Bulawayo deploys Orwellian style to call out African despots 

Noviolet Bulawayo

Noviolet Bulawayo. Bulawayo’s Glory is rich with the paradoxes that loom around the line that intersects between allegory and realpolitik—a snarl of defiance against parasitic power structures that eat their own children. 

Photo credit: Krystal Griffiths

“When at last the Father of the Nation arrived for Independence Day celebrations, no earlier than 3:28 in the afternoon, the citizens, congregated at the Jidada Square since morning, had had it with waiting… But the land of farm animals wasn’t any other place... The Jidada army, just like the rest of the security forces, was made up entirely of dogs”.

These words from the novel Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo echo George Orwell’s Animal Farm—a famous bold and dystopian novella using animal characters to call out the dangerous absurdity of political power. 

In the book, animals organised and carried out a successful revolution against Mr Jones, the oppressive owner of Manor Farm.

Written in the mould of Animal Farm, Bulawayo’s Glory is rich with the paradoxes that loom around the line that intersects between allegory and realpolitik—a snarl of defiance against parasitic power structures that eat their own children. 

Revolutionary prose

Bulawayo has stashed animal fable with revolutionary prose—injustice seems to drive her to the brink, becoming a pot of outrage on the verge of bubbling over. 

Her words gush out in spasms of angry eloquence, with grim, simmering pauses of dramatic irony and dry humour (like “on the other paw” instead of “on the other hand” to reiterate that the characters are animals).

Most African politicians are like shadowy agents with mysterious motives. 

Glory is an illuminating flashlight to the dark interior passions of humans—focusing on the irresistible charm of power and the temptation to use it unreasonably. Its plot retraces the fall of the Old Horse, the long-serving leader of a fictional country called Jidada. 

Being Zimbabwean, Bulawayo’s novel was inspired by the unforeseen fall of President Robert Mugabe in a coup in November 2017 after leading the country for almost 40 years.

Though it’s written as cutting satire reflecting the politics of Zimbabwe, it is relevant to Kenya. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” so wrote Orwell in Animal Farm. 

Bulawayo writes that the Head of State arrives for an event at 3.28 pm when “the citizens, congregated at the Jidada Square since morning, had had it with waiting”. 

This sounds very familiar to Kenyans—the agonising wait for leaders before official events start (thankfully, media reports indicate that President William Ruto keeps time and it’s a challenge to other political leaders). 

Being late for meetings must be an unfortunate way for leaders to show “who is in charge” and reinforces Orwell’s assertion that “some animals are more equal than others”.

Austerity measures

Macharia Gaitho skewers this concept of “some animals are more equal than others” in his Tuesday, January 17 Daily Nation article entitled, ‘Stop the hypocrisy on belt tightening’. 

He writes that “If President Ruto expects the rest of us… to understand the need for austerity, he must lead from the front”. Indeed, anything else will only show that “some animals are more equal than others”.

In Glory, the Old Horse (representing the President) wastes resources with an ironic list of ministers (some totally unnecessary): “The Minister of the Revolution, the Minister of Corruption, the Minister of Order, the Minister of Things, the Minister of Nothing, the Minister of Propaganda, the Minister of Homophobic Affairs, the Minister of Disinformation, the Minister of Looting”. 

This is a damning charge sheet with a sense of déjà vu considering the questionable ministries and other positions in some governments in Africa, sometimes created to provide jobs for cronies (some who are totally unqualified). 

Bulawayo, in her novel, Glory, immerses us in the unending cloud of the chaos of an imploding country with the masses struggling in poverty. 

This mass of animal characters symbolises the mass of Zimbabweans or even the mass of Kenyan “hustlers” living in bleak circumstances. 

For them, sometimes a blinkered and broken people in constant struggle, the world is a brutal place of exponential uncertainty and want—the want of all things. 

Bulawayo has felt the depth of the abyss of African power politics and has explored greed and social decay in a dark parable — Armageddon style — leaving little room for hope in the inconceivable tragedy and grand catastrophes of the human condition. 

Blow to the corrupt

The result is a mighty punch to the corrupt systems in African leadership.

A warning to leaders and aspiring leaders who want to change circumstances for the mass of “hustlers” is given in the closing scenes of Animal Farm as a caution to all would-be liberators everywhere. 

A critic summed it up thus: “At the end of Animal Farm, Pilkington and other human farmers come to eat dinner with the pigs at the farmhouse. As the other animals watch through the window, they find they are unable to tell pigs and humans apart. The pigs have started to dress and behave exactly like humans”.

In Kenya, the recently elected leaders should be careful lest they fall into the same trap they have criticised their predecessors for and therefore betray the people who elected them like in Animal Farm, where the pigs (victims) started dressing and behaving exactly like humans (the oppressors). 

It’s a warning to all of us. 

It’s very easy to cross from victim to oppressor with power and resources at hand. 

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory are illuminating warning shots into a dark sky from high-calibre literary guns.