Saturday, December 03, 2011

No Country for Old Men

I have just finished reading Peter Godwin's compelling memoir When A Crocodile Eats the Sun.  Part personal recollection, part political commentary, the book chronicles his father's dying and death.  Along the way, Godwin learns some family secrets and helps reconnect his father to his past.  But, what I found particularly compelling is Godwin's account of the nearly current state of affairs in Zimbabwe, the book's account ending in 2004.

As you no doubt know, I spent some of my growing up years in this country--then called Rhodesia.  I have a very fond memory of a childhood that was not usual by American standards.  When I read Godwin's account, I could travel back in memory to some of the kinds of things he is describing.

As I read along, I found myself cringing more and more, almost to the point of physical revulsion.  How in the name of all things sane can a tyrant such as Mugabe remain in power.  It is tempting, from a distance, to wonder at the inadvertent complicity of the populace in allowing him to remain in power.  Reading Godwin's account disabused me of any such thought.

In detail, he recounts the thoroughly calculating move on Mugabe's part to institute the land reallocation "plan."  So, a country which had been the breadbasket of the continent became a virtual wasteland, unable to grow enough food to feed its own citizens.  So-called war vets (from Zimbabwe's civil war in the 1980s) were rewarded with seized farms which second- and third- (or more) generation white families had successfully farmed.  The fact that many of the war vets were only in their 20s (in the year 2000), thus making them NOT war vets, did not alter Mugabe's cynical plan.  And why did he push the land reallocation?  Because he lost the election, and needed something to divert the populace so he could retain power.

Not only has Zimbabwe's productivity dropped agriculturally, but the life expectancy has also dropped from one of the highest in Africa to one of the the world.  From a life expectancy of mid-60s some 50 years ago, Zimbabwean men now live an average of 37 years, and women 33 years.  Meanwhile, Mugabe will celebrate his 88th  birthday in February, 2012.  As Godwin notes, Mugabe is now on his third lifespan while his country men and women die after barely living a lifespan.

AIDS is part of the reason for this precipitous drop, but so is targeted denial of food supplies.  Mugabe channels food to his supporters and denies his enemies.    It is not too big a stretch to aver that "Zimbabwe is dying" as Bob Herbert wrote in a New York Times editorial in 2009.

I keep thinking about the marvelous William Butler Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium."  This poem has been the inspiration for many interpretations, and has provided book and movie titles--just read through and spot them.

I have a new interpretation.  Zimbabwe is no country for old men.  And if ever there were an aged man--a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick--it is the second president of this country.  And the closing of the poem speaks to that great unknown unknowable--"what is past, or passing, or to come."

No one knows what is to come in Zimbabwe.  My hope and prayer is that this, too, shall pass--and a lovely country will somehow be revived to a state wherein all citizens are valued, where life is cherished and where all old men and women can thrive.

Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


Anvilcloud said...

It's a deplorable state of affairs.

Climenheise said...

I told you this on the phone I think. A friend of mine, who has lost at least three relatives to Mugabe's secret police, is a convinced universalist. I asked him how he could conceive of Mugabe ending up in Heaven. He replied, "He is in Hell now." My friend is giving no simple answer, but stating that Mugabe may hold power, but has made the place hell for others -- and for himself. As I said on the phone, I have not yet read this book: I know its contents too well alreeady. Godwin is a compelling clear writer, whose background is so close to my own that I find it difficult to relive the events he describes. I too pray that Zimbabwe will someday rise from the dead.

Ruth said...

I have this book in my Amazon wish list but I expected it would be a hard read. We have good friends who fled the country as third generation Europeans in Zimbabwe. They lost everything and now live in a tiny apartment in our city. I have listened to their stories and am amazed that they live without bitterness. What a terrible outcome for the people who still live there.

Ginnie said...

This must have been terribly hard for you to read.

Climenheise said...

@Ruth -- I note that we were also third generation in Zimbabwe (although always as American citizens). ....

Sometimes one forgets for awhile; but only for awhile.

Nance said...

Sad to watch. Hard to understand. The AIDS holocaust, I've kept up with, but Mugabe...I simply don't understand.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

If ever there was a government that needed to be overthrown it is that of Mugabe in Zimbabwe. His is a crime against Humanity.