The late Afrobeat maestro Fela sang about animals in human skin, who wore suits and ties, and wore agbada. NoViolet Bulawayo’s sophomore novel, ‘Glory’, has characters who are animals but their actions and inactions are those of human beings.
The novel evokes the memory of George Orwell’s Animal Farm Several lines in this book will force those who read Orwell to remember the folks in his ground-breaking allegory.
Like Orwell’s novel, the characters in this book by a Booker Prize finalist are not humans; they are donkey, horse, pig, dog and many other dirty animals. And in this kingdom called Jidada, some animals are more equal than the others.
Like those in Orwell’s novel, the animals in this book are very political in nature and their ways are similar to those of the politicians whose actions and inactions have made our world worse. These animals behave like men and women who love making the world difficult for the lower class. Unlike Orwell’s characters, these ones are modern animals who love going viral on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others.
The work is about an African country ruled by Old Horse, an animal who is regarded as the Father of the Nation. The country is considered his because of the revolution he led against the colonial masters and he is seen as leader for life even when age is slowing him down and his mental faculties begin to play funny jokes on him.
It takes off during an Independence Day celebration. Old Horse, his wife fondly called Dr. Sweet Mother, and the vice president, Tuvy, give speeches.
Old Horse’s speech is slurred, baffling and mired by incoherence, a development which makes his deputy remark that he be taken off the stage before further disgrace. But like a typical African politician, when the deputy mounts the podium, the encomiums he showers on him contrast with what he feels about the president, a man he obviously wants out of power, dead or alive.
Tuvy’s plot against the Father of the Nation is not hidden from Dr. Sweet Mother, who on mounting the podium, dresses him down. She rants on and on and on about people who say the opposite of what they have in mind.
Tuvy’s convoy is soon involved in a ghastly accident. He is assumed dead. Rescuers search the scene and pick up bodies of his aides, but no matter how hard they search, he is nowhere to be found among the remains.
It turns out the deputy isn’t the only one who feels he deserves to succeed the Father of the Nation. Dr. Sweet Mother, a female donkey from a humble background, also begins to believe she deserves the crown despite the patriarchal nature of leadership in the country.
The battle for the soul of the country soon sees the vice president, after surviving the accident, smoking the dried shit of mermaids, being douched with flowers and mutis from the crushed bones of fearsome beasts, and chewing their livers and drinking their urine. He also drinks juice from boiled barks and leaves of rare trees, smears his body with magic potions and performs sacrifice after sacrifice. All to counter Dr. Sweet Mother.
Within one week, Tuvy is hit by a hailstorm, has three more road crashes, four attempts are made to abduct him, and he is the target of four drive-by shootings. He survives them all. All glory to the cat, his sorcerer.
The country they are angling to lead is not one with gold-paved streets and homes. It is one with an army of unemployed, with businesses dying, with security officers wearing worn-out boots, with labourers not receiving their wages, with roads full of potholes, with streets littered with trash, with brutes, murderers, sorcerers in key positions, with a university system quick to award a doctorate degree to an undeserving First Lady, with power cuts, with miserable public schools, with fluctuating crime rates, with atrocious pass rate in national examinations, and with drought. It is also a nation where scarce resources are wasted on Minister of Order, Minister of the Revolution, Minister of Propaganda, Minister of Things, Minister of Disinformation, Minister of Corruption, Minister of Homophobic Affairs, and Minister of Lootin, among other ridiculous appointees. It is clear that these animals seek power for its grandeur and its grandeur alone.
Despite all the shenanigans in this nation, cows still moo, cats still meow, sheep still bleat, bulls still bellow, ducks still quack, donkeys still bray, horses still neigh, geese still cackle, chickens still cluck and peacocks shamelessly scream. It is the height of sycophancy. There are, however, some rebels like the Sisters of the Disappeared who protest naked during the Independence Day celebration to show that their nation’s days of glory are long gone.
Later events in the novel show that nothing lasts forever. Things fall apart and the centre fails to hold.
In ‘Glory’, Bulawayo’s Father of the Nation has so much in common with Zimbabwe’s late Robert Mugabe who tried unsuccessfully to become life president and not ex-president. Like Mugabe, Father of the Nation started out as a freedom fighter but, in no time, saw no one else that could rule his country and he kept ruling and ruling and ruling. The flag of Jidada also shares similarities with Zimbabwe’s, and the difference between Dr. Sweet Mother and Mugabe’s wife is like six and half a dozen. Tuvy also shares so much in common with Zimbabwe’s current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who ousted Mugabe, a longstanding ally. Like Mnangagwa, Tuvy’s nickname is Crocodile. Many a scene can be reconnected with real-life events in Zimbabwe, though the characters are now animals. No doubt, this allegory is about Zimbabwe, the army of sycophants who made Mugabe their god and its power brokers.
Using animals to tell this story seems a protestation from the author; it is as though she is saying these men and women acted like animals and dragged the country down while mouthing revolution, colonialism, land reforms and anti-West slogans.
The novel is dark and vivacious. In it, you struggle to look for saints because almost everyone is flawed. It also tells the story of the corruption at the heart of African societies. And we see so many other anomalies in it.
The themes include abuse of power, sit-tightism, prejudice, deceit, failure of leadership, dictatorship, power play, and the thin gap between being a freedom fighter and a dictator.
Written in a mixture of narrative voices (third person and ‘we’) and in a blend of the present and past tenses, Bulawayo cleverly uses horses, donkeys, dogs, cats and pigs to tell a story of the past and present in an absorbing, stirring manner. Here horses represent the ruling class and dogs are in charge of defence and security.
My final take: Bulawayo’s prose is beautiful and evocative. Her writing is mesmerising and dazzling and leaves a reader with a Hobson’s choice of just following and following and following and trailing and trailing until the alluring last lines: “And every one of them felt warmed by the beautiful lotus fire. And every one of them heard the flames of that fire fan and flutter and roar right in their hearts. And every one of them understood that whatever they heard within those hearts was the new national anthem, tholukuthi, an anthem that spoke of the kind of glory that burns eternal and glows with living light.”
My final take: Leaders should lead well and not carry on like animals. We have too many animals in power. We certainly can do without them. Now that we are going into another electioneering period, we all need to open our eyes very well and separate the animals from the humans because animals do not deserve power. They usually mess things up and the last thing we need as a nation is mess. We have enough of it already and the time to clear them is 2023.