Books Take over Where Daily Journalism Can't Go

By Meldrum, Andrew | Nieman Reports, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Books Take over Where Daily Journalism Can't Go


Meldrum, Andrew, Nieman Reports


All that has happened in Zimbabwe--including President Robert Mugabe s brutal oppression and the spirited challenge to his iron-fisted rule--provides compelling stories of suffering and success, torture and kindness, cowardice and bravery.

For years Mugabe has waged a relentless campaign to silence the press yet many journalists still manage to report the news. But the epic nature of Zimbabwe's struggle for democracy has compelled many journalists to write at greater length in books.

Reporting can be tough, if not impossible, in Zimbabwe. To convey events with accuracy, fairness and enough background and analysis so that readers understand the country's situation is as essential in writing nonfiction books as it is in daily journalism. But writing a book about Zimbabwe becomes a perplexing task: It is difficult to do justice to the complexities of Zimbabwe's story while still grabbing and sustaining readers' interest when so much of what reporters hear is depressing.

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Authors who take on this task face another obstacle constructed by Mugabe. He has always depicted the country in stark terms of race--black vs. white. He asserts that Western, white journalists cannot tell Zimbabwe's story. They will, he contends, distort it to support the white minority who once ruled the country when it was Rhodesia. This is, of course, nonsense, but it is something that lingers nonetheless in the minds of many authors--as it did in mine--when writing about Zimbabwe.

When I wrote my book, "Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe," I solved these conundrums by telling stories of the lives and circumstances of Zimbabweans. Although a memoir, my book was actually more about the Zimbabweans I came to know in my 23 years of reporting from their country. My time there stretched from it achieving independence in 1980 to 2003 when the government expelled me. So in my book, I was able to describe both the time when the country offered a beacon of hope as it moved from racial war to racial reconciliation and then the period when it descended into the steely grip of Mugabe and his ruling party, ZANU-PF.

Relying on my journalistic style of storytelling, I focused on those I'd encountered. Though their stories often told of terrible violence and repression, I worked to include compelling moments of the inspiring bravery, determination and humor that are so much a part of the Zimbabwean story--and leave the reader feeling some sense of hope about the future.

'The Fear'

In his recent book, "The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe," Peter Godwin tackles similar challenges to mine--and the result is gripping and, at times, enthralling. Godwin, a white Zimbabwean, is an accomplished writer and with a valid vision of his country. His first memoir, "Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa," is a rattling great read about growing up in Rhodesia and coming of age in Zimbabwe. In his second, "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa," Godwin told more of his family's history in Zimbabwe, especially about how his father, a Jew who escaped from Poland, succeeded in passing himself off as British and raising his family in southern Africa, only to see it all turn to ashes as Zimbabwe crumbled.

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"The Fear" is less about Godwin and more about Zimbabwe. As he travels through the country with his irrepressible sister, Georgina, it is stories of Zimbabweans, black and white, that form the backbone of this book. Godwin, who now lives in New York City, returned to Zimbabwe in 2008 at a time when it appeared that Mugabe had lost the presidential election and was about to be forced from office. But the sly, master politician, now in his 80's, still outmaneuvered everyone--domestically and internationally--to stay in power.

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To respond to the 2008 electoral challenge, Mugabe returned to his tried and true strategy of unleashing fearsome waves of torture and violence across the country in which hundreds died and thousands of citizens have been horrifically abused. …

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