Essay: Painting the Roses Red by Robert Glancy

July 6, 2016


Robert Glancy was born in Zambia and raised in Malawi. At fourteen he moved from Africa to Edinburgh then went on to study history at Cambridge. His first novel, Terms & Conditions, was published to critical acclaim. He has recently been awarded the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship in New Zealand, where he currently lives with his wife and children. His latest novel is Please Do Not Disturb set in the fictional African country Bwalo. (See our recent interview with Robert Glancy here.) In this essay, Painting the Roses Red, Glancy talks Africa’s dictators, Margaret Thatcher and growing up in Malawi.



At the dawn of Zimbabwe’s independence, Samora Machel told Robert Mugabe, ‘You have the jewel of Africa in your hands.’

Tragically we know how that ended. But many forget that moment of hope. The great hope of independence, the first opportunity for Africa to stop being a colonial outpost for megalomaniacs like Cecil Rhodes, and instead, for Africa to be shaped by Africans. My parents volunteered smack bang in the middle of that hope, as the Empire’s grip was finally slipping. And they often tell me of the thrill and joy of Kaunda taking power in Zambia, Banda becoming the first Malawian president, Mugabe being Zimbabwe’s great hope. Those post-colonialheroes held the dreams of their people in their hands – only to squander them.

Africa is far from a hopeless place but it’s had its fair share of great expectations followed by breathtaking disappointments. What become of that hope?

I left Malawi at 14, so my childhood and Africa are tightly interwoven. When I left in 1989, on the surface at least, Malawi was a successful post-colonial nation – The Warm Heart of Africa. So much so that both Thatcher and the Pope made official visits that year. Perfect PR campaigns with waving crowds and smiling politicians.

Malawi was considered such a success that Thatcher, ever ready to steal credit, went so far as to not only praise Banda’s efforts, which – ever the schoolmarm – she called, ‘very impressive’, but to describe herself as ‘the midwife’ of Malawi. Her logic being that she was a Member of Parliament in 1969 when Malawi was fighting for independence, and therefore she had some hand in its birth. Logic so tenuous as to be borderline insane.

Thatcher probably envied Banda’s total control, for he had no parliament, nor opposition. And, for those not looking too closely, Malawi was the perfect post-colonial nation. A plucky young country making the best of it with the support of both its prior oppressor, the British Empire, and Rome no less. What I didn’t know, couldn’t know – because I was too young and the media was so tightly controlled – was that it took a lot of terror to achieve that much peace.

As a boy these visits thrilled me. I lined up and sang my heart out when the Pope and Thatcher came; it was exciting to have big people come to our little town. Everything, at least everything the dignitaries saw, was fixed: potholes filled, shops painted, everything made immaculate. Malawi became a stage in which Banda was the star and his people the actors.

Or maybe it was a nightmare for citizens cast in the dream of their dictator. For these perfectly orchestrated visits were studies in propaganda and control. As I grew older I came to appreciate that there were two Malawis – the utopia of my childhood and the dystopia of a dictatorship.

Distraction is an essential tool of dictatorships. Invite dignitaries, host huge celebrations and keep your people distracted from their own poverty. The documentary, When We Were Kings, charts Muhammad Ali’s fight against Foreman, but more fascinating than the fight is how Mobutu, Zaire’s dictator, exploited the event as a PR coup.

There is a story Norman Mailer recounts in the documentary: before the event, Mobutu rounded up many criminals, then randomly – that’s the key word – picked a hundred of them and, in front of the others, executed them. Which was Mobutu’s way of saying, no connection, no family, no blood makes you bigger than me, and that while the world is watching nothing will disrupt the perception of perfection.

Official visits are ambivalent affairs. On the one hand they absolve dictators by showing a perfect version of their nation, where no blood trickles from backstage. On the other hand they can sometimes shine a spotlight on nations in need.

Most important is the question of who is holding the spotlight. And when talking about special visitors to Malawi we can’t forget Madonna. When people ask where I was brought up I tell them, and they respond with a vague look. When I make the joke, ‘It’s where Madonna finds her babies,’ they shriek, ‘That’s it! I knew I knew it from somewhere!’

More than the Pope and Thatcher, Madonna put Malawi on the map. Not always for the right reasons. For though she came with the best intentions of opening a school, it fell apart due to mismanagement in which funds were allegedly squandered on cars and golf memberships.

Geldof proved that it takes a lot of pop stars to force us to look beyond our homes. And the celebrity method is not all bad. It’s good in that we donate money and – even with the attrition of corruption – aid saves lives. But it’s bad in that, though entirely unintentional, celebrities add to the absurdity of tragic situations, which is more damaging than it sounds. Because all that shining hope squandered by the ‘heroes’ of independence, has the potential to sour into something incredibly harmful – and that is farce.

Unlike tragedy, farce is easy to laugh at, shrug off, turn away from. Farce is a useful trope for fiction but a trap for countries struggling to be taken seriously. Watching Madonna’s good intentions go awry; watching Mugabe scoff cake at his extravagantly expensive birthday; seeing the unveiling of an expensive monument to Banda in a place where many are starving – all of this makes a farce of what is in fact tragedy.

Unbridled despotism sprinkled with stage-managed political visits and the circus of celebrity philanthropy, are really what most people see of African nations. This is particularly bad at a time when even the relatively affluent West is struggling with refugees, financial crisis, and the immanent peril of its own farce-monster – Donald Trump. And charity is a finite resource, there is only so much people can afford to care. All of which makes many of these places in need that little bit easier for weary people to ignore.