Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin

The Atlantic Monthly Press 1996 432 pp. $24.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Growing up in Rhodesia, Peter Godwin's first childhood memory is of his neighbor, oom Piet, lying on a roadside with a knife sticking out of his chest.

"It was a terrific knife, a proper hunting knife with a knobbly beige handle made of bone and a long curved steel blade which peaked to a crest halfway along and swooped down again to a point." From his first memory, Godwin was a child of a race war that engulfed his family-killing his sister-and took over his life. Mukiwa is sober testimony to the gruesome ironies of growing up white in a land ready for justice, but unprepared for democracy.

As a child of a liberal family, Godwin found himself farmed out to boarding schools by age six to protect him from the increasing violence of the black revolutionaries. There he learned from a black friend why he was called mukiwa. "It was Isaac who told me why we were called mukiwa. He picked a wild fig and held it up. It was a pale pinkish colour. 'It is called Mukiwa,' he said. 'Same colour like you.'"

The political situation wasn't improved by the Prime Minister's actions.

"It was 11 November 1965. At that point I stopped listening [to the radio] because I got into a scrape with Fatty Slabbert, who had flicked an elastic band at the back of my neck. Apparently, while Fatty Slabbert and I were bickering, [Prime Minister] 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."

On graduation Godwin was conscripted into the British South Africa Police, preventing him from attending Cambridge.

"The BSAP was the country's senior service, raised in 1889 to protect the first pioneer column trekking up from South Africa. It was a paramilitary force organized, like most British colonial forces, as an askari regiment, African ranks under European officers."

Godwin found himself in the peculiar position of leading blacks against the tsotsis, the black "thugs" seeking freedom from white rule. Following months of extremely dangerous guerrilla warfare, Godwin's petition to attend college was accepted, and he left Rhodesia for England and peace.

His distant repose was shattered by news of the death of his sister from friendly fire, and returning to Rhodesia, he once again found himself forced into uniform. The political situation had deteriorated, but after a few months Godwin managed to leave once again, returning to his studies.

Godwin earned a law degree and was working on a doctorate, his thesis covering Rhodesia's political evolution. He returned home to do research, and was once again drawn into the fray, this time as a lawyer defending a black revolutionary, who, while found innocent, was returned to prison.

Godwin's final incarnation in this account is as a reporter for the London Sunday Times, following independence.

"Finally, in early 1982, less than two years after independence, the thin membrane of the tribal alliance ripped apart, just as the white doom-sayers had eagerly warned it would. The prime minister denounced the Matabele leader, Joshua Nkomo, as 'a cobra in the house' and fired him from the cabinet. Shortly afterwards he fled to England in fear of his life."

At this point the story turns from grim to horrific as Godwin attempts to find out what happened to a tribal faction opposed to the now-black Zimbabwe government. After a series of terrifying efforts to uncover atrocities while disguised as a priest, Godwin found that his published reports had raised the ire of the Zimbabwe government. He was declared persona non grata and forced to escape by night to elude a government-sponsored assassination attempt.

The flat, colorless tone of the narrative is at odds with the strange, sometimes surreal events that befell Godwin throughout his stay in his homeland. While Godwin served on the para-military police force, the reader finds himself in the peculiar position of rooting for a white man-an admittedly sensitive, fair, and unbigoted man-as he helps prop up a racist government that outlasted its welcome in southern Africa. However, that feeling is erased for good when, later in the narrative, we see Godwin engage in acts of journalistic heroism that result in a reduction of the mindless, ghastly killing in southwestern Zimbabwe.

The horrors of this book will stay with one, especially the post-independence assaults of tribe upon tribe. However, one has to measure one's outrage at the butchery of the black freedom fighters-repellent in its immediacy-against a more abstract system of colonial discrimination and oppression which, while less directly violent, institutionalized harm toward an enormous group of people whose only crime was being born black.

Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa is an important, first-hand testament to the cruel and sometimes bizarre consequences of the transition between colonial and native rule. It portrays the contradictions growing up as a member of a colonial white ruling class without attempting to whitewash the fundamental injustice of the situation. Readers who have an interest in Africa and a strong stomach will find this a fascinating read.