NoViolet Bulawayo intended to write a non-fiction account of the 2017 coup that deposed Robert Mugabe and made Emmerson Mnangagwa, his one-time deputy, the third president of Zimbabwe. But she couldn’t keep up with the changing political situation. There was a sense of bitterness: the coup wasn’t the new beginning many had hoped for. When Zimbabweans took to the streets and, in ever larger numbers, to social media to express their frustration, she noticed that they often quoted from Animal Farm, which reminded her of the animal stories her grandmother had told her. Bulawayo’s non-fiction work became Glory, an allegorical satire set in a fictional republic populated by horses, hens, crocodiles and goats.
Glory is not a Zimbabwean Animal Farm, however. The novel not only deals with corruption following a coup, but with the difficult birth of a new nation, which, in Bulawayo’s writing, is more often likened to defecation. ‘If you have any ears,’ the First Lady of Jidada warns her subjects, ‘you’ll heed my advice because what you’re doing is swallowing all manner of big rocks, and very soon it shall be seen just how wide your asshole is when those very rocks will need to be shat!’ In Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names (2013), the ten-year-old narrator and her destitute friends raid the abandoned home of a white farmer in search of food, stuffing themselves with whatever they can find. When they are full, they wander off in search of a bathroom, but there’s ‘a terrible reeking smell’ and ‘there, near the toilet we see the words Blak Power written in brown faeces on the large bathroom mirror.’ In Glory, the ‘wretched Comrades on the Seat of Power’ are described as ‘fathers [of the nation], as much as heaps of dried turds could ever be fathers of anything’, and members of a ‘savage callous regime that could’ve been conceived out of the devil’s anus’. When the birth of the nation is a birth, labour is premature, painful or violent. But as Tuvius Delight Shasha, the president’s rival and the current vice president of Jidada, puts it: ‘Show me a nation that was born without blood.’
Bulawayo’s Comrades on the Seat of Power echo El Hadji, the businessman with erectile dysfunction who represents the failings of Léopold Sedar Senghor’s government in Ousmane Sembène’s Xala (1973), or the ‘Nkrumaists’ of Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968). (She also shares Armah’s way with filth.) There is nothing new in her account of euphoria giving way to disappointment in the post-independence era. Glory’s originality lies elsewhere. Bulawayo uses an omniscient narrator to tell the story of the Seat of Power; Twitter threads and fragments of conversations for the voices of ordinary citizens; the first-person plural for Jidadans’ shared experiences; and oral storytelling for the family history of Destiny, a returnee goat, and her mother. Perspective, voice and tone shift continually throughout the book.
The novel opens on Independence Day. Supporters of the Party of Power have gathered to celebrate the Father of the Nation. The Old Horse, who has ruled Jidada for four decades, is no longer the charismatic young stallion he once was: between spells of confusion and a brief nap on the podium, he manages to deliver a garbled speech about the duplicitous opposition and Western efforts to topple his regime. But when the Sisters of the Disappeared, a group of ‘femal’ activists (there are two genders in Glory, mals and femals), stage a naked protest to disrupt the celebration, the Old Horse knows exactly what to say: ‘They are being used,’ he tells his audience. ‘They are part and parcel of the unending tactics by the West whose main agenda … is to destabilise us by … attacking our core values, beliefs, lifestyles, our culture.’ He has survived every attempt to topple his regime, but now he is facing an unassailable opponent: old age. The Old Horse is forced to spend much of his time outside his beloved Jidada, ‘having his blood flushed out’ and ‘having every imaginable replaceable part of him replaced with the organs of young and healthy stallions’. Even his wife, Marvellous, a donkey popularly known as Dr Sweet Mother, knows his days are numbered.
Dr Sweet Mother has her own agenda. Unlike the Old Horse, whose education and eloquence are a point of personal and national pride, Dr Sweet Mother and the other animals on the Seat of Power have acquired their academic credentials through dubious means. (We get a glimpse of her rudimentary education when she touches ‘up on her mathematics’ by counting the apples on a tree.) But what she lacks in formal education, Dr Sweet Mother makes up for in self-confidence, street smarts and ambition. In her Independence Day speech, she denounces Tuvy’s ambitions to succeed the Old Horse, but she is quietly plotting to bypass the Seat of Power and install herself as leader. Bulawayo has chosen her animals carefully: Dr Sweet Mother is a donkey (not a horse) because she didn’t fight in the revolution and therefore doesn’t belong to the inner circle of ‘independence heroes’ who make up the Seat of Power. She doesn’t lack ferocity, however. ‘The donkey may not have fought in the famous and defining Liberation War, but the sticks and stones of Jidada would tell you that even with just her mouth alone she could do serious battle and slay.’ The sun symbolises the Old Horse’s grip on power; it only rises above Jidada to cheer on the country’s rightful ruler. But when Dr Sweet Mother delivers her speech, the sun blazes ‘like it’d never blazed before’.
Unlike Tuvy, however, Dr Sweet Mother can’t rely on the support of Jidada’s Defenders, a group of dogs that make up the country’s security forces. As the power struggle between the two comes to a head, we begin to catch glimpses of Jidada’s murky history. We discover that many liberation heroes died around the time of independence and that it was the Old Horse who ordered their deaths. Dr Sweet Mother despises the ‘useless, geriatric so-called Liberator Comrades still stuck on a miserable war … that wouldn’t otherwise have been won without the superior military power of Jidada’s first ever Revolutionary Party that the Seat of Power cruelly turned against’ – an allusion to Mugabe and Zanu’s repression of Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu after independence. (Nkomo appears in Glory as Father Jidada, the true father of the nation.) But she is not above using violent methods to further her own cause. Dr Sweet Mother and the Old Horse make several attempts on Tuvy’s life, including ‘three more traffic accidents, four kidnapping attempts and four drive-by shootings’. But he remains unscathed. When he is excommunicated from the party, Tuvy and the senior generals begin to plan a new coup to ‘defend the revolution’. But how can you defend the revolution against the personification of the revolution itself?
The Seat of Power and the Defenders claim to be protecting the anti-colonial revolution from anyone who might try to reverse its achievements. In practice, however, this means crushing dissent among the animals of Jidada. Authoritarian rule is justified by anti-imperialist credentials: the horses, after all, protect Jidada’s sovereignty against foreign aggressors. Theirs is a limited perspective, which equates glory with a narrow view of self-determination; as the Old Horse puts it: ‘I am very pleased and honoured to say these indeed are the days of glory, days in which we are fully in charge of our destiny.’ To preserve this glory, the Seat of Power insists, it must curb the influence of the West, which is to blame for
neo-colonialism, for capitalism, for racism, for economic sanctions, for ugly trade practices, for aid addiction, for the cutting down of factories and businesses in Jidada, for the absence of jobs, for the poor performance of farms, for the brain drain, for the homosexuals, for the power cuts and water cuts, for the miserable state of Jidada’s public schools and government hospitals and bridges and public toilets and public libraries, for the loose morals among the youth, for the potholes on the roads and the unpicked trash on the streets, for the black market, for the fluctuating crime rates, for the atrocious pass rate in national examinations, for the defeat of the Jidada national soccer team at the recent continental finals, for the drought, for the strange phenomenon of married men having second families on the side called small houses, for the rise in sorcery, for the dearth of production of exciting works by local poets and writers.
This litany stands in contrast to the other image promoted by the Party of Power, of Jidada as a sovereign nation. Have Jidadans escaped the shackles of imperialism or is their political and economic development determined from outside? The Old Horse is never quite able to make up his mind.
The dependence of African states on countries in the global north is a recurring theme in Bulawayo’s writing. The publication of We Need New Names led to a debate about the state of publishing in Africa; the Nigerian novelist Helon Habila criticised its ‘Caine-prize aesthetic’ and questioned whether such novels did more than reproduce stereotypes about ‘child soldiers, genocide, child prostitution, female genital mutilation, political violence, police brutality, dictatorships, predatory preachers [and] dead bodies on the roadside’. (Bulawayo’s short story ‘Hitting Budapest’, on which the novel is based, won the Caine Prize for African writing in 2011 and features many of the themes Habila listed.) But, as the academic Sarah Brouillette has pointed out, the children in We Need New Names have no choice but to perform poverty and suffering in order to solicit donations from the developed world: that was Bulawayo’s point. She is alert to the failures of African governments in promoting writers and publishers on the continent. Funding for African literature comes largely from American and European charities or private foundations, and the works themselves are consumed by audiences in the global north, meaning that there is relatively little opportunity, or incentive, for African novelists to build a local readership. We Need New Names isn’t poverty porn but a reckoning with the structures that determine which literary works are produced and how they are read. In this situation, Bulawayo asks, what can a writer do but perform?
Glory is interspersed with the accounts of ordinary Jidadan citizens, who express their thoughts on the political situation. The repeated use of tholukuthi (meaning something like ‘only to discover’), a phrase taken from the song ‘Tholukuthi, Hey!’, which became a meme at the time of the coup, is another nod to the omnipresence of social media in Zimbabwean political life. But Bulawayo errs on the side of caution when it comes to the transformative power of what Jidadans call ‘the Other Country’: ‘Jidada was actually not a country but two countries – there was of course the Country that was the real, physical space in which Jidadans walked and lived and queued and suffered and got pained, and then there was the Other Country, where Jidadans logged on and roared and raged and vented.’
In 2016, a member of the Zimbabwean parliament responded to the #ThisFlag online protest movement by insisting that Mugabe could not be ‘tweeted out of power’. Like #ThisFlag, the ‘Free Jidada’ movement in Glory might embarrass the Party of Power, but because it happened ‘on the internet’, it isn’t really a threat. The party simply adapts: it employs bots and uses fake accounts and undercover operatives acting as opposition activists. As one party member reminds his comrades, there isn’t a ‘Free Jidada’ party running in the election. The movement is destined to remain exactly where it started, online.
In July 2020, the Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested by Mnangagwa’s security forces after attending anti-government protests. Both she and the journalist Julie Barnes, who carried placards calling for political reform and the release of imprisoned journalists, were charged with inciting political violence and have appeared in court more than 25 times. Although a police officer admitted to manipulating evidence, the case hasn’t been dropped and Dangarembga faces several years in prison. In Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe, as in Jidada, citizens are persecuted just for speaking up. But for Bulawayo, speaking truth to power doesn’t always take the form of direct confrontation; the quiet gossip of Jidadans, for example, plays an important role in the novel. The main plot – the coup against the Old Horse and Tuvy’s rise to power – is accompanied by their whispering. When his own Defenders take the Old Horse hostage at his mansion and broadcast the images across the country, Jidadans have already come to accept that the Father of the Nation is ‘a ghost of himself … a miserable cheap cell phone on the last 2 per cent of its power’. There had long been rumours about his deteriorating health and the images of the dishevelled Old Horse only confirm these suspicions. The initial response to the ‘bloodless’ coup that follows is enthusiastic but cautious: Jidadans hope it will bring change, but many are sceptical about Tuvy and the Defenders, who are, after all, the very same animals that had oppressed them.
The few remaining supporters of the Old Horse blame Dr Sweet Mother for his fall. Prophet Dr O.G. Moses – founder of the ‘famed Soldiers of Christ Prophetic Church of Churches’ (and a pig) – insists that women shouldn’t wield political power because it disrupts the fragile social order (‘my femal has her own God-given place, and that place is definitely not in insulting honourables at rallies, but rather in the home and church, Amen!’). Some femals have internalised these prejudices: when Destiny, a goat who has returned after a decade abroad, meets some of her mother’s friends again, they bombard her with questions about when she plans to marry and have children. The women of Lozikeyi take pride in performing the gender roles they’ve been assigned – it provides a distraction from the mass unemployment in the township. The ‘housewives and home keepers prove their femalness and earn the attendant respect … by the kemptness of their yards, by the sparklingness of their verandas and the cleanliness of their homes’. There aren’t jobs for them, even if they wanted them.
Comrade Nevermiss Nzinga, a hen who has dedicated her life to the liberation of Jidada and proudly retains her nom de guerre, offers a different vision of femalness. She defends Destiny against the older animals and even accuses them of being the ‘very same femals who, when some of us joined the struggle for Jidada’s liberation, were busy judging us, preaching that it was our responsibility to stay home and conceive’. Because Jidada was not ‘liberated through testicles’ alone, she says, femals, too, deserve to taste the fruits of independence. But her words make little difference. Anyone who doesn’t conform to the party’s image of masculinity is treated as suspect (party propaganda points to the ‘queer oppositiony tendencies’ of citizens who question its rule). To make life more bearable, some of the older femals find solace in an idealised pre-colonial past:
And with their minds and their mouths, they propel themselves and each other into a past before Jidada was Jidada, and then past that past to the many pasts of their mothers, and then past to the past-past-past, yes, tholukuthi back when rocks were so soft you could pinch them and draw blood, when mountains were still growing, when gods roamed the earth … before greedy colonists came with guns, divided the earth among themselves like there was nobody on it already, flew strange rags in the air called flags and said, Let there be Country-Countries.
Bulawayo describes colonisation as a disenchantment of the earth. Mbuya Nehanda, the spirit medium, or sangoma, who was hanged in 1898 by the British for leading the Chimurenga revolt against the British South Africa Company figures in Glory as the spirit of resistance that was lost when Jidada became a nation-state. While Dr Prophet O.G. Moses is praised for preaching a Christianity that is entirely compatible with the oppression of Jidadan femals, Duchess, a cat sangoma who can communicate with the ancestors, is dismissed as a ‘pagan heathen’ for preserving the spiritual traditions that might allow Jidadans to continue their ancestors’ unfinished fight for justice.
When the Old Horse roams the streets of Jidada in disguise after the coup, he is confronted with the miserable state of the country he has governed for almost half a century. Educated professionals spend their time exchanging worthless Jidadan currency for US dollars. Later in the novel, we are introduced to Mr Cheda, a maths teacher who has left his job to become a vendor. He now roams the township selling bread and offering tutoring services. While the animals in the Seat of Power brandish their PhDs (‘What’s the name of that motherfucking certificate hanging in my office, Comrade?’ Tuvy asks one of his generals), most Jidadans with advanced degrees have no use for them. This is not a nation of intellectuals, as the Old Horse had allowed himself to believe, but of hustlers struggling to make a living.
Life hadn’t always been this way. Galloping around the country in a daze, the Old Horse remembers times when Jidada produced real goods and paid for things with ‘real Jidadan money’. Encountering a stretch of disused railway, he is reminded of the battles fought by the Liberators to reclaim this symbol of colonial domination. During the ‘days of glory’
a liberated Jidada also thrived on the railway. The trains came from all over the country. Carrying coal. Asbestos. Gold. Iron ore. Platinum. Cement. Fertiliser. Clothes. Cotton. Trains carrying tobacco. Wheat. Coffee. Sugar cane. Maize. Peanuts. Trains headed to Botswana. South Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo. Zambia. Angola. Mozambique … trains carrying the bounty of … the then breadbasket of Africa, Jidada, a treasure trove of boundless natural wealth.
After four decades of misrule, the Jidadan railways have fallen into disrepair. The members of the Party of Power raided the state coffers to enrich themselves and Jidada’s ‘miserable, pothole-infested roads’ are now filled with ‘ugly vendors and ill-mannered beggars and wretched delinquent orphans’. Tuvy, who is said to rule the country from the skies, spends most of his time flying abroad in his private jet to charm investors.
The citizens of Jidada are trapped in a cycle of rigged elections. Destiny remembers the euphoria of the first democratic elections evaporating. The opposition won, but the Old Horse and Tuvy ‘simply refused to honour the vote’. Destiny and the other residents of Lozikeyi hope that this time things will be different; they even scold non-voters for failing to exercise their civic duty. But as the results come in, it’s clear this election has also been stolen. When they take to the streets to protest, Tuvy sends out his Defenders:
As it was upon us in the last election, just as it was upon us in the one before that, as it was upon us in the election prior to that, yes, tholukuthi as it has always been upon us. There is the all-too-familiar thwack-smash of hard weapon on flesh, gunshots, screams. Stampedes, chaos, the stench of the Revolution being defended, screams. Wounded flesh, blood in the streets, blood in the gutters, screams. Bodies – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven – drop dead, screams. Up in the sky, clouds turn the colour of bruises. And the air so hot, so thick with tear gas we cannot see, we cannot breathe.
The narrative is briefly interrupted here by a social media event. A video circulates showing a ‘Black [American] brother’ being murdered by white Defenders. He, too, can’t breathe. Bulawayo briefly shifts away from the satirical tone of the earlier parts of the novel, and we forget that this is a fictional world inhabited by animals. But we never find out what binds the Jidadan animals to Black Americans. Is it a solidarity based on race, on Blackness? What does Blackness mean in the animal world of Glory?
Jidada is deeply in debt to the International Monetary Fund and Tuvy’s new finance minister, ‘an economics wizard’ (and a pig, a clumsy choice, given the possible antisemitic connotations), has been chosen in the hope that he can navigate the new imperial order. (He walks into a room full of Westerners and owns it ‘as if it were his grandmother’s township kitchen’.) He even takes Tuvy to the World Economic Forum in Davos to cosy up to players from the various international organisations. But Tuvy doesn’t seem too concerned about servicing Jidada’s mounting debt. In a futile effort to salvage the country’s finances, the finance minister advises the Seat of Power to reduce personal spending. But Tuvy shuts him down: ‘I know you just came on board, but in the Seat of Power, in the Party of Power, how we do things, how we’ve always done things is, it takes a village.’
The ‘new scramble for Africa’ is underway and Jidada is ‘open for business’; those who want to enrich themselves have to act quickly. But the pickings are not just divided among Western powers. ‘Chinese businessmals’ have their sights set on Jidada’s mineral wealth: ‘We especially feel that friendship in your allowing us to come as we want and mine all and any of the minerals as we please, it reminds me very much like an eat-all-you-want Chinese buffet,’ one of the businessmals tells the Seat of Power. Bulawayo’s depiction of Chinese characters is unsubtle and reproduces prejudices about the Chinese presence in Africa. Because the only Chinese characters are cynical businessmals, one gets the sense that all Chinese animals are complicit in the exploitation of Jidada. Not everyone is happy about these new ‘friends’. Dick Mampara, Tuvy’s minister for disinformation (who named both of his sons ‘Jameson’, after the whiskey), describes the effects of Chinese mining on his grandmother’s village. The slippery question at the heart of the novel is what happens to an independent nation when colonisers are replaced by multinational corporations, who exploit the country with the help of the local elite?
A fictionalised retelling of the Gukurahundi massacre of 1982-87 allows Bulawayo to trace the origins of fracture in Jidada. On 3 January 1983, Mugabe sent the Fifth Brigade, a special unit of majority-Shona troops trained in counterinsurgency by the North Koreans, to suppress anti-government ‘dissent’ among the rural population in the majority-Ndebele Matabeleland North Province. Gukurahundi is a Shona term that translates as ‘the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains’; genocide was thus presented as a cleansing shower. In Glory, Shonamals and Ndebelemals stand in for their human counterparts, but Bulawayo is careful not to trivialise the massacre. For several bleak pages, Simiso, Destiny’s mother, describes the Defenders’ raid on their village. Anyone who wasn’t a member of the Jidada party, which is composed almost entirely of Shonamals, was a potential enemy. The village residents, all Ndebelemals, are repeatedly told that they do not belong, that their ancestors came ‘from somewhere else to seize territory from our ancestors and rubbish their kingdom’. The implications of the new founding myth are clear.
Destiny asks her mother to tell her the family history that she has kept secret for so long. The history of the Gukurahundi as experienced by the Khumalo family is told in a series of snapshot memories – Simiso can only bring herself to remember the traumatic experiences of her childhood in fragments. She and Destiny are the only surviving members of their family, all of whom were betrayed, in one way or another, by the revolution.
Mother and daughter experience state violence as cyclical; the Seat of Power and its Defenders resort to the same tactics in 1983 and in 2008, when Destiny leaves. Bulawayo uses this to examine the supposedly cyclical nature of some ‘African’ conceptions of time. The late Kenyan priest and philosopher John S. Mbiti argued that African time is a two-dimensional phenomenon with a long past (Zamani), a present (Sasa) and ‘virtually no future’. In Bulawayo’s telling, Jidadans are denied a future by their corrupt politicians, and have only a past (the founding myth of the nation) and an interminable present (the Party of Power’s rule).
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s novel House of Stone (2018) also pivots around the Gukurahundi. Tshuma, however, is far more interested in exploring the effects of this history on the lives of her characters. Bulawayo’s protagonist is only introduced a third of the way through the novel, and never really develops as a character; Destiny’s story is simply aligned with the fate of the nation. Simiso tells Destiny that her grandfather named her
Lozikeyi for the brilliant, influential Queen of the Ndebele, a great and brave leader, according to Father. Destiny because he saw in the coincidence of your arrival and his return, a special significance – you, his very first grandchild, were his welcome gift from the ancestors, tied to his future, and, being that the country was finally free at last, he felt you were similarly Jidada’s gift; you were both his and the nation’s destiny, and similarly, your destiny lay in the New Jidada.
Her grandfather had intended to write a memoir about the tumultuous period after independence. ‘If I don’t write,’ he said to Simiso, ‘then who will I blame when I wake up one day to find myself in the belly of a crocodile that calls itself History, that devours the stories of everyone else and goes on to speak for us?’ He was killed before he could finish his book. Bulawayo’s choice of animal is again deliberate: Mnangagwa was a member of the Crocodile Gang, a group of anti-colonial fighters that attacked white-owned farms during the Rhodesian Bush War and is known as ‘the crocodile’. Later in the novel, a crocodile wearing a Jidada Party scarf appears in Lozikeyi, terrorising the township residents. But this time, the true revolutionaries take history into their own hands: the crocodile’s reign of terror ends when Comrade Nevermiss Nzinga (true to her name) guns it down.
On returning to Lozikeyi, Destiny, ‘who otherwise has never imagined herself a serious writer, sits and begins to write the story of 1983 in combination with her own story of 2008 as well as the story of her ten years in exile’. Here, Bulawayo joins the long list of African novelists – Sembène, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and others – who argue that the project of nation-building or reconciliation requires a reimagining of the past. Destiny finishes her book, but the story doesn’t end there. I won’t give away the ending, but Jidada’s fate contrasts with political realities in its inspiration, Zimbabwe.
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