mong the many examples of failure in Africa, the descent of Zimbabwe from hope of the continent into beggar is one of the saddest. More than a quarter century after leading his guerrilla army to victory over the racist regime of Ian Smith in white- minority-ruled Rhodesia, President Robert Mugabe has morphed into a caricature of the African Big Man, and taken his country down with him. In 2000 Mugabe launched a ruinous policy of seizing Zimbabwes 4,000 white-owned farms and handing them to generals, ruling party hacks, and self-proclaimed war veterans in the name of land reform. The result, as is now well known, was a national tragedy: Agricultural production was gutted. Foreign exchange dried up. Social services disintegrated. Crime soared. Hundreds of thousands fled the country. Throughout it all, Mugabe has remained defiant, a snarling figure peering through oversize spectacles, lashing out at Great Britain, America, and the countrys whites and threatening to kill anyone who dares to challenge him.

Peter Godwins new memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, brings home the consequences of Mugabes descent into paranoid despotism with unflinching detail. (The title refers to a myth of the Shonas, Zimbabwes largest tribe, that attributes a solar eclipse to a crocodile devouring the sun and regards the event as a portent of evil.) Godwin is an author and foreign correspondent whose first memoir, Mukiwa, was the bittersweet story of his boyhood in rural Rhodesia and the civil war that swept away that period of innocence. This gripping sequel picks up the story in the 1990s, after Godwin has moved away from the country to pursue a journalism career in London and New York. His parents, however, and younger sister, Georgina, a TV and radio journalist, have remained in Harare, the capital, where they begin to bear the full brunt of Mugabes disastrous policies. Returning frequently to document Zimbabwes collapse, Godwin deftly weaves scenes of brutal farm confiscations with the poignant declineboth physical and materialof his elderly parents. In doing so, he elevates what could have been simply another work of good journalism into a story with devastating emotional impact.

Godwin doesnt dispute the exploitation that allowed white colonialists in the early part of the twentieth century to grab the countrys best land, but he blames the inequities that persisted long after Zimbabwes independence in 1980 partly on Mugabes own failures. A voluntary land-redistribution program, funded by the British government, managed to get the land of 40 percent of white farmers into the hands of blacks before it fell apart, largely because Mugabe had turned it into a tool to enrich his cronies. By 2000, the issue was off the table: only 9 percent of Zimbabweans saw land redistribution as a priority, according to a poll conducted that year by the Helen Suzman Foundation. The same year, however, Mugabe faced an unprecedented challenge from a nascent opposition movement, the Movement for Democratic Change, led by the former labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe evidently concocted the violent land-seizure program to take revenge on the countrys whiteswhom he blamed for funding the MDC.

Godwin is at his best nailing down the small details that convey the loss of his parents comfortable world. As hyperinflation renders their savings worthless, and soaring crime makes it dangerous to venture into the streets, the Godwins lives diminish with frightening speed. It starts with the luxuries: the family pool, neglected because chemicals are either unavailable or too expensive, lies green and still and opaque, its pump quiet, with a slimy watermark around its rim, Godwin writes. Soon beef dinners give way to a few slivers of bread with cabbage and minced pork, and meals are reduced from three to two a day. George Godwin is beaten up at his gate by a carjacker, his vehicle stolen. The physical deterioration of the aging coupleGodwins mother suffers from sciatica and hip disease, his father from emphysema and worsening blood circulationsends Godwin on a desperate search for medicine, and then for a decent nursing home, in a country where even basic commodities like gasoline and sugar are becoming harder to find each day.

Then there are the small betrayals, driven by desperation and the racial animosity whipped up by Mugabe and his accomplices within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). In one devastating scene, the Godwins trusted housekeeper, Mavis, shows up at their house on Harares outskirts with a carload of government-backed goons who accuse the Godwins of having underpaid her for yearsan accusation clearly without foundationand demand that they make restitution. Realizing that its a shakedown, George Godwin furiously hands over a dozen bricks of near-worthless Zimbabwean bank notes, and watches as the thugs divide the loot between the housekeeper and themselves.

But the daily humiliations suffered by the Godwins in their suburban enclave in Harare paled before the horrors unfolding in the hinterlands. Though based in New York City during this period, the author returned to his native land on assignment at regular intervals for National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications. The work brought him into close contact with beleaguered white farmers, members of the MDC, and the thuggish wovits (the putative veterans of Zimbabwes civil war), whom Mugabe set loose in an orgy of government-sanctioned violence. (Zimbabwes police looked the other way, and nobody was ever prosecuted.)

Godwins relentless chronicle of intimidation, beating, killing, and funerals can become numbingly repetitive; its like watching an endless sequence of car wrecks. As an account of how Mugabes mad scheme played out on the ground, however, Godwins take is unsurpassed. Godwin also makes it clear that whites are hardly Mugabes only victims: the book is filled with chilling tales of the pogroms carried out by ZANU-PF thugs against opposition members, almost all of them black.

Godwin leavens his chronicle of national and family decline with an intriguing subplot: his uncovering of the long-buried identity of his father. For decades, Godwin writes, George Godwin had kept his origins secret; the author knew only that his father had emigrated to southern Africa from England shortly after World War II, and had parlayed his engineering background into jobs running copper mines in rural Rhodesia. But as he begins his steep decline, the elder Godwin reveals the truth: he was born Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb, a Polish Jew, escaped ahead of the Nazi onslaught, joined the Polish exile forces, and fought the Nazis in France. Most of the Goldfarb family perished at Auschwitz. Godwins reconstruction of his fathers early years in Europe cant match the immediacy of the events he witnesses in Zimbabwe. But the revelation that this white Zimbabwean is in fact a deracinated Jew adds a layer of irony to the Godwin family saga. As the former Jerzy Goldfarb wryly tells his son: Being a white here is starting to feel a bit like being a Jew in Poland in 1939an endangered minoritythe target of ethnic cleansing.

Like Mukiwa, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun captures both the beauty and the heartbreak of Africa. Godwins loving portraits of his African childhood in Mukiwa find echoes here in his evocative descriptions of Zululand, Cape Town, and Chimanimani, his boyhood home, the land of rich red African earth that has now become a battleground between the opposition and Mugabes forces. Godwin also revisits the defining tragedy of his first memoir: the death of his elder sister, Jain, who was riddled with bullets at the age of twenty-seven with her fianc in 1978, at the height of Zimbabwes civil war, by jittery government troops at a roadblock. When the new memoir opens, Jain lies buried in a Harare cemetery, which, like everything else in the decrepit capital, has been defaced and set upon by scavengers. Godwin is anguished to discover his sisters grave splattered in human feces. The whole way of death is collapsing, hes told by an undertaker friend of his parents, just like life. Eventually, after bureaucratic hassles, he finds her a proper resting place and reburies her remains. It is a rare moment of dignity in a land where human debasement has become all too commonplace.

Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.