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NoViolet Bulawayo: We Need New Names

It is no secret that Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is a dismal place to live for most of its inhabitants. Mugabe is not mentioned by name in this book, though there are references to the president. However, Noviolet Bulawayo’s first novel is not a political polemic, despite the fact that she certainly shows the unpleasant side of life in Zimbabwe. The story is narrated by a ten-year old Zimbabwean girl called Darling. She lives in the wittily named shanty town of Paradise. The better-off neighbourhood nearby is called Budapest, while nearby there is Shanghai, where the Chinese are currently building a mall. Darling and her friends go around in a gang. They do not go to school because all the teachers have left the country, as have many other adults, in order to find work, including Darling’s father. (He will later return, very ill, presumably with AIDS and, presumably, dying.) The gang – Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina – are led by (the self-appointed) Bastard. Chipo, though she is only eleven, is pregnant. She will not say who the father is.

As they do not have school and are rarely supervised, they spend their time in various activities. One of these activities is foraging for food. They particularly like going to the houses in Budapest and stealing guavas from the trees, though this tends to give them diarrhoea (Bulawayo spares us few details). Bastard has ambitions to extend their thieving activities. They also get food and gifts from the Chinese and from an NGO which comes regularly. Their other main activity is games. Their three main games are Find bin Laden, country-game and Andy-over. We get a detailed description of the country-game, which shows their knowledge of geopolitics. However, they invent another game, from which the book gets its title. This involves aborting Chipo with a coat hanger, though only the girls participate in this one. While doing this, one of the girls, who, unlike the others, has seen TV, suggests they should base it on the TV programme ER but, to do so, they need new names, names based on her recollection of ER. But it is not all fun. One day, they find a woman hanging from a tree. On another occasion, the police suddenly move into the shanty town with bulldozers and guns and destroy all the huts. They also witness (from up guava trees), an attack on a house occupied by whites by a group of militant blacks.

Darling lives with her mother and her grandmother, known as Mother Bones. Her mother’s twin sister, Aunt Fostalina, lives in DestroyedMichygen. It is Darling’s ambition to go and live with her aunt, as it is the ambition of the others to go abroad, particularly to the USA or the UK, though many of their fathers have had to settle for less, going to countries such as Namibia and South Africa, to find work. However, in the second part of the book, Darling is in Detroit, Michigan, living with her aunt, though they soon move to Kalamazoo. Aunt Fostalina is living with Uncle Kojo, a Ghanaian, who does not understand Zimbabwean culture and likes to spend his time in front of the TV, watching American football. They have a son called TK, whom Darling always calls Fat Boy TK and who spends his time eating and using his computer. Darling struggles to adapt. She is teased at school for her name, her accent, her hair and her clothes. She struggles with US slang. However, she gradually adapts. She and her female friends watch pornography on the computer (one of the chapters is called This Film Contains Some Disturbing Images) and go to the mall. But Darling is not happy in the US and is missing her friends.

This book, of course, is about cultural differences, how living in the US is different from living in the Zimbabwe. But, for Darling, despite the many advantages of living in the US – primarily material – home is home and nothing can replace it. As Chipo says to her towards the end: You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody. And, as Bulawayo herself says in the acknowledgements, quoting the Zulu proverb, Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (A person is a person because of other people) and being with your own people is usually best.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Reagan Arthur Books