Wednesday, April 23, 2014



Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa

When I was reading Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin, I had a flashback to a ten-year-old version of myself. With my long blond hair tied up in a messy, sweaty ponytail, my chubby round face (I hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet) was red with sunburn and laughter. In the back seat with me was my best friend Caroline. We both stunk like horses and mud covered our riding boots. Our helmets and whips were thrown casually into the front seat. Yes, we both loved horses. But what we loved even more was the weekly ritual of being driven back home from the stable to Spartanburg, where we could recite to each other the favorite passages of the books or the stories we had read over the week. On any given day, we could be sharing the backseat with 5-10 of our favorite books, melodramatically reading them out loud to each other. 

We were both bookworms to the nth-degree, which sometimes got us into trouble. Two years earlier, instead of doing our math workbook throughout the school year during our “Individual Study Time,” we decided to read instead. (It was then that I discovered that I was quite gifted in the field of mathematics, as I somehow completed a year's worth of math exercises during the single month of May. Unfortunately, this was not the case with my friend.) However, we had similar tastes in almost everything: a love for historical things (hardly any other kids could follow our play time for all the jumping back and forth from the United States Wild West to Victorian England); a mutual hatred for the summer neighborhood swim league (which we both were obliged to do); and a propensity for playing outdoors (I swear, I don’t have one memory of watching a television program with her.) 

Needless to say, when by page 40, I came to the story of Toby the dog and the “Wizard” who kidnapped him, I found myself with an overwhelming desire to travel back in time and share the story with Caroline in our sacred weekly ritual. I understand that it might seem a bit odd that I write so fondly about a book which covers such serious topics as the Rhodesian Bush War and the transition from governance from the British monarchy to a white-minority-led republic to the regime of Robert Mugabe. (Indeed, the book ends with the author being declared an enemy of the state by the Mugabe government after he wrote a journalistic piece, which highlighted ethnic conflict and state-supported violence.) However, this is the beauty of Godwin’s book – in spite of all of these very grave and serious political events, he portrays the situation with such a deep understanding of humanity and deep appreciation for this country. His writing style has a wonderful balance of humor – using long words and going on about stories in a round-about way – but very respectful at the same time. I highly suggest it to anyone searching for an informative, but yet readable account of Africa. 

The book begins when Godwin is still a young boy. Born in a rural part of what was then Southern Rhodesia to white parents, he was able to experience African culture in a firsthand way that many white Rhodesians (especially those who lived in the cities) could not. Fluent in the native Shona language, Godwin grew up between two worlds – the scientific/ordered European one and the mystical/natural African one, which was even evident in his descriptions of the cultures’ respective fairy tales: “They weren’t like the English fairy tales I’d read which were fairly obvious and easy to understand. Shona ones were oblique and puzzling. Often they were deliciously rude and frenziedly violent.” (page 124)

However, in the midst of his childhood simplicity of heart and mind, Godwin makes some very serious observations – from the death of his neighbors by the terrorist Crocodile Gang to noting the inequality of medical care, when making rounds with his mother, a medical doctor. He is excellent at presenting these events in a way, so that the reader recognizes the gradual build-up of political events and how this build-up can ultimately transform one’s life.
Describing what was perhaps one of the most momentous occasions of Southern Rhodesia’s history as, “Apparently, while Fatty Slabbert and I were bickering, Ian Smith declared Unilateral Independence, UDI, which meant we were no longer part of the British Empire. He had done it because the Queen wanted us to be ruled by the blacks” (page 71-2), he shows how detached children were from the situation. Naturally, of course, as he grows older, he cannot escape from his country’s politics and its guerilla war. Forced to serve his country, Godwin found himself in the coveted position of a police officer instead of an ordinary foot solider and was sent to serve in a rural community. However, instead of just ensuring the resolution of conflicts, he found himself fighting (much to his dismay) in a civil war. How he recounts his transformation from the mentality of an inquisitive child to the mentality of a soldier is truly fascinating. 

Only after being forced to enter the service, did he realize “that the war we were about to enter was much more intensive than was being publicly admitted, and that it was probably unwinnable.” (page 236) The nature of the war was guerrilla-based and infinitely complicated, utilizing an unorganized and diverse assortment of black Africans from different tribes and languages, but all united by the one goal of overthrowing the government. At first desiring to make a real difference, Godwin attempted to create a community of trust between the law enforcement and the local community, utilizing black African officers. Affectionately called Mukiwa by the village’s children, he later found this fragile trust ripped apart by a foolish military maneuver by a section of the Rhodesian army. Frustrated and believing all of his work in vain, he managed to leave his country to pursue studies in Cambridge – only to find himself soon returning when his civilian sister was killed in the conflict.

In 1980, however, everything changed as Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party gained control of the government. Caught up in the hope for a new country, Godwin describes the enthusiasm as permeating throughout all of the Zimbabwean society: “There were thousands, whites and blacks, who came back from abroad to take part in the bold new experiment, to help create a multiracial society that would be the envy of Africa. They called us ‘returnees’ and we believed in the government’s policy of reconciliation – between races and between tribes.” (page 327) Working first in law and later as a journalist, Godwin soon saw the short-lived peace die and by 1982, the ethnic and racial equilibrium had been ripped apart. 

After exposing state-sponsored violence in the Matabeleland region, Godwin found himself declared an enemy of the state and was forced to leave Zimbabwe. This book does not go into the modern regime of Robert Mugabe, but provides an incredible insight into the political atmosphere which gave rise to his regime. I look forward to reading Peter Godwin’s other books about Zimbabwe, especially The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe. (And I promise you, once I read them, I will write more reviews!)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

1 comment:

  1. Vusal MammadrzayevMay 14, 2014 at 4:17 PM

    Hi Emily. Hopefully you did not forget your pen friend from Azerbaijan with whom you had discussion. it is a long time we lost contact and once i wrote you an email, but no response from you. My email address is I will be glad to hear from you and feel free to write me