The Barnes & Noble Review
Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa is the story of Peter Godwin's experiences growing up in Rhodesia. He recounts the story of that country's violent transformation into Zimbabwe, as well as his own personal metamorphoses from privileged boy to reluctant soldier to investigative journalist.
Godwin's story begins, "I think I first realized something was wrong when our next door neighbor, Oom Piet Oberholzer, was murdered. I must have been about five then. It was still five years before the real war would start." The Godwins enjoyed a typical genteel existence in 1960 rural Rhodesia, their household including a "garden boy," a "cook boy," and a nanny. Peter's father managed a wood- and sugarcane-processing plant. His mother, a rural government doctor, was often called to pronounce deaths or conduct autopsies, for which she brought along her "assistant," five-year-old Peter, who was responsible for shooing away the flies.
Godwin's plans for attending college were squashed when he was drafted into the Rhodesian army and assigned to the "Anti-Terrorist Unit," which proved to be an important experience in his life. When he later looked at himself, he saw a man "coursed through with anger and despair. It was the face of someone who would kill an unarmed civilian for withholding information." Disturbed by what he had become, Godwin left Rhodesia after he got out of the army, only to return in 1981 as a journalist. Rhodesia was now Zimbabwe, and the "terrorists" he had reluctantly fought against were now the country's rulers.
Godwin reported on theutterbrutalities in Zimbabwe and the fate of Matabeleland, a black minority region in Zimbabwe. He described the army style of interrogation, in which "before they even began to question you, they would break one wrist," and wrote about the old mines where bodies of the dead were buried. When Godwin's writings received worldwide attention, the Zimbabwean government tried to discredit him, and he received numerous death threats, escaping the country just hours before the police came looking for him.
Mukiwa is not only a memoir but also a compelling adventure story that tells a personal saga that needs to be heard.
Read an Excerpt
I think I first realized something was wrong when our nextdoor neighbour, oom Piet Oberholzer, was murdered. I must have been about six then. It was still two years before we rebelled against the Queen, and another seven years before the real war would start.
I can remember oom Piet's body lying on the tar road. He was on his back, with the bone handle of a hunting knife sticking out of his chest. Of course I'd seen lots of dead people before, so I wasn't that impressed. In fact I was proud of my familiarity with death. I used to tell other children stories about it, to boost my popularity.
I knew more than other children about dead people because I went with my mother when she dug them up and cut them open. I was allowed to carry her instruments and also to 'be the Chief Fly Sprayer, which were quite important jobs, especially for a small boy.
My mother was a doctor and she wore a white coat. Although most of the people she operated on were alive, some were dead, and these were the ones I helped with.
Oom Piet was the first body that I'd actually known while it was still alive. In that way it was quite interesting. I didn't know him that well, really. He worked as a shift boss at the factory, and although the Oberholzers lived just down the hill from us, we didn't see much of them. They were a big Afrikaans family with lots of geese and about seven kids who had names like Hennie and Dawie and Hettie.
The Oberholzers were the poorest white people I knew. They had gone bust trying to farm, and the dominee, the Dutch Reformed minister, had asked my father to give oom Piet a job, any job. They arrived inSilverstream for the first time in a borrowed pick-up truck. We marvelled at the fact. that the whole family and all their possessions could fit into one load. We had taken up a whole Trek Removal's articulated lorry and trailer when we arrived.
A year after they arrived in Silverstream, there was great excitement when a bed was delivered by the weekly RMS - the Road Motor Services lorry. Oom Piet told my father proudly that now for the first time everyone in the family would be able to sleep in a bed of their own.
The Oberholzers had an old blue VW Kombi which had the engine at the back instead of the front. They'd been in that old blue Kombi the .day oom Piet was murdered.
They were on their way back from a trip to Umtali, oom Piet and his wife and their youngest daughter - when it happened. The reason for their trip wasn't. in the newspapers - not the old ones or the new ones - but I know itfor a fact. We also went to Umtali that day, and we met them on the way.
`Good morning meneer Godwin,' said oom Piet respectfully, to my father.
`Morning OB,' said my father. Only children called him oom Piet. Oom was Afrikaans for uncle.
`How was the holiday?' asked my father. They had just returned from their first family holiday ever, and they were still terribly excited.
`Ach it was really lekker,' said oom Piet, and he began to describe the holiday in great detail, right down to the meals they had eaten arid where they'd filled up with petrol. My father cut him short after day two, or we would; never have got to Umtah at all..
`Shopping?' enquired my father, conversationally, to show he wasn't really being rude.
'Ach, not really, rneneer, we're going to collect our holiday :photos from Windsor Studios in, town, then we're going to ', show them to our other kids at school. They've never seen photos of themselves before.'
Mrs Oberholzer proudly held up their cheap plastic instamatic camera.
`It's amazing,' she said in wonder. `You don't have to focus it or anything. You just point it and press this little red button here. Even I can use it.'
She laughed in a self-deprecating way, and suddenly she lifted the little camera and took a picture of my father and oom Piet leaning against our car. Much later, she sent us that photo, of oom Piet and my father looking startled. Her note said that it was the last picture of oom Piet alive. In spite of the camera manufacturer's boast, the picture is slightly out of focus. When I looked carefully, I could just see myself in the bottom lefthand corner of the photo, peeping through the car window.
The journey from our house at Silverstream to Umtali, which was the capital of the whole of Manicaland, was about a hundred miles long and it took more than three hours because the road was winding and steep in many places. In those days we still had the old white Austin Westminster, the one that Dad reversed over Bingo the dog and killed him when we were setting off to Melsetter church for a wedding. But he hadn't done that yet and Bingo was still alive.
On the day oom Piet was murdered, we also met Sir Hugo on our way to Umtali, where the road goes through his farm just below Skyline Junction. He was burning some fields,with his farm boys. on the roadside. Sir Hugo, Sebright, I was told, was something called an Old Etonian, though he didn't seem that old, even to me. He looked younger than my father and much, much younger than, Old Mr Boshof on Lemon Kop.