NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names - Review Essay by Michael Etherton


NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel, We Need New Names, is a first-person narrative of a young girl from Southern Zimbabwe. Darling grows up here until about the age of 10, when she goes to the USA, to live with her Aunt Fostalina, first in Detroit, Michigan [‘DestroyedMichygen’] and then in Kalamazoo. The first half of the book, in Zimbabwe, is in the region called Matabeleland, the capital city of which is Bulawayo, Elizabeth Tshele’s pen-name and the setting for the story. Neither Zimbabwe nor Bulawayo are mentioned by name in the book, nor is the President, Robert Mugabe, but there are very obvious references to him and to the country over the first decade of the twenty first century, the period of Darling’s growing up.

I grew up in Bulawayo, five decades earlier, a white child in Matabeleland. I had an up-bringing which kept me completely unaware of the oppression by the adult whites of the mass of the indigenous population. A novel by the Zimbabwean writer, the late Yvonne Vera, Butterfly Burning, tells the tragic and painful love story of Phephelaphi who grows up in the Bulawayo’s black township in the late 1940s, where residents have been segregated from, and brutalized by, the white settlers. The whites are nearly all gone by the time of We Need New Names, twenty-plus years after Zimbabwean independence – though Darling does indeed witness, with her friends, an attack by Mugabe’s political cadres on a white couple who have stayed on and live in a Bulawayo suburb.

The place where you grow up is the centre of your world. It hardly needs a name, especially if you are poor and oppressed. In Darling’s direct childhood account of her life there, the absence of these defining names seems natural. She is telling us about her life, not about Zimbabwe or Bulawayo. But other places, states and countries you would prefer to be in, are definitely ‘names’. In fact, they are only names. The reality will be something other than the places imagined, as you struggle to survive in your only known world. From the beginning of the book Darling is dreaming of going to ‘myAmerica’, to ‘DestroyedMichygen’, which is gloriously everything that the makeshift slum, Paradise, in unnamed Bulawayo is not. Her Aunt is coming to fetch her. When Darling does get to Detroit, the white and black American demographic she meets have only the vaguest idea of ‘Africa’. The city of Bulawayo and Zimbabwe continue to remain unspecified and unnamed. If the place of her childhood is affectionately remembered in the second half of the book, the political oppression in her country is just as apparent and increasingly resented as she becomes a more savvy adolescent, particularly of Mugabe’s ethnic cleansing of her fellow amaNdabele countrymen.

She becomes aware of troubling paradoxes around her in the behaviour of others, and in herself too. She comes to embrace contradiction. These are marked by long silences in conversations, particularly in the mobile phone conversations she has with her mother and her childhood friends back home. She says she doesn’t know what to reply. She is unable to respond when she has conflicting answers in her head. She struggles to deal with the paradoxes she is now beginning to know. They are contradictions that migrants in America and Western Europe probably recognise in their own lives.

NoViolet Bulawayo is not writing a politically specific Zimbabwean novel, in the way in which Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning, or the much earlier book by Dambudzo Marechera, The House of Hunger, are indictments of Zimbabwe’s colonial past. Nor is We Need New Names essentially part of the growing body of post-colonial African literature. Her book has a much wider reference and a higher purpose. She wants to explore the global experience of asylum and economic migration, now, from dysfunctional and violent countries, of which Zimbabwe is but one example, to the affluent West. Bulawayo’s accomplished style and her ear for speech in a multi-language environment, has enabled her to create characters, like the central character of Darling, that show the reader, with great economy, what it means to be human and an illegal in the 21st century.

I shall try to show how Bulawayo does this, first through analysing the structure and then the narrative of the two halves of the book.


First-person narration in the created character of Darling, aged ten to about nineteen, is sustained throughout the book, However, there are three passages where an authorial voice intervenes and indicates a transition. The three transitional commentaries are, I think, threnodies. The first lament is for people leaving their settled homes. Then the second lament is for their lost countries. The final lament is for ‘illegals’ in a foreign land, psychologically unable to return home.

It is conceivable that the authorial voice is also the voice of the adult Darling, beyond the span of the novel. Darling’s own voice changes as she grows up. Not only does her lexicon begin to incorporate Americanisms, her commentary embraces more complex ideas. Her innocent enjoyment as a child of forbidden fruits – the stolen guavas, the painting of giant penises on the concrete fences of posh houses – has become more morally marked as an adolescent. The two distinct halves of the book are central to this contradiction of existential illegality. The first half is in Darling’s home-town in Africa today; the first two threnodies occur here; the second half is in America. There is one set of characters specific to Darling’s home and a different group around Darling in the United States.

The fracturing of place and characters deliberately disrupts the narrative: first, dislocation and not belonging; then, location and longing. For NoViolet Bulawayo, this is a universal experience among migrants. Not just migrants from Zimbabwe. People around the world are, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, fleeing the poverty and oppression of their home countries. The old and the new places are both awful; yet at the same time there is an even odder longing for both home and away. This is the cosmopolitan theme of her book. It is specifically stated in the latter two threnodies.

The first lament, “How They Came”, describes the people, internally displaced when their homes are flattened by bulldozers. They arrive with the bare detritus of their belongings, to set up in a makeshift slum, with what bits of plastic and tin and wood they have been able to save from the government’s destruction of their township houses. This threnody explains the genesis of the children’s slum milieu called Paradise. But even this home will soon be lost to Darling.

The second lament, “How They Left”, explores the world-wide scale of despair and departure:

Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those with loss are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders…. [p.145]

This lament closes the first half of the book, after a climax of chilling political thuggery, and moves us on to the second half.

The third threnody, “How They Lived”, occurs before the closing passages of the book:

And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides.1 They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is it where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled….. Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they were dying of cholera – of my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news…. Our smiles melted like dying shadows and we wept; wept for our blessed, wretched county…. [pp. 237, 238]

This sustained lament is longer than the previous one. It includes ‘illegals’ from all parts of the impoverished world, ending with their death in foreign parts in which they have chosen to live. But the dying away from home is naked, unsung, divorced from history and family – “forever waiting in the air like flags of unsung countries.” [p. 250]

There is no resolution to this contradiction in their lives, the paradox of the “wretched, blessed country”, and there is no ending in Darling’s story, neither tragedy nor happy ending.

We Need New Names just stops.

It stops in the midst of one of Darling’s reveries. There is no conclusion. Darling remains in the eye of contradiction, the slamming together in her memory of hurt and happiness, unable to resolve why she left and why she cannot go back. The end of the book is really just the beginning of Darling’s adult life – as an illegal? Where else? How else? But, strangely, this ending is not totally bleak; it is not tragedy. Rooted as the novel is in a common humanity, epitomised by the positive personality of Darling, there is still a possibility of a more comprehensive resolution in an unknown global future, yet to unfold.

How They Left: the first half of the book

The book steps through Darling’s narrative by way of set scenes of certain events. These are more obviously marked in the first half and involve her and her five slum friends. Chipo and Bastard are eleven; Darling and Godknows, ten; Sbho is nine; no one knows how old Stina is because “they lost his birth certificate”. Three girls, Chipo, Darling and Sbho; and three boys. They live in Paradise, the collection of shacks from where they roam about Bulawayo, hungry, playing games, stealing guavas from posh houses.

This last is the event of the first scene, Chapter 1: “Hitting Budapest”. Budapest is the suburb of large houses in their own grounds in which there are guava trees. Darling gives a non-judgemental account of what happens. This is the beginning of an uncomplaining record of her life. Lying beneath it, though, is a staccato and shadowy narrative of political oppression and social disruption, which she doesn’t understand. This becomes coherent as Darling’s story progresses in America.

The actual events of this submerged story are a part of the history of Mugabe’s government’s suppression of the amaNdebele people in the south of Zimbabwe; but identifying the specific political context, naming it, is avoided. There are no accusations, no moral judgements, in Darling’s telling of what she sees. Nor, indeed, is there any authorial grandstanding in the three laments, no reference to Zimbabwe, no trenchant accusations. NoViolet Bulawayo laments the effects on poor people of intimidation and violence – but it is any violence, any intimidation. Darling is the hopeful and impoverished Everychild.

We encounter the six children who are going to scrump guavas. Darling introduces her five friends. Then she takes us into the immediacy of the event:

When we hit the bush we are already flying, scream-singing like the wheels in our voices will make us go faster. Sbho leads: “Who discovered the way to India?” and the rest of us rejoin “Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama!” Bastard is at the front because he won the country-game today and he thinks that makes him our president or something, and then myself and Godknows, Stina, Sbho and finally Chipo, who used to outrun everybody in all Paradise but not anymore because somebody made her pregnant. [p. 2]

In this short paragraph we go from scream-laughing, chants, Vasco da Gama, to “…somebody made her pregnant”. While the children seem to accommodate the eleven-year-old’s changed state, the reader imagines she has been abused, raped – which, of course, turns out to be the case, but we only learn this in the next chapter. The acceptance of their world is disconcerting, as we are swept along by their gorging on the guavas and an encounter, in one of the posh gardens, with the woman from London. They become constipated from all the guavas and try to defecate in the bush on the way home to Paradise. Chipo screams while she is squatting: she has caught sight of a thin woman who has hung herself from the branch of a tree. Bastard throws stones at the woman to see if she is dead; the others want to flee, but can’t. Eventually, Sbho, Stina and the others start to walk away. Bastard comes in front of them and stops them: “Who wants some real bread?” –

Look, did you notice that woman’s shoes were almost new? If we can get them we can sell them and buy a loaf, or maybe even a loaf and a half.

We all then turned around and followed Bastard back into the bush, the dizzying smell of Lobel’s bread all around us now, and then we are rushing, then we are running, then we are running and laughing and laughing and laughing. [p. 18]

The ironies that close this chapter are unsettling. What are we to make of the tragedy of the hanging woman, and the children’s bemused, confused and – finally – their opportunistic reaction to the suicide? Whatever we may feel, as well-fed adult readers, we are firmly held within the children’s slum world, smelling the freshly baked bread. Lobel’s bread and Vasco da Gama are not quite emblems yet, but markers: Lobel’s is the Bulawayo microcosm; Vasco da Gama is the historical macrocosm, taking in the whole colonised world. Both reappear in the second half of the book. Darling’s observation of horrendous acts is unflinching and acute. Unnamed, unblamed, the brutal actions of Mugabe’s political mobs are nonetheless precisely situated in time and place. We can see through Darling’s unblinking eyes the tropes of violence and displacement in their own social and political milieu. She is every young potential migrant today.

Subsequent chapters – scenes – have a similar oscillation between the absurd in Darling’s slum life and real-time tragedy. We encounter a few of the slum adults, those who are around Darling. Like her five friends, the adults are distinct; they are on the edge of the children’s world of games and roaming. But the adults evolve as distinct, credible individuals with an admirable economy of words and descriptions: Darling’s mother, ‘Mother’; her initially absent father, ‘Father’; ‘Mother-of-Bones’, who is probably her grandmother; ‘MotherLove’, the shebeen owner in the shanties; the revivalist preacher, ‘Pastor Revelations Bitchington Mborro’. There are two young political activists, observed from afar, Bornfree and Messenger, his side-kick.

In the midst of survival and mundane interactions, Darling and her friends witness terrible harm being done, quite deliberately, to other people. Their sometimes joyfulness is juxtaposed to the adults’ misery. The woman who is dragged by men to Pastor Revelations Bitchington Mborro’s Easter Day service is raped by him in front of his congregation as her “exorcism”. Darling is in the congregation and on the side of the woman. When Chipo, also in the congregation and sitting next to Darling, witnesses this shocking scene, she breaks her silence:

He did that, my grandfather, I was coming from playing Find Bin Laden and my grandmother was not there and my grandfather was there and he got on me and pinned me down like that and he clamped a hand over my mouth and was heavy like a mountain, Chipo says, words coming out all at once like she in Mother of Bones. I watch her and she has this look I have never seen before, this look of pain. I want to laugh that her voice is back, but her face confuses me and I can also see she wants me to say something, something maybe important, so I say, Do you want us to go and steal guavas? [pp. 40, 41]

The chapter ends here and this is, again, an unsettling conclusion. Like Darling, the reader is a complicit observer of violent rape who does not know what to say. It is the same with the subsequent chapters.

The first two chapters establish the immediacy of the ordinary poverty and hardship. The next scene has an NGO, in a lorry, bringing food and gifts, the crassness of it, and yet the dependence upon it, adults patiently queuing because they in fact have nothing, the rowdy children being whipped into line, smiling whites taking photographs. Then a chapter links the hopefulness of the community who are now being mobilized by Bornfree and Messenger to vote to change the government, with Darling’s sleeplessness, her bad dreams and the memory of the government bulldozers smashing into the dust their former township homes. Darling’s memory is vivid, brutal. It has the same immediacy of her present reality and so, again, we become complicit observers:

Then later the people with cameras and T-shirts that say BBC and CNN come to shake their heads and look and take our pictures like we are pretty, and one of them says, It’s like a fucking tsunami tore through this place, Jesus, it’s like a fucking tsunami tore this up. I say to Verona, What is a fucking tsunami? And she says, A fucking tsunami walks on water, like Jesus, only it’s a devil, didn’t you see that time on TV, how it came out of the water and left all those people dead in that country. .........

.....Then Nomviyo comes running from the bus stop in her red high heel shoes, because she is just returning from town. She sees all the broken houses and she throws all her groceries and bags down, screaming, My son, my son! What happened? I left my Freedom sleeping there! [pp. 67, 68]

The people scrabble through all the fallen masonry and bring out Freedom, dead. Nomviyo is wild with grief. It is a violent, highly personalized image of the people’s loss of their basic rights that they won at independence. Mugabe did indeed order the bulldozing to the ground of some of the urban townships whose communities were likely to turn against his despotic rule and vote him out of office. These are Darling’s memories of how they came to Paradise. The chapter in fact ends with all the adults going off to vote, again organised by Bornfree and Messenger, and then returning late in the evening, excited by the expression of their political will, to the waiting children left behind. Everyone celebrates voting in MotherLove’s shebeen:

….Then we are caught up in the arms of adults and twirled in the air, their skin sweaty and warm against ours.

Get ready, get ready for a new country, no more of this Paradise anymore, they say as they steady us on our feet….. [p. 71]

The first lament ironically follows this, “How They Appeared” – in Paradise – “They appeared one by one, two by two, three by three….”. The threnody is on the two meanings of ‘appearance’: how they came and how they looked.

…. But then the women who knew all the ways of weeping and all there was to know about falling apart2, would not be deceived; they gently rose from the hearths, beat dust off their skirts and planted themselves like rocks in front of their men and children and shacks, and only then did all appear almost tolerable. [p. 77; my emphasis]

The next scene is in an isolated spot in the bush. It is the ignorant and stupid attempt by Darling, Sbho and another girl called Forgiveness, to abort Chipo’s foetus. This absurd action by small children, ignorant of what they were doing and unknowing of the consequences of what they are about to do, is halted by the unexpected appearance of MotherLove.

The girls fear terrible punishment as MotherLove sizes up the situation –

…Then MotherLove reaches out and holds Chipo…. Then Chipo stops crying and wraps her arms around MotherLove, even though they don’t really reach around. A purple lucky butterfly sits at the top of Chipo’s head and when it flies away Forgiveness chases it. Then Sbho and I take off after Forgiveness, and we are chasing the butterfly and screaming out for luck. [p. 88]

MotherLove has stretched out a hand of understanding and help. Much later, in the second half of the book, we discover that Chipo has had her baby, also called Darling, and there is a belated recognition by the reader of just how significant MotherLove’s help was. Chipo has a part in the book’s climax.

A similar expression of sympathy and help from an unexpected and ironical source occurs in the next chapter. In this scene, Darling is incarcerated in her mother’s shack with her father, now back from South Africa, emaciated and dying of AIDS. Darling has to mind him, not play with her friends and say nothing. No one must know her father is in the shack, back from South Africa and has AIDS. She hates his stink, his awful appearance and she also resents having to lie to her friends. Her description of the wrecked, incontinent, educated man is stark; lying to her inquisitive companions is even more troubling. Eventually, after some days, the children, led by Bastard, force their way into the shack and gaze upon the dying man. Not knowing what to say, Sbho and Godknows start singing –

Then Stina reaches and takes Father’s hand and starts moving it to the song, and Bastard moves the other hand… We all look at one another and smile-sing because we are touching him all over because he is like a beautiful plaything we have just rescued from a rubbish-bin in Budapest. He feels like dry wood in my hand, but there is a strange light in his eyes, like he has swallowed the sun. [p. 103]

These ironical and unanticipated acts of kindness and humanity, so briefly noted by Darling and yet so vivid, make the life in the shacks ‘almost tolerable’. They are a pause before the greater violence of the last two scenes of the first half, violence that is observed by the children and then enacted by them.

In the chapter titled “Blak Power”, the scene is once again in Budapest. The boys and girls are searching for the few remaining guavas on the trees there. The fruiting season is over. They are without Chipo, though her absence is not explained. Up a tree, the five of them witness the brutal beating and expulsion of an elderly white couple by government thugs, and the smashing-up of their suburban home. The intimidation and violence are visceral; the large white man’s fury and pain is vented on the paper handed to him, his eviction order, and he beats his big fists on the ground until they bleed, while the posse from the police trash his house. The children hidden in the guava tree watch it all unfold:

…. Then Sbho starts sniffing again . What, are you crying for the white people? Are they your relatives, Bastard says.

They are people, you asshole! Sbho says in this hard hot voice we have never heard before, and I almost fall out of the tree because nobody has ever called Bastard that. Never ever. I wait to see what he will do but he is looking at Sbho with confusion on his face. [p. 120]

Godknows is also upset and affected by the nastiness and devastation. When the posse leaves with the white pair (and their pointless, redundant guard), the children climb down and enter the house. They roam through the destruction. The phone rings and the children answer it. Darling is deputed to tell the caller, who turns out to be the couple’s daughter, more or less what happened, because her English is best:

….Then a new voice, a man’s voice comes on. When he starts speaking to me in my language I laugh; I have never heard a white person speak my language before. It sounds funny, but I’m a little disappointed because I want to keep talking in English… [p. 129]

After the racist attack, there is a fleeting irony in a young white man speaking Ndalbele and a black child speaking Englinsh. The scene ends with the children finding – and smelling – Blak Power written in faeces on the large bathroom mirror.

Political violence, seen through unwary eyes of these children, looks different. It is no longer part of a political and historical reality, but a strange ugliness in humans, in their harming and humiliating their fellow human beings. And not just people: there is also the gratuitous and vicious killing of the white people’s little dog. As the pair are led away, the woman looks up and sees the children in the tree:

The black shadow remains on her face, and she keeps looking, like maybe she wants to pluck us out of the tree with her eyes, and I begin to think we will fall out from being looked at like that. We know from the look, because eyes can talk, that she hates us, not just a little bit but a whole lot. [p. 122]

The children become complicit in the violence they have witnessed. They sense they are even seen as the cause of it. The reader is destabilized again. We are up in the tree with the children and we too have become complicit in the state violence we have just watched. The image of the angry and humiliated white woman staring up into the tree envelopes us as well.

The next scene is in the cemetery called Heavenway. The title of the chapter, “Real Power”, ironically encompasses, on the one hand, the annulment of the democratic vote and the murder of the activist Bornfree; and, on the other, the reality of the game that the children make up after they witness Bornfree’s grief-laden funeral, again concealed up a tree, in the cemetery. Messenger and Bornfree’s mother are among the distraught mourners. This is the real, horrible, political result of the people's exercise in democracy.

On the edge of the crowd are two BBC reporters. We realise that this is a further instance of the government thuggery we witnessed in the previous scene; the denial of their basic rights is part of the mourning of the whole community. After the funeral is over and the mourners leave trying to restrain Bornfree’s mother now insane with grief, the children climb down from the tree and stand by the grave. Darling is trying to tell them about ghosts –

…… but big-head Bastard interrupts me and says, I am Bornfree. Kill me!

At first we just stand there, looking at the grave like we want it to give us how-to instructions for a game about the dead since we’ve never played one before…. [p. 140]

The game takes off and the children play out the killing of Bornfree – which perhaps they actually witnessed in Paradise – entering into the total viciousness and vindictiveness of the murdering thugs, becoming, it seems, the actual horror itself, seen through Darling’s eyes in the midst of the game. Godknows mimics the lorry that brings the murderers to Paradise who, in their imaginations they have become:

We pack ourselves in the lorry and Godknows drives off hooting and groaning…

The two BBC men watch the children through to the end and then ask them:

What kind of game were you just playing? And Bastard puts his shirt on and says, Can’t you see this is for real? [p. 146]

Indeed, we are not sure if we’ve seen the real killing, through the eyes of the children, or the game of it. The children are now no longer just the observers of violence; they have become fully absorbed into it. There are no boundaries for human malice and the reader is in the thick of this moral quagmire. It is almost unbearable. Flight – out of this country, whichever country it is – is a relief.

Bastard’s “Can’t you see this is for real?” ends the first half of the book. It is immediately followed by the author’s second lament:

Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves…… [p. 145]

Darling leaves for America. It’s a relief.

How They Lived: the second half of the book

The set ‘scenes’ in America, each a separate chapter, functions on several levels. Layers of reality at the time and place of the particular occasion intertwine with each other like the weave in a woman’s hair. Darling’s observations, her commentary on what is happening, are objective and unadorned. They create a complex picture, though its significance within the framework of the wider analysis is left to the reader to put together. This is seen in the first American chapter, “DestroyedMichygen”.

Darling in Detroit is sitting at a window in her Aunt’s place, gazing at snow. She describes what she is seeing and also what she is not seeing: she is not able to see what lies under the snow. She is also aware that she is not seeing what she is used to: the streets, shanty town and suburbs of Bulawayo. Darling is also aware of the people who are in the Detroit sitting room with her:

…. And this here is not my country; I don’t know whose it is. That fat boy, TK, who is supposed to be my cousin, even though I have never seen him before, says, This is America, you, you won’t see none of that African shit up in this motherfucker. [p.147]

This is the offhand introduction to TK, whose character changes as he grows up to become an American soldier, fighting in Afghanistan. His presence in Darling’s world is marked by his absence from it: he is only in Darling’s peripheral vision. She more interested in the snow and thinking what it means. As TK’s character becomes more complex and significant – for the reader – Darling continues to see him as tangential in her life. While she is looking at the snow, her Aunt Fostalina, inside the house, is doing aerobics in front of the television:

When she walks, she whips her arms front to back like a mjingo and counts at the same time. Three-four-five-six, and walk, and walk. Uncle Kojo, TK’s father, who is like Aunt Fostalina’s husband but not really her husband because I don’t think they are married-married, comes in from work and says, Fostalina, the Lions and the Giants still actually on, no? Uncle Kojo’s voice sounds like something in his mouth is running after the words and making them scatter with fright. But Aunt Fostalina does not reply; she has to keep up with the women on TV – four-five-six, and walk, and walk. [pp. 148/149]

Darling continues to gaze at the snow. With snow falling, silent, obliterating everything outside, we learn of the new relationships that Darling is adjusting to now. Fostalina is Darling’s mother’s twin sister; Uncle Kojo is a provider; his Ghanaian mother-tongue is not understood by anyone else in the ménage, not even his son TK, whose mother was white and, presumably, an American. We are not told from which country Fostalina, Darling and the other transient visitors have come from. A young man, Prince, arrives, messed up: tortured in his country and now unhinged:

…his face is hard and terrible and the light in his eyes is gone, like snow maybe sneaked in there and put it out.

And the very next sentence? –

When Aunt Fostalina finishes walking she asks, You think I’m losing weight? Who is fatter, me or Aunt Da? Who is fatter, me or your mother?.... [p. 155]

Uncle Kojo complains one day, back from work, that Fostalina is not doing the things for him that wives back in Ghana do for their husbands. The responses of those in the living room succinctly show the linguistic richness of the writing and its economy of utterance:

Fat boy pulls up his trousers and mutters, Patriarchal motherfucker, and Aunt Fostalina throws the rest of the orange in the bin and says, Yes, in your county maybe, but this is America and nxa ubon' engan' ulebhoyi lapha manj' uzatchetshela ngeteza fanami!3 Uncle Kojo shakes his head and walks away since he doesn’t understand a word of it. But I think it is better Uncle Kojo did not understand what Aunt Fostalina just said to him, otherwise he would actually be very very angry. [p. 156]

The snow melts, people come and go, the season turns. This short chapter has put the reader into the complex reality of exile, willing embraced: homes being left, houses in foreign places being lived in; hunger and heat and torture in one place; in the other, coldness, TV sports, diets and exercises in front of the TV, layers of language, a new lexicon, realigned relationships. Agendas for survival and distortions of need crowd into the living rooms of exile.

In the next scene takes place at a wedding in another town, There are elements of farce in getting to the wedding, Fostalina asleep in the car, TK on his Blackberry, and Uncle Kojo the driver losing the way, the traffic cops, the collision with a deer. Darling is no longer a passive observer, as she absorbs her new world, of what is going on around her, both outside and inside her new home. She sees her milieu in a wry, amused way – a comedy of American and immigrant manners that is a veneer upon the endless embarrassing compromises that have to be made. The wedding is Fostalina’s former lover, Dumi, to a very fat white woman who already has a small child. Darling realises that her aunt is delighted his marital choice is so unappealing; there are long silences as he stops by their wedding table with his step-child in his arms. They both know what the game is, and the eloquent silence speak volumes of mutual recognition of an avoidable reality.

The bride’s little boy proves to be truly ill-behaved, throwing his ball at wedding guests and eventually hitting Darling in the eye with it. She ups and slaps him:

…. I grab the little brat, go pha-pha-pha with three quick slaps, and rap his head with my knuckles, twice.

It is only when I sit back down and look around that I realise what I have done. The white people have already gasped, and a shocked voice has already said, Oh my God. Heads have been shaken and eyes have widened in disbelief. A few hands have already flown over mouths, and silence has descended. It stays in the air like a stain, until this booming voice, which I quickly recognise as Tshaka Zulu’s, shouts from near the door, where he is seated:

Do not fear. This is just how we handle unruly children in our culture, it’s nothing, you must relax, please, he says with a laugh. Nobody laughs with him and there is this hot fire of silence…… [p. 183]

This is our first introduction to Tshaka Zulu: He is dressed up in his traditional Zulu regalia, singing a song to the bride. Darling thinks he looks beautiful, even though “his body is all wrinkled with age”, and his arm-bands are around “thin arms”:

….it’s like he is singing to someone lost on the highway when the bride is just seated right before him, smiling like this is the best song ever. When the song finishes everyone applauds, and Tshaka Zulu beams with pride. It is his thing to perform at weddings and wherever people from our country are holding events, and looking at him at it you would never think there was something wrong with him, that he was really a patient at Shadybrook. [p.178]

At this point in the story we know nothing about Shadybrook. But in a later chapter, “Hitting Crossroads”, Darling, returning from joy-riding in her friend’s mother’s car, has to jump immediately into her aunt’s car to accompany Fostalina to Shadybrook. The old man, Tshaka Zulu, has flipped again and Fostalina has been summoned. He is there because he has what is probably paranoid schizophrenia, though Darling doesn’t tell us this. Letting him talk in his own language brings him back “to himself”. Darling’s account of him as ‘normal’ makes him almost promethean. He knows all the details of his vast family: sons, daughters, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. He gives them their names over the phone, and tells Darling – “It’s how I get to touch them.” He explains that every time someone calls their name and they answer, “I am the invisible hand touching them and calling them my own.”

Tshaka Zulu has become significant in the story. Darling’s attitude towards him is different from her responses to other people. He seems, at least to her, vaguely to mean something important. The language he, she and Fostalina speak together in the care home is not named; what is important is that Tshaka Zulu needs to talk in his mother tongue and be understood. We are not given any historical reference to his great name-sake, Tshaka Zulu the warrior-king of the Zulus4, who faced in battle the army of the British Empire. Darling’s Tshaka Zulu is a migrant in America, for whom Fostalina and perhaps Darling have a duty of care as his schizophrenia worsens. He embodies a great irony: dressed up as a loud Zulu warrior for weddings and receptions, he has thin arms and wrinkled skin. He has pictures of great modern Africans in his room in a care home, in front of which his fantasies are acted out. He is not a parody. It is a mark of Bulawayo’s skill as a writer that he has become an emblem of what the modern twenty-first century is doing to traditions that have less and less place in the lives of those historically connected to them. We share Darling’s sympathy for him. However, in Darling’s world, this Tshaka Zulu, in Shadybrook, is contradicted by a real-life warrior: fat boy TK, now an American GI fighting – and possibly dying – in Afghanistan.

We meet Tshaka Zulu once more, suddenly, in Darling’s narrative. Uncle Kojo, now called Vasco da Gama because he can’t stop driving around the countryside trying to deal with his depression over TK, has picked up Darling from the supermarket where she now works. Fostalina, on the mobile, urgently directs them to Shadybrook. They find Tshaka Zulu outside the care home, warrior-garbed and armed with a lethal-looking spear, and an assegai which he hands to Darling who he sees as his fellow-warrior. Confused, she half goes along with his reality, though his behaviour in the street is full of threat and menace. Kojo cannot understand what Zulu and Darling are saying; at the same time he is hammering on the door of the now locked-down care home. Tshaka, it seems, is going to his namesake’s war with the imperial British army in the leafy and silent suburban streets of middle America:

When he starts down the driveway, I follow at a distance, Uncle Kojo behind me. He is saying things but I am not listening. Tshaka Zulu is rushing, his animal-skin skirt swooshing, the colourful feathers on his head dancing. Then he breaks into a run, and I notice, with horror, that he is running toward this pizza guy who has just parked at the neighbour’s house and is getting out of his car, a pizza in hand. I’m already seeing a spear ripping the guy’s guts, blood all over. I drop my own spear and look at Uncle Kojo, who is yelling and flailing his arms. The pizza guy looks up just as the sound of sirens fills the air. I don’t know who called the police or when….

[p. 272]

Darling sprints back to Kojo as the police arrive – “Drop your weapon! Get on the ground! Show your hands! Drop your weapon!” –

And I know Tshaka Zulu will not drop his weapon. When I look over my shoulder, he is lunging skyward like some crazy plane trying to take off. [p. 273]

The chapter ends on the appropriate image of a plane taking off – migrants leave their countries in planes. Zulu is shot dead. Although Darling doesn’t tell us, we imagine that is what happens; and it is later confirmed. The scene has had the pace and action of a climax, but NoViolet Bulawayo’s book is not yet ended.

The narrative now becomes emblematic of Darling's anomie.

The final chapter, ironically titled “The Writing on the Wall”, has Darling existentially on her bed in her room: she cannot study for her biology exam, the books lie open around her, unread. She is having a banal and interrupted texting exchange with her friend on her BlackBerry about their dull sexual encounters; she is unconsciously writing with a marker pen on her bedroom wall – and then realising that this has to be cleaned off. But it can’t be.

The next morning she finds a batik to hang on her wall to hide the mess. The hanging depicts a busy market scene, full of the people and things of her childhood home: an emblem, in the middle of which she hangs another emblem: a half-black half-white mask. “…[it] is looking at me with a puzzling face, like it’s trying to tell me something that will take years for me to understand.” She then adds another artefact, an ivory map of Africa with an eye on the middle of it, which she stole from the house where she was cleaning. The room looks complete but she knows she is not “…because I’m busy thinking about home and I feel I can’t breathe from missing it.” [p. 284]

She Skypes her mother in Bulawayo on her Mac. Chipo answers. Darling doesn’t know why Chipo is in her mother’s home. Darling’s homesickness is challenged by Chipo:

Just tell me one thing. What are you doing not in your country right now? Why did you run off to America, Darling Nonkululeko Nkala, huh? Why did you just leave? If it’s your country you have to live in it and not leave it….. [p. 286]

It’s not what Darling wants to hear. Impulsively, she throws her Mac at the wall where it crashes into the mask and they both fall to the floor. The destruction of her computer is something too serious to deal with. She leaves her room and goes to TK’s empty room, kept in pristine condition by Kojo existentially waiting for his son’s return. In the room is the urn with Tshaka Zulu’s ashes. He told Fostalina that he wanted his ashes scattered “at home” but her aunt cannot go back to Zimbabwe at present. Darling tells us that she talks to Tshaka Zulu in the urn, but today she just stands with her hand on it as Kojo crashes into the room and dramatically announces the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan. He is high on excitement, then says she probably doesn’t know who Bin Laden is. But of course she does. She recalls the game they played when they were children, ‘Finding Bin Laden’. In her imagination she is back with her childhood friends playing the game, recounting it now in its entirety. We are back in the Africa of her childhood which saw their enactment of the murder of Bornfree.

This time, the game ends with the death of Bornfree’s dog, Ncuncu, now crazy since the murder of his master, who gets run over by Lobel’s Bread delivery lorry, laden with fresh bread. Darling describes the mangled body of the dead dog in staccato sentences that ends:

“And the delicious smell of Lobel’s bread.”

The book stops here. Lives fragment. Emblems break and lose their meaning. Actions are disconnected from their results. Existence – paradoxical and alienating – is all we can get on with for the moment. Darling is existentially living in America, while emotionally in some other construct in her memory. Chipo’s daughter, whom the girls thought they could abort, is now with her mother Chipo in Darling’s mother’s house in Bulawayo. Why? Darling does not like to ask. Maybe another small Darling has taken her place.

However, where the older Darling is now is in the room of the American soldier TK, hand on the ashes of the suburban warrior Tshaka Zulu. She is being told by Kojo of the death of a real Islamic fighter, Bin Laden. In her home country Mugabe’s oppressive rule continues, some of her childhood friends fighting his brutal rule or migrating. Will the small Darling follow the same migrant path of the older Darling?

NoViolet Bulawayo has written a stylistically accomplished book, rich in character and linguistic texture. It is anchored in a very specific milieu which is precise but consistently unnamed, and reaches into a profound exploration of what it means to be human, to be poor in a dysfunctional country and choosing to migrate in this second decade of the twenty-first century. With We Need New Names we are seeing the emergence of an important novelist confronting the corrupting globalized economy of the next few troubling decades.



Michael Etherton – Short Biodata

Michael Etherton has taught in Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria, in the University of Zambia, and at Winchester University, UK. He is the author of The Development of African Drama, 1982; reprinted by Tamaza Publishing Company, Nigeria, 2012; Contemporary Irish Drama, London, 1988; Chikwakwa Remembered: Theatre and Politics in Zambia 1968-1972, Dublin, 2011. He now is retired and lives in County Kerry, Republic of Ireland


1“And when they asked us…” echoes that First World War song “And when they asked us, how dangerous it was…”
2A fleeting reference to Chinua Achebe’s classic African novel Things Fall Apart
3This is a sentence in Ndebele; it is neither identified as such, nor is it translated. The reader can imagine what has been said.
4The amaNdabele are an off-shoot of the Zulus in South Africa