We need new names By Noviolet Bulawayo

15852479This is my first time reading a book set in Zimbabwe. And I love it, I learn so many things. Honestly, Southern Africa has always been a very distant land in my mind. Whoever say that Africans know their continent well? I was born in Dakar, Senegal – West Africa – and that is 6055.87 kilometers or 3767.34 miles away from Zimbabwe. Which is why I don’t know much about that side of the continent. That and also the fact that  we speak french and they speak english. communication is a problem. You can easily find bilingual french-speaking Africans, but the contrary is much more rare.

 I was reading  a review about Teju Cole’s Open City  the other day and it says something that reminds me of this novel:

Cole has made his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.

I really got the impression that this novel was Darling’s diary. However, the resemblance stops there. Both books have very different styles of telling their stories.

Darling’s story started with her childhood memories in Zimbabwe and then it continues to when she  moved to the US. Rather than being a regular diary, It is more like snapshots of her life from her childhood to her teenage life in the US.

About the Author

NoViolet Bulawayo (pen name of Elizabeth Tshele, born 1981) is a Zimbabwean author, and Stegner Fellow at Stanford University (2012–2014). Bulawayo won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story Hitting Budapest about a gang of street children in a Zimbabwean shantytown. Her novel entitled We Need New Names was released in 2013, and she has begun work on a memoir project. NoViolet earned her MFA at Cornell University where she was a recipient of the Truman Capote Fellowship, and most recently, a lecturer of English. She is now a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. NoViolet was born and raised in Zimbabwe.

About the book

Darling is only 10 years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad. But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her–from Zadie Smith to Monica Ali to J.M. Coetzee–while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.

 As happy I was to read about Zimbabwe, I was equally distressed to learn about the situation there. All we (or should I say I) have ever heard about that country is Mugabe and Tsvangirai fighting over power.  After this novel, I realized how little I knew about the country itself .

Random comments on  “We need names” themes:

  • Man of God or spurns of the devil: That prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro amazed me. What a character! He claims to be God-sent but I think he is straight out from hell.  How can a man of God  be so cunning, sly and treacherous? And it seems that this kind of characters are rather common in some african countries now. They hold a huge power over desperate people. The more people go through hardships, the more they cling to their man of God. I find it very strange. And Darling said it many times – why are people still praying to god, he didn’t answer their previous prayers why would he do so now.  I would imagine a backlash against God, but it is the exact opposite that has happened.
  • Black and White people: I sometimes forget that whatever happened in South-Africa, sort of happened in Zimbabwe too. White people came by sea and took by force the land of black people. And so, there is no lost love between black and white there. Black people are bitter and white people are outraged. One of  the white man, living in the rich part of town said to a black man who were trying to snatch his property: “I am african, this my country. I was born here.” heu…Really Dude, is that so?
  • The betrayal of Black leaders and Land expropriation of Black people: The story goes like this : black people were leaving blissfully on their lands. Some white men came and looted the black men’s country. Some years back, black people recaptured what rightfully belong to them. Those black people had leaders they supported. A lot of people died for the struggle. When the country finally became  independent, the same leaders turned against their own people. Why would they do that? Why would they expropriated the people who support them? Greed? I honestly don’t know but I find it very tragic.
  • NGOs and Africa: The NGO people in this book are portrayed as cold-heart “bitches” literally. They were behaving in such an appealing way.  It is  a good thing to help less privileged people but do you have to show them your superiority, to degrade them and took pictures of them. I really hated them, even though I knew they were essential to the survival of those children. This is why I don’t like the whole concept of NGOs being led by the western countries. If someone should help Africans, it is Africans themselves. I know they are not doing it at the moment, that is why we should concentrate our energy on changing their minds, and not on criticizing the NGOs. It is  a total waste of time and energy. Furthermore since before independence, NGOs have been working in Africa but we are still poor, sick and uneducated according to the World Bank statistics. More than 50 years of activity and lot of billions wasted, but they have little to show for it. Enough said!
  • Immigration & brain drain: One of the nasty consequences of civil unrest is the brain drain. This massive movement of migration outside of the country. Those who can leave the country for Europe, America or other African countries, will do it as soon as soon possible. Which means that people who stayed back are negatively impacted twice – because of the country’s security situation and because of the scarcity of qualified people. In the case of Darling and her friends, it simply means no school. They roam the streets daily, falling prey to all kind of danger.
  • African Immigrant in America: This theme has been recurrent in all of this year’s new releases. (Ghana Must Go, Americanah…). African immigrants  arrived in the US very happy and hopeful, expecting a great future, only to have their expectations crushed. As usual, there is the part where Darling first arrived and discovered fast food and the american lifestyle. Also, there is the usual undocumented migrants men who marry “fat” white women to have papers and stay in America. It’s all very tragic of course! But America compare to Canada is very kind to its undocumented immigrants. If you don’t have papers in America, you can still study, work and have a normal life. In Canada, that is impossible. No school, no work, no life.
  • Relationships between African of different countries: Darling Aunt’s, Aunt Fostalina, was in a live-in relationship with a Ghanaian man, Uncle Koffi. Throughout their dialogues, we get a glimpse of the complexity of the relationship between Africans. It’s a kind of love-hate relationship! Darling expresses it best when she said that Uncle Koffi was a completely different person when he was with his countrymen than when he was with aunty Fostalina. When will the dream of Kwame Nkrumah come true? At this rate, not in my lifetime!
  • America’s war and their effect on people: There is also a part of the story on the Afghan war. Indeed, Uncle Koffi’s son with an american women, did enrol in the army against his father’s wish. That drove his uncle over the edge. He was always watching the war coverages, like a madman, looking for his son’s face. War is a nasty business for everyone that is involved directly or indirectly. The whole family was badly affected  by the war.

It was a very great book that I read while on a plane. I was very much impressed with the stories. Also, the author has managed to capture in less than 300 pages many of the contemporary issues for immigrants and those who stayed back in Africa. As I write this post, her novel was long-listed for the Man booker prize this year. My only frustration, about the novel, was the fact there were a lot words and expressions in the author’s local language that I couldn’t understand.  It drove me nuts not to know what they meant.

Did you read this book? What did you think?






5 responses to “We need new names By Noviolet Bulawayo”

  1. Mary Okeke Reviews Avatar

    Nice review. It is already in my tbr.


  2. Ndeye Sene Mbaye Avatar

    Thanks Mary. A great book indeed.


  3. readinpleasure Avatar

    I think this is about the third review I have read of this book and yours actually do justice to the story. The others were written by non-Africans and I felt their reviews were somewhat lacking. Well done, Ndeye.


  4. mdbrady Avatar

    Thanks for your review. I haven’t read this one yet but I plan to read it. When I do I will remember your comments about its themes.


  5. Tonney Odhiambo Avatar

    Thank you for the wonderful review. It’s a book I must read since the short story, “Hitting Budapest”, that finds continuity herein is all I read and left me yearning for me about Zimbabwean work.


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