One of the few debut novelists to have ever made the shortlist of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, NoViolet Bulawayo, born Elizabeth Zandie Tshele, is the mistress of humour and one story teller who could make words breathe. You could see through her words; just the things she wants you to.
Set in Zimbabwe, during the draconian rule of Robert Mugabe who held onto power for 37 years, “We Need New Names” mirrors the mess that was the life of Zimbabweans at that time. NoViolet Bulawayo tells this tell of a decay, of a devastation, through the eyes of a child narrator, ‘Darling.’
Inside her head there are two homes: home before paradise and home in paradise. She narrates with childish innocence the escapades of her and her friends in Budapest (the residence of the rich and influential). Led by hunger, they go hunting for guavas to fill their stomachs. They will be constipated from eating so much guavas, but better constipated than hungry.
Desperately searching for hope, for something to hold onto; the people of paradise turn to religion and Prophet Revelation Bitchington was there with his craziness and greed, to fulfil that need. Even as children, they understand perfectly well the rot, the hopelessness, so they dream like most people, of fleeing the country too, to countries where they could be human beings.
Darling cannot wait for Aunt Fostalina to come take her to ‘Destroyedmichygen’ (Detroit, Michigan), and it is the same too with Stina and Bastard and Godknows and Sbho (the pretty one), except for Chipo who was raped and made pregnant by her grandfather. She is traumatized, she is slow and it affects their plays, and even more Nosizi died during child birth. So to save their friend, Darling, Sbho and Forgiveness (the new girl in the hood, who is not really one of them), leaving out the boys, will need new names to take out Chipo’s stomach, to save her from eventually dying.
Darling’s father returns after so many year’s in South Africa, not with gifts like a man who had being away for a while, not to take his family away like many did after establishing a base outside the country, but he only came back with AIDS and to eventually die. The change they so hope was coming with the elections, the change that revived the adults and awoke the slum, didn’t come; power returned back to the beast of the nation and Bornfree pays the prize for his activism.
Darling is the first of the lot to break free, as aunt Fostalina arrives in the midst of all the chaos and takes her to America. In America, she finds the weather unfriendly, but there is food, abundantly so, the idea of choice overwhelms her.
This is a story of not just Zimbabwe but of Africa as a continent, of our terrible leaders that seems almost like a curse on us. It is a story of the anticipated developments and growth that would come with independence, but the people are let down by the people they chose to lead them. The only shortcoming of this well-crafted tale is, exaggeration. A lot of truth abound, in fact everything described is not far from the truth, but one cannot help but notice the exaggeration of some of these things.