread. That arm bears more stigmata of the white man in Africa: solar keratosis lesions that have slowly developed over years of working outdoors under the tropical sun. My father, in his methodical scientific way, had explained that to me, as a child. The rays of the African sun, so directly overhead, pass through less atmosphere and so far less of its dangerous ultraviolet spectrum is filtered out. My sister Georgina and I joke that if you ask Dad the time, he will tell you how a watch works. He knows how everything works, and if it doesn't, he can fix it.

GEORGINA IS TEN years younger than me, with long dark hair, a marble-white complexion that she is careful to keep out of the African sun, a mordant sense of humor, and a twenty-a-day habit. She needs a cigarette now, so we go outside and she lights up a local Madison. She exhales and looks around the parking lot. "Remember when Dad got caught pissing in a bottle?" she says. He had been parked here, reading a book, waiting for my mother, who works here, and needed to pee. As he had suffered from prostate problems and the nearest lavatory was a fair distance, down several long hospital corridors, he had come equipped with a wide-necked plastic bottle with a screw top for just this purpose. Midstream, there was a tap at the window. He looked up to see a female social worker from the hospital, a friend of ours, who'd wandered over to say hello. Clutching the bottle between his thighs and drawing his book discreetly over it, he rolled down the window and the woman started chatting. Soon the urge to pee became overwhelming — he had been interrupted midstream — so he began risking little surreptitious spurts, until finally she departed, just as he was getting cramps in his thighs from clutching the bottle between them.

It feels good to laugh out loud.

The parking lot is baking hot in the afternoon sun and strewn with rubbish: bleached mango pips and corncobs and fibrous pulp of chewed sugarcane. Minibuses jostle for passengers, hawkers ply tiny packets of cookies and half-loaves of bread, and some are boiling up large black pots of sadza, cornmeal porridge that is the culinary mainstay of this part of Africa. Rolled-up grass mats stand against the trees; there is a whole community camping out here, the relatives of the sick, of the dying.

A knot of women burst through the glass door behind us. They slump onto the curb, weeping and rocking on their haunches. Some have babies tied to their backs in white crocheted shawls. Their grief is raw and fierce, unmediated. A couple of men in ragged jackets stand by, embarrassed and self-conscious, and a gaggle of bewildered toddlers with mango-smeared mouths look up with wide almond eyes.

Georgina and I move off to stand under a cassia tree. Dad had refused an ambulance, she tells me, so they had reclined a seat in the car and laid him in it to drive to the hospital. On the way, Mum realizes they are about to run out of fuel, so they pull in to a service station to fill up. One by one, the attendant, Mum, Georgina, all feverishly wrestle to get the fuel cap open while Dad lies groaning.

Finally Mum shakes Dad by the shoulder and his eyes open. She tells him that he has to put his collapse on hold. They haul him out and support him as he staggers to the fuel cap, which he quickly undoes in a deft maneuver. Then he collapses back into the car, and the emergency drive resumes.

Though my father's life is clearly at stake, it is a matter of honor that he be treated here at the Parirenyatwa, this cash-strapped government hospital named after the country's first black doctor. To take him to the smarter private hospital would be, my mother insisted, a vote of no confidence in the Parirenyatwa staff. My father agreed entirely. So they had brought him into the emergency department of the Parirenyatwa where the nurses and doctors — my mother's colleagues — rushed to admit him to the coronary care unit. For once, Georgina says, the elevator even worked. But before they would let him into the ward, Dad lay for ages on a gurney in the corridor gasping like a grounded guppy.

When he was finally wheeled in and connected to a cardiac monitor and an IV, my mother asked the nurse, a woman in her late fifties, about the delay. She is an ex-guerrilla, a so-called bush nurse, one of those who at the end of the civil war — the war to end white rule — was inducted, after top-up training, as a full-fledged nurse at the insistence of the new government. She looked at the floor out of embarrassment. But my mother had treated her at the staff clinic on several occasions, and they are friends, and finally the nurse looked up.

"It was the head nurse who made us wait," she said. "She wanted to make sure the ward was clean and tidy and that there was a proper bedspread for Mr. Godwin's bed. But there were no bedspreads in the linen room — they have all been stolen — so we had to go searching in other wards."

So my father nearly died in their pursuit of a bedspread. But now, at least, he has a chance. Now he has the new wonder drug I tracked down in Johannesburg. A drug unavailable to the rest of the patients at the Parirenyatwa. An expensive drug. A First World drug.

I SIT BY DAD'S bed, dozing. When I glance up I see his bleached blue eyes looking at me. He attempts a smile that comes out as a lopsided grimace and reaches weakly for my hand.

"Thanks for coming, Pete." It's all he has the strength to croak.

I squeeze his hand.

Pete. He's the only person in the world who still calls me that. Very occasionally, if he's feeling particularly loquacious, he calls me Pedro.

Our uncharacteristic moment of intimacy is interrupted by a sudden roar from a patient across the aisle. My father turns in panic, rattling his IV against its metal stand. Low guttural growls and barks of astonishing power burst up from the pit of his wardmate's stomach. I worry that this tumult could tip Dad's failing heart over the edge. There are no nurses in sight, so I get up to see what I can do. A black man in his twenties is straining to rise from his bed, the sinews in his neck cording with the effort. He looks immensely strong. He sees me and bares his teeth, growls again, and redoubles his attempt to get free, twisting up and dislodging his bedding. He is naked and as well muscled as a Nubian wrestler. His wrists and ankles are bound to the bedstead with an improvised selection of straps and belts.

The nurse appears next to me. "He has come from Ward Twelve, you know, the psych ward. We call him Lion Man." She giggles. "Now his sedative has worn off and we have no more left. We have no budget." She tests his straps then wanders off again.

I return to my father's bedside to report that Lion Man is securely lashed to his bed and cannot escape to tear us limb from limb. Dad rolls his eyes. I do not tell him that Lion Man's sedatives have just run out.

We will bow down to the one who growls, I remember. One of Prince Biyela's praise names. It already seems like months ago.

MY MOTHER RETURNS with the consulting physician, Dr. Nelson Okwanga. He is a Ugandan. I feel the beginnings of First World panic. I take my mother aside. It is time to assert myself.

"Dad's life's on the line here," I say. "The time for political correctness is over. We must get him the best physician."

She narrows her eyes. "Okwanga is one of the very best," she says. "He qualified in Britain."

Dr. Okwanga bustles about but says little. Then he draws us away from the bedside. In a voice that never rises above a murmur, he says that Dad's condition is no better, that the new drug has not lowered his heart rate yet. He will give it another twelve hours. Then he will have to reevaluate — the word is somehow wreathed with menace.

Later my father is wheeled to see the cardiologist. His name is Dr. Hakim. He is from Sudan. I say nothing. Dr. Hakim is meticulously dressed in a charcoal pin-striped suit and oxblood brogues. He makes my father lie on his side and rigs him up to a machine that videos his heart. On the screen is the blurred gray image of one of my father's heart valves. It looks like the key of a clarinet going up and down. Up and down so fast it is shaking itself to pieces. He is literally going to die of a broken heart.

When he is back in bed, I think of that little clarinet key racing away. And I find I am cheering it on, willing it to slow its frenetic, destructive pace. But he continues to weaken. His life hangs now from the merest trembling filament. Or on the whim of a deity. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."

Although I went to Mass every day at St. George's, a local Jesuit boarding school, I have not prayed in years. The urge to pray now seems ridiculous, a foul-weather religious conversion, Christian only in a crisis. I know that God, any god, will need something in return, a penance for my secular life. I start silently deal making. If my father survives I will . . .what? What will I do? I could stop running around the world and come home to Africa. Come back and spend some time with my father. Get to know him.


On Sale
Apr 10, 2008
Page Count
368 pages
Back Bay Books

Peter Godwin

About the Author

Peter Godwin is the award-winning author of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun and Mukiwa. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, he was educated at Cambridge and Oxford and became a foreign correspondent, reporting from more than 60 countries. Since moving to Manhattan, he has written for National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, and Vanity Fair. He has taught at Princeton and Columbia and received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010.

Learn more about this author