Peter Godwin on How to Take Your Kids on an African Safari

Born in Zimbabwe, Peter Godwin has returned to Africa time and again, but never with his New York City–raised sons—until now.

by Peter Godwin

We stop for lunch on a sandy, shallow bend in the river in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, overlooked by a pair of curious buffalo. As our boat, the Lily, bobs in the water, our guide suggests a swim. What, in this crocodile-infested river? “We’ve swum here before,” he says, “and we’ve never lost anyone yet.” My two sons—Hugo and Thomas, ages ten and thirteen—are champing at the bit.

I imagine how this will look if it goes wrong: He allowed his children to do what? But I remember all the times as a kid I swam in the Savé River in Zimbabwe—which probably has a higher croc count, to say nothing of bilharzia—so I cave. The boys leap off the Lily into the water. Up on the observation deck, I stand solemn sentinel.

We’ve been in Africa only a few days, and I am already deep in the familiar thrall of the continent, where life feels more vivid surrounded by predator and prey, poised in the perpetual combat of the food chain, the drama of living infused by the proximity to dying. Africa is a place that, like nowhere else I know, can get you out of your own head. It’s the anti-neurosis. And I wonder, watching my boys splashing in the water, having mud fights, playing tug of war with a rolled-up towel, spreading a bright-tangerine net to catch tilapia, if they are beginning to feel it too.

I’m a hyphenated, oxymoronic white-African, born and raised in Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia). Though I haven’t lived in Africa since the early 1990s, I’ve continued to report from there, on everything from wars to wildlife, and to write books about the place. I can’t seem to shake free of it, though I’ve been a resident of New York City for fifteen years.

My sons were born in New York, and they sound like it. Then last year, I stumbled upon my older boy’s homework assignment: “The object that describes where I live,” Thomas wrote, “is a mini Statue of Liberty.” But for “the object that describes me,” he chose “a wooden African sculpture. I brought it because my dad is African and I am also part-African and I am proud of it.” I felt a pang of shame—it was time to take my sons to Africa.

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