Surviving the Great Robbery

Mukai No 67, August/Sept 2014

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo, Weaver Press, 2013, pp 294.

Reviewed by Oskar Wermter SJ

I see in the main characters, young street children in Bulawayo, a reflection of their elders; their poverty is an indictment of those who robbed them.  The world that comes to light in this narrative has many dimensions, by no means all in harmony with one another, because it is complex and contradictory, and the writer did not simplify it into a political pamphlet or reduce it to an ideological thesis.  She  managed to let the real Zimbabwe with all its crazy contortions appear on the pages of this book.

The main events of the last thirty years are all there. Darling, the narrator, is losing her father who is dying of AIDS. He was torn away from his family by  the great robbery that left him without a job and forced him to flee to South Africa. His little house, betraying middle-class aspirations, was flattened by bulldozers  sent by government. He must have picked up the “disease” from casual contacts in exile, just as his wife needs male visitors in her shack at night to make ends meet, as Darling cannot help noticing.

The collapse of the health services is exploited “Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro”.  He is a rapist, a robber and a fraud, with the appearance of a clown.  The crowd does not lynch him for raping a possessed woman, but applauds him for driving out her demon.  Just as mesmerized crowds in Zimbabwe celebrate their leaders  as ‘divine’ who rape their country, deceive and rob them. Darling remembers even him with fondness, because he is part of home. But she does not pray to his god though God appears on the sidelines.

Darling, Stina, Chipo, Sbho, Forgiveness, Godknows and Bastard have no functioning families, as far as the reader can make out. They have to work out some sort of coping mechanism – you can’t call it morals – to get by from day to day.  It is guava season and they are addicted to the fruit, so they raid the gardens street by street. But they have decided not to graduate to “professional” level. 

Chipo, still a child, is pregnant, or rather has a “stomach” in the street language of the kids which the author uses without embarrassment: she is not writing “literature” with its own medium. The language of her characters is also her language.

They decide to remove Chipo’s “stomach” with a coat-hanger. They are “doing their own thing”, like adults, adopting new roles, and give themselves “new names”.  Still, this time they fail. Chipo eventually has her baby and calls it Darling.  Big Darling only hears about it long after she has settled in her dream country with Aunt Fostalina.

Both in the old and the new country sex is experimental, casual. Relationships have no permanence, express nothing, mean very little.

The author left for America at the age of 18, and her book is really about migration, a clash of cultures, loss of identity, about material security which goes together with  greater emotional insecurity and loss of orientation than ever before.

But the memories are strong. The roots cannot simply be cut. However rootless and homeless Darling’s street gang was , she is haunted by the old life, even as she is jobbing, making money and attending college to be better able to come out tops in a competitive society.

The latest social media gadgets keep Darling in touch with the land of the ancestors. It pains her to think about it. Chipo gives a spirited reply, “You are not the one suffering…..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….” Darling insists it’s her country too. “Why did you run off to America, Darling Nonkululeko Nkala, huh? Why did you just leave? If it’s your country, you have to love to live in it and not leave it. You have to fight for it no matter what, to make it right. Tell me, do you abandon your house because it’s burning or do you find water to put out the fire?”

But the diaspora also gets its chance to declare itself. Chapter 16 “How they lived” is the great elegy of the migrants. It is no longer Darling, one girl’s voice, moody, at times obscene, flippant, speaking, but a collective We. The words weep, wail, cry  deep down.  There is a different tone now. There is the pain of the “illegals” who are imprisoned in their new paradise: they cannot leave to see their dying parents. “When we die, our children will not know how to wail, how to mourn us the right way. …. We will leave for the land of the dead naked…”  Just listening to this cry of the migrants makes the whole book worthwile.

It is not propaganda or hate speech. Rather a tale of tears, wiped away now and then by laughter, and more tears. Will nobody feel shame for having caused these tears?