In February this year, I started what I call the ‘Orwell Project’. The project will see George Orwell’s beloved Animal Farm translated and published in all the indigenous languages that are taught in Zimbabwe’s schools. Animal Farm has long been one of my favourite novels. I have a vivid memory of first reading it. I was a skinny and lonely girl at a boarding school in Chishawasha, Zimbabwe. I was 13 years old and my best friends were the characters in the books that I read. I lived in my books.

Moving between the innocence of childhood and the cynicism of adulthood, the early teenage years are the years of discovery. In those crucial years, you find out not only that the social order you are part of is deeply unjust, but that adults will kill and tell all sorts of lies to maintain, support and justify that injustice. At the same time, you are keenly sensitive to beauty, to virtue, to truth and to justice. You see the world in black and white, in purely Manichean terms; it is about good versus evil and you long for good to prevail.

It was in this frame of mind that I came across Animal Farm. Like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which I read in that same year, Animal Farm gave me a clear-sighted understanding of the difference between what the world is like and how the world should be. The animals’ revolution against man was so pure, so noble, and so right. Then for that revolution to be betrayed in such a callous manner by their own comrades was just so wrong and so unjust. My 13-year-old self found the end of the novel almost unbearable. I finished it and burst into tears. But the sort of school I went to did not encourage that sort of reaction to fiction. So I kept my dismay to myself and read it again. Later that year, when we studied the history of Soviet Russia, I came to understand that Animal Farm was an allegory for that tainted revolution. Over the years, I have come to see that this touchstone novel is about all manner of revolutions, including the one in my own country.

Zimbabwe was born out of a revolution against an unjust white minority government which oppressed its black citizens, who made up the majority. Black people could not vote unless they met certain property-related conditions. Black people could not participate in political life outside narrowly defined ‘native’ affairs. Black people could not own land in defined areas. They were doomed never to rise beyond lowly stations: education was bottlenecked to allow only a limited number of black people to qualify for the jobs that were necessary for running the country. Like that of the animals in Animal Farm, the revolution of Zimbabwe’s black majority was a just one.

But in the 35 years since independence, the architects of Zimbabwe’s revolution, chief among them the country’s first leader President Robert Mugabe, have used this very fact to justify perpetrating the kind of abuses they had fought against. Like the pigs in Animal Farm, Zimbabwe’s leaders have hijacked a revolution rooted in righteous outrage, not only for personal gain but also to remain in power with no accountability to the suffering people who put them in power.

The novel’s relevance to Zimbabwe is what inspired me to work on a Shona translation of Animal Farm. The term of copyright in Zimbabwe expires 50 years after the death of the author. When Animal Farm was serialised in English by a Zimbabwean newspaper in 2005, it was a smashing success. It has never been published in any of Zimbabwe’s indigenous languages. Working with a group of Orwell enthusiasts, I have started the project of translating the novel into my native Shona language. Initially an internal academic exercise, the Orwell Project is now fired by a passionate determination within the group to ensure that Animal Farm is published in all the taught languages of Zimbabwe. I am particularly pleased that we will produce a version in Tonga, a minority language that has been woefully neglected, as well as in the Ndebele language. We have the blessing of the Orwell estate, who are delighted to see Orwell’s work appear in three previously unpublished languages.

By the beginning of 2016, I am hoping that many Zimbabweans, even those who enjoyed Animal Farm in English, will love reading in their own language a universal novel that speaks with prescient eloquence about what went wrong in their beautiful country.

Petina Gappah author picture credit Marina Cavazza
Credit: Marina Cavazza

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean lawyer who lives and works in Geneva. Her first book, the critically acclaimed shorts story collection An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Award in 2009 and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2010. Her most recent book, The Book of Memory, a novel, was published in September 2015.

Petina Gappah’s novel The Book of Memory is available from Foyles.

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