A good yarn in Africa

Peter Godwin's memoir of a Zimbabwean childhood is a ripping colonial tale.
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The Independent Culture
Peter Godwin is best known as the Sunday Times stringer in Zimbabwe who exposed the Mugabe government's genocide campaign against the southern Matabele tribe in the mid-1980s. This memoir of his childhood and youth as a mukiwa (whiteface) during the country's messy transition to black rule includes an account of life at a posh Jesuit boarding school which seems to invite comparison with Joyce's Portrait of the Artist. Godwin's work inevitably comes off worst, but the book does demonstrate the vivid readability and the magpie's eye for a telling detail that make him an exceptional journalist.

His mother was chief medical officer for the eastern highland district where his father ran a forestry business. ``I knew more than other children about dead people because I went with my mother when she dug them up and cut them open.'' He noticed that, ``Death could apparently happen to anyone, although obviously it happened mostly to Africans. Whites only tended to die if they were very old. Africans died at any age.''

One white person who did meet a premature end was the Godwins' neighbour Piet Oberholzer, dragged from his car and knifed by terrorists one evening in 1964. The Godwins had driven past a few minutes before the gang blocked the road with boulders, and they still weren't far away when the police call came on the radio. Hanging about at the crime scene while his mother filled in the Sudden Death Docket, five-year-old Godwin ``wondered if perhaps I could have the knife when they'd finished with it.''

The civil war proper did not get going until some years later. For a time, Godwin's mother even drove a 70-mile round trip twice a day taking him to school and back, fearing potholes more than ambushes. In the holidays, Godwin would help out at the clinic, dispensing polio-vaccine sugar cubes or wandering along the queues of patients to see if there were any urgent cases waiting at the back. He remembers Mercy, just 24 and already a mother of six because Shona husbands demanded annual offspring. She browbeat Dr Godwin into prescribing the Pill, unheard of for Africans then, and went on to become the first black family planning counsellor in the region. The terrorists put a bomb under her Land Rover because contraception "was a white man's conspiracy to reduce the black population". Godwin is remarkably understanding about this. The Smith government was on a white immigration drive at the time, which could have led to these fears. At any rate, he doesn't openly put it down to anything as obvious as dick-driven peasant male pride.

There are some fine set-piece recollections: a forest fire; a leopard hunt, and the subsequent negotiations over its body parts; riding the range with Isaac the herdsman, who conversed almost entirely in plonking Shona proverbs and rude folk tales; shining shoes for a black prefect at the Jesuit school, then doing national service to find that black batmen only cared to shine shoes for white officers.

Godwin did his service in the police, considered a better niche than the army, though the work involved was mostly the same, tracking and shooting terrorists. Sometimes the terrorists' trail was easy to follow: ``women impaled on stakes. Whole families burned to death in their own huts''. Sometimes it required the services of a genuine pygmy tracker.

The terrorists, from Shona and Matabele factions, spent most of their time killing each other rather than the security forces. ``I walked around a hut and saw an old woman in a red dress, sitting against the wall... Then I realised her dress had not originally been red, it was soaked in blood. I lifted her head. Her throat had been cut.'' Godwin is careful to blame Smith's white government, for not conceding power fast enough.

He himself had near misses. His later life was charmed in other ways. He got a place to read law at Cambridge, returning after the war to a job with ``a prominent legal firm'' in Harare, just like that, and when the law palled, once he'd worked on the successful defence team in Mugabe's show trials of ``dissidents'', he had no trouble getting freelance work with the London papers. Even when Mugabe tried to have him put away because of the Sunday Times story, a detective tipped him off, explaining, ``I may have a Shona surname but my mother's family is from Matabeleland. Many of my people have been killed there.'' Godwin was safe in Botswana by the time they broke down the door. He was later allowed back, ``as long as I didn't do any reporting.'

Mukiwa is a ripping yarn told with an old hand's professional polish, funny and shocking at once but contriving to avoid any awkward clash of tone. Consider the moment, shortly after Godwin discovered the old mine- shafts full of Matabele bodies, when a drunk Shona general pulled a gun on him in front of the entire foreign press corps: "It was rather a beautiful weapon, I noticed, its handle inlaid with mother-of-pearl... `I am going to kill you,' he announced. `And then you'll be sorry.' `Drink, General?' invited his ADC, and produced the somewhat depleted bottle of Johnnie Walker. The general fumbled around for his tumbler and I slipped away.'