The most troubling thing about Zimbabwe’s ban on foreign journalists is how devastatingly effective it has turned out to be. In the daily competition for global attention, Zimbabwe is more often than not the sorry loser. Buffered by a politically supportive South Africa and the near absence of coverage in Western publications, President Robert Mugabe has been allowed to preside over economic chaos of the most destructive brand since steering the country to independence in 1980. Zimbabwe, once the so-called breadbasket of Africa, is now plagued by dire food shortages. There is simply nothing to stock on grocery store shelves.
Not that there would be a way to buy it anyway. Zimbabwe has brought hyper-inflation to a whole new standard. Before abandoning its own currency in 2009 in favor of the US dollar and South African rand, its residents required a suitcase of cash to buy something as simple as a cup of coffee. Any money they had would halve in value each night.
This Zimbabwe is the unlikely muse for writer Peter Godwin, whose previous two books, “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun” and “Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa,” sketch the country’s steep decline through the personal lens of Godwin’s life and family. There are his parents, an engineer and a doctor, who refuse to leave the country they made home after emigrating from post-World War II England, despite what has become the near impossibility of aging gracefully there. There’s his boyhood, the boarding schools, his service in the military, and the death of his sister Jain, just weeks before her wedding in 1978, when she and her fiancé ran into an army ambush preparing to attack guerrillas. Godwin is the kind of writer who finds beauty in adversity, and so there is much that is lovely in these books.
The third and newest book in this trilogy is The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe. Godwin travels back to the country of his birth from New York, where he now lives, following Zimbabwe’s spring 2008 elections, which have had a most startling result – Robert Mugabe has lost. Or at least he hasn’t won outright, and for a leader who has habitually and successfully rigged his elections, this is shocking indeed. The country is jolted from its resigned acceptance of the status quo and, for the first time in decades, a post-Mugabe existence seems possible. Godwin and his compatriots start to do the most dangerous thing for a people long oppressed – hope.
But the optimism of this election and the change it seems to promise only make the subsequent disappointment more punishing. It is enough to drive Godwin’s shift from the memoirist, journalist, and historian he was in his earlier books into the activist writer he becomes in “The Fear.” Where once he chronicled Zimbabwe with the melancholic tone of the chronically frustrated, here Godwin cannot resist – nor perhaps should he – trying to become an agent for change.
It is a heavy burden to be one of the only people to witness the atrocities who also has the ability to get word out, and Godwin’s unique access to Zimbabwe comes at just such a cost. The reader can feel it tightening on Godwin as he wades deeper into the country, as the days pass and it becomes clear that Mugabe will not go gentle into that dark night. Not long into his trip, Godwin reports that he hears the troubling phrase “smart genocide.”
“There’s no need to directly kill hundreds of thousands, if you can select and kill the right few thousand,” he writes, of Mugabe’s post-election spree of violence.
“The murders here are accompanied by torture and rape on industrial scale, committed on a catch-and-release basis. When those who survive, terribly injured, limp home, or are carried or pushed in wheelbarrows, or on the backs of pickup trucks, they act like human billboards, advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny, bearing their gruesome political stigma.”
This tactic becomes known as chidudu, or simply The Fear.
Godwin’s “The Fear” becomes, then, his solitary campaign against Mugabe’s version of events. He travels the country – to churches, hospitals, old friends, and opposition activists – seemingly intent on documenting every beating, every injustice, and every act of defiant survival he encounters. He, himself, is briefly detained by police and flees the country after his release, only to return months later and pick up right where he left off.
In this way, his heartbreaking journey of witnessing, of getting the word out when no one else can, becomes the reader’s burden as well. The Fear is no cozy indulgence. There are no happy endings here. But as he has done before, Godwin weaves beauty into this devastation. For example, he writes, “White man’s flesh marks easily, it is a pale canvas on which the path of pain is easily painted. But it takes a lot more to mark a black man. Somehow, the palette of black wounds seem more violent, tearing down through the dark skin, into the yellow curd of subcutaneous fat, the red gristle of muscle fibres, down to the shocking whiteness of bone.”
And of course, however heavy the load for the reader, it is heaviest for the people of Zimbabwe, for those who cannot or will not leave, for those on the receiving end of beatings and torture. If Godwin can share that load, relieve them of just a small share, and we, as readers, can do the same for him, well, that seems a worthy and important thing indeed.
Tracey Samuelson is a freelance writer in New York.