Peter Godwin certainly has a
story to tell. It’s a story of an idyllic, if unusual childhood, a disrupted
but eventually immensely successful education, military service and then two
careers, one in law, planned but aborted, and then one in journalism,
discovered almost by default. Listed like this these elements might sound
just a bit mundane, perhaps not the subject of memoir. When one adds,
however, the location, Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe, the result is a deeply
moving, in places deeply sad, as well as quite disturbing account of a life
lived thus far. Mukiwa, by the way, is Shona for white man.
The setting for Peter Godwin’s
early years was a middle class, professional and, crucially, liberal family
living in eastern Rhodesia, close to the Mozambique border. I had relatives
in that same area, near Umtali and Melsetter, and they used to do exactly
what the Godwins did regularly which was to visit the Indian Ocean beaches
near Beira. We used to get postcards from there every year, usually in the
middle of our north of England winter. Envy wasn’t the word…
Peter Godwin’s mother was a
doctor and this meant that his childhood was unusual in two respects. Not
many youngsters in white households had liberal-minded parents and even
fewer helped their mothers conduct post mortems. Unlike most mukiwa, Peter
Godwin had black friends. He learned the local language and got to know the
bush. He also grew up close to death and then lived alongside it during the
years of the war of independence. He describes how the war simply took over
everything and labels himself as a technician in its machinations. It’s a
telling phrase, admitting that he did not himself want to fight anyone. Like
everyone else, he was caught up in the struggle, required to actively
perpetrate the violence and that is what he did.
His education was disrupted.
His family life was effectively destroyed. And how he managed to keep his
sanity during the period I have no idea. He served most of the period in
Matebeleland alongside other members of the Rhodesian armed forces and
police who were not, to say the least, as liberal as he was. So in some ways
he was already doubly a foreigner in that he was working in an area where he
could not speak the language and was accompanied by fellow countrymen with
whom he shared no beliefs or ideals. And yet he had to fight.
I have never served in a war
and hope I never will. But my relatives from the same area as Peter Godwin
were also called up into national service and also fought the war. I had not
seen them for fifteen years or so when we met after they, along with many
thousands of others, as recorded by Peter Godwin, had already fled south.
But for them also memories of war were deep and resented scars. It was a
bloody and dirty war where, if you were lucky, you could at most trust your
closest colleagues. It was a vicious conflict at times and left everyone
angry. No-one won. Everyone suffered.
Having eventually achieved the
education he sought, Peter Godwin attempted to launch a legal career. But
then, almost by default, he became a reporter. After independence, he
learned of atrocities perpetrated by the Zambabwean army in the area where
he had served during the war. He investigated. He reported. And then, on
advice, he fled.
But he did eventually return
to all of the areas he knew and the last part of the book is a moving and
deeply sad account of how little he recognised in the places he loved as a
child. But within this, there is a moment of hope as he meets a former
freedom fighter and, with humour and new friendship, the two of them realise
that they had not only been enemies, but had actually been two commanders
trying to kill one another on opposite sides of the same skirmish.
But in the end, Peter Godwin
is changed man, and his home and homeland, at least as he had experienced
them, were no more. War had changed everything and everyone. No-one won.
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