Peter Godwin pretended to be a priest to report on massacres in Zimbabwe. Photo by Monica Uszerowicz
By Nadia Chaudhury
From crossing the Silverstream River in former Rhodesia, strapped to his nanny’s back, to fighting on the losing side in Zimbabwe’s civil war, Eugene Lang journalism professor Peter Godwin has come a long way to New York City.
Godwin, 48, with pale blue eyes behind rimless glasses and dark hair flecked with gray, offers his student’s guidance with his intense, worldly experiences as a freelance journalist across the globe.
Godwin got his start in journalism in a different way than most others in his field. The son of British expatriates, he was born in Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) and spent his first 19 years there. Thanks in part to the country’s political instability, he left to study at Cambridge University in England. He soon found himself back in Africa for his post-graduate thesis research. But before leaving Britain, he contacted several publications and asked if he could submit articles about the journey.
“I didn’t know anything about journalism particularly, but it just struck me as it might be a fun thing to do,” Godwin recalled, sitting a classroom in the 12th Street building. “My friends all mocked me because I was doing it with sort of a blotchy ballpoint pen on school notepaper.”
He mailed his handwritten articles to publications to The Sunday Times, not knowing whether they would be published. After the trip, when he reached his parents’ house in Zimbabwe, he found out that The Times actually ran his pieces as a series which then led to a freelance job as a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times. Over the next ten years, the job took him all over Africa and Eastern Europe.
Among the many stories he broke was the Matabeleland massacres in Zimbabwe in 1983, where the government-sponsored militia tortured or killed everyone they felt were rebels while also killed many innocent white farmers.
“If we could highlight it and actually blow the whistle on this thing, then there would be a good chance we could give them some pause and that it would stop,” he said. To report the story, he visited violence-plagued rural villages that were off-limits to the press. At one point, he dressed as a priest and accompanied three nuns to witness what was happening. That’s when he discovered a mine where soldiers dropped off corpses daily. He smelled “the unmistakable stink of rotting human,” he wrote in Mukiwa—A White Boy in Africa, his award-winning memoir.
By then, Godwin was a wanted man by the government, and soldiers were on the look-out. He managed to drive away from the site. Later, he picked up an unassuming hitchhiking solider. The sergeant at the next roadblock told the soldier they were looking for a journalist dressed as a priest, and because the soldier said Godwin was his good friend, he managed to escape.
“I was younger and it was one of those things where afterwards, in the cold light of day, you kind of think ‘What was I thinking?’” he recalled. “Yeah, I got out okay and it was then a whole different species of problems. Once I had written the piece, it got very, very hot for me, and there was a serious death threat to my life and I had to get out of Zimbabwe.”
Later in his career, Godwin didn’t stick to the written word—he produced documentary films for the BBC, covering a wide-range of topics, like Pakistani politics, Filipino pirates and the Thai sex industry. He won several awards for his work.
Now, he is focused on teaching. “If you’re writing books, you become very misanthropic and completely de-socialized,” he said. “Teaching is a very good antidote to that.”
“There’s no substitute for real curiosity and I think a lot of good journalism starts from that basis,” he said, about journalistic ambitions. “And that includes approaching subjects that you don’t know anything about.”
Students in Godwin’s course, Foreign Correspondence: Windows on the World, typically research a specific area of the world, like China or Indonesia, to find the beginnings of a story. One student arrived at an opium field in Afghanistan while another went on a heavy metal festival circuit in Sweden.
After teaching at Princeton and Sarah Lawrence, Godwin found that, “Lang students, to me, seem to be more cosmopolitan. They’re slightly edgier and don’t feel like the world owes them anything. I like the fact that it’s not a campus university. The kids go out the front door here and they’re in New York City.”
Currently, Godwin is working on a screenplay of Mukiwa, to be filmed next year in South Africa. His next memoir, *When a Crocodile Eats the Sun,* is centered on the “disintegration of [my] family set against the collapse of the country,” of Zimbabwe.
After being exiled, Godwin was, to his great relief, allowed back in. This suited him: he can’t seem to escape the country and the continent.
“I miss Africa tremendously. It’s not just a nostalgic thing. If I’m not there after a while, I start to ache for it,” he said.