In 1990, while serving in Malawi in the Peace Corps, I went with a Malawian to visit extended family in Harare, Zimbabwe. At this time, before President Robert Mugabe went insane, Zimbabwe was right up there with South Africa as the place most Malawians wanted to move to on the African continent. I visited the relatives, both civil servants, who lived in a nice town house with washing machine, nice kitchen, t.v.–all things almost unimaginable to Malawians living in Malawi unless they were “been to-s”. That is, unless they’d been to the USA or UK or similar for an advanced degree. The relatives two girls had nice toys, went to an integrated, middle class school and spoke 3 languages. Then it all fell apart.
We Need New Names tells the story of Darling, a young girl who lives thru Zimbabwe’s coming apart. The country had survived civil war, been reborn as Zimbabwe, burying Ian Smith’s Rhodesia forever. Then Mugabe turned on his own country and made life hell for most of citizens. The remaining white population either moved to South Africa or Malawi or built barriers–compounds to protect themselves. “Their” land was again redistributed. Except for those stratospherically rich people who were pandered to by Mugabe. Like that girl friend of Prince Harry–her father, that type. For the ordinary population it came to see that
“God doesn’t live here, fool.” (p. 19)
Anyway, Darling and her family were like my friend’s relatives. Then they weren’t. They were forced to move to a “township” ( a ghetto of shacks) called Paradise. As the economy died and foreign aid became all there was, school ended, hospitals were wards for the dying, food was whatever could be found. Darling tells us about all of this in her own young voice. Tells of the violence of the destruction of her home and, later, of the retaliation by veteran’s of the war for independence who had waited too long for land they felt they were owed.
Back in college I had an instructor who took part in the struggle for independence. I’ve often wondered where he fell in regards to Mugabe’s later years. Darling, though she remembers her previous life as a decently-off child, now takes for granted going to rich neighborhoods to steal guavas and to play “Finding Bin Laden” with her friends in the streets. She dreams of going to stay with her aunt in “Destroyedmichygan.”(Ironic–my library assistant in Malawi wanted to join her sister in the same city). Meanwhile she waits for the NGO (International Aid Agencies) truck to come and hand out things and plays the Country Game with her rag-tag group of friends:
Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in–who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart? (p. 51).
I was reminded too, of being back in Malawi in the early 90s, for the first “real” election. I was mistaken for an UN Election Observer! Darling experiences waiting for a relative to vote. It takes ages.
“Maybe the line is not moving, like when you are waiting for a doctor.”
Her Father rails in familiar tones–familiar to anyone whose dream has been unfairly squashed. All of this pours out of him as the other scourge–HIV/AIDs is killing him:
“Is this what I went to university for? Is this was get independence for? Does it make sense that we are living like this?”
Darling and her friends watch as rebels from within the country seek to do Mugabe’s traitorous work. They see the intentional invasion and destruction of a rich white family’s home. She cannot get over the food. She has had a real bathroom before, but the food. That is security. And the air conditioning. But mostly the food. She and her friends stuff themselves on good food until they are ill.
“…leaving your country is like dying, and when you come back you are like a lost ghost returning to earth.” (p.162).
Later as she comes of age in Detroit and Kalamazoo, Darling finds she isn’t an American, but her relatives “back home” won’t let her claim her old country, either.
“There are times, though, that no matter how much food I eat, I find the food does nothing for me, like I am hungry for my country and nothing is going to fix that. (p. 155).
As she grapples with the immigrant experience of near constant work to support family in America and send foreign exchange back to family in Zimbabwe, she rails at both.
“…that 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 [Zimbabwe] or anything and anybody.” (p. 287).
An illegal, having come on a student visa, she is part of a silent community that works in nursing homes and in dangerous low-paying factory jobs. Exactly the sorts of jobs all the Malawian, Zambian and other students that I knew in the mid-90s in South Bend, Indiana, did for a living. (Ironically, Darling and her family go to a wedding in South Bend).
[In America knowing] they do not belong, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land.... (p. 148).
Her aunt pushes her to study for some sort of medical career, but she pushes back–she doesn’t want that.
“I’ve been getting all As in everything, even maths and science, the subjects I hate, because school is so easy in America even a donkey would pass….”
The book ends on an odd note to Americans (no spoilers) one that shows just how little value life has in Zimbabwe.
What I Liked
My own memories, aside, I loved the language–the way she put things into terms relevant to the people in Zimbabwe in that day.
“Solid , Jericho walls of men.” (p. 78)
[The men]. “They have their shirts on and have combed their and just look like real people again.” (p. 60).
“What do they think they are doing yanking a lion’s tail don’t they know that there will be bones if they dare?” (p. 31)
“…a country is like a Coca-Cola bottle that can smash on the floor and disappoint you.” (p. 162).
[American corn] “I don’t even [eat it anymore] it feels like I’m insulting my teeth.” (p. 166).
“Her voice sounds far away, like maybe it was detained at the border of something.” (p. 269)
I liked her well-founded condemnation of aid workers (and whites in general who visit the country) and even local religious leaders. Their patronizing attitudes, their dehumanizing of the people–taking their photos and giving them a few coins or a trinket for “their trouble” and all the rest is just so accurate. Taking the photo from behind of the boy whose shorts have worn totally away in the seat, or taking the photo of the child with snot and flies on his face–demeaning photos.
“They don’t care that we are embarrassed by our dirt and torn clothing, that we would prefer they didn’t do it; they just take the pictures anyway, take and take. We don’t complain because we know that after the picture-taking comes the giving of gifts.” (p. 54)
“But the NGO people are here and while are, our parents do not count.” (p. 56).
What I Didn’t Like
Sadly, I felt the American part of Darling’s story was lacking something. I get it that she was on the fringes at school, that her family were excluded as immigrants. She and her friends were always at lose ends–that’s typical when parents must work multiple jobs. Their choices of entertainment were pretty typical of American kids at lose ends, too, but it seemed disconnected from the rest. I also just didn’t think this part of the book was as polished. I felt the ending was a strange jolt–like driving at night and hitting a pothole your couldn’t see. I understood it (I think) as I mentioned above, but it still jarred. Maybe that was the real point and not the one I thought I understood?
What Amazed Me
I was pleased that this book is on the Man Booker Prize shortlist this year. I was amazed, and pleased, to learn that the author began her college education at Kalamzoo Valley Community College, continued it at branch campuses of other universities and still got into Cornell for her MFA. That is inspiring. I work with Community College level students–some immigrants even. I’d like to think one or more of my students could reach a professional level in their chosen careers if they put in as much hard work.
Another View of Zimbabwe
If you’d like to read more on Zimbabwe, especially on the long fight for Independence, I recommend this book–which is written from a white “Rhodesian” child’s and family’s point of view.
[Note “Rhodesian” is often a synonym for the type people protesting in Charlottesville–the ones from the right. I’m not using the term to keep from being spammed to death].
“There we go then,” Mum said, “I’ll just get my Uzi and we’ll be off….”
“Bullets, lipstick, sunglasses. Off we go….”
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller