It's a boy. The first baby is supposed to be a boy.
But you're a girl, big head, and you're first-born.
I said supposed, didn't I?
Gender is very important to life in Zimbabwe, and perhaps especially in an impoverished area like Paradise where the men hold a special role as providers for their families. This quote, early in the novel, makes the importance of gender clear, specifically as it relates to the protagonist, Darling. She implies that people have been disappointed with her being born a girl, and we see this return later when her father calls her his son.
We shout and we shout and we shout; we want to eat the thing she was eating, we want to hear our voices soar, we want our hunger to go away. The woman just looks at us puzzled, like she has never heard anybody shout, and then quickly hurries back into the house but we shout after her, shout till we smell blood in our tickling throats.
Sometimes, the children seem overtaken with emotion, perhaps because of a lack of parental guidance and a helplessness from the way their lives have been uprooted. In this scene, they were behaving nicely to the strange woman living in Budapest, but they are suddenly fed up with her wasting food, her questions, and her photos. They are overtaken by the urge to scream and scream, even hurting themselves in the process.
After the curtain comes the calendar; it's old but Mother of Bones keeps it since it has Jesus Christ on it. He has women's hair and is smiling shyly, his head tilted a bit to the side; you can tell he really wanted to look nice in the picture. He used to have blue eyes but I painted them brown like mine and everybody's, to make him normal. Mother of Bones walloped me so much for it though, I couldn't sit for a whole two days.
Religion is very important in the first half of the book, especially in the sections where Darling is primarily cared for by the devout Mother of Bones. However, Darling has many interesting questions and thoughts about religion that reveal her views on society. In this case, she, through her childish actions, questions the problematic colonial history connected to Christianity in Africa - why should the God, the savior, of people with brown skin and eyes look so different from them?
To play country-game you need two rings: a big outer one, then inside it, a little one, where the caller stands... Each person then picks a piece and writes the name of the country on there, which is why it's called country-game. But first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the U.S.A and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russian and Greece and them. These are the country-countries. If you lose the fight, then you just have to settle for countries like Dubai and South Africa and Botswana and Tanzania and them. They are not country-countries, but at least life is better than here. Nobody wants to be the 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?
Games are an important way the children in Paradise process the world and an important window for the reader into the complex and somewhat damaged psyches of the children. In this passage, the children grapple with global politics and the disparities in quality of life between world powers and impoverished, politically unstable countries like their own. The quote is also representative of the narrative style of the novel as a whole, with Darling narrating in the first person with a very conversational style, skipping from thought to association, rattling off long lists, and posing bittersweet rhetorical questions.
They just like taking pictures, these NGO people, like maybe we are their real friends and relatives and they will look at the pictures later and point us out by name to other friends and relatives once they get back to their homes. 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.
One of the most striking points Bulawayo makes in We Need New Names is about the way the world creates and consumes media about Africa. The children have their photos taken twice in the early chapters of the book - by the people from the NGO and by a woman living in Budapest whose father emigrated from Zimbabwe to England. In both instances, the children play along but don't particularly enjoy having their photos taken. Later in the book, Darling speaks more to people who have seen the turmoil in Africa on the news and seem to enjoy both ogling the danger and romanticizing the exotic beauty of the continent. In this quote, it is especially clear how critical Darling is of this kind of surface interaction with Africa even at a young age, participating only because it is part of a system she and her community rely on.
He coughs some more and I listen to the awful sound tearing the air. His body folds and rocks with each cough but I don't even feel for him because I'm thinking, I hate you for this, I hate you for going to that South Africa and coming back sick and all bones, I hate you for making me stop playing with my friends... In my head I'm thinking, Die. Die now so I can go play with my friends, die now because this is not fair. Die die die. Die.
The term "AIDS" is rarely used in We Need New Names - Bulawayo, through Darling, opts for phrases like "sickness" or simply uses repetitive and vivid depictions of the effects of AIDS like the quote above. Here, Darling comes to want her father to die after seeing him slowly suffer every day and being unable to see her friends while she cares for him. AIDS in Africa is an important topic to Bulawayo - she is currently working on a literary project more specifically focused on the issue.
No, you listen, the white man says, like he didn't just hear the boss warn him about telling black men to listen. I am an African, he says. This is my fucking country too, my father was born here, I was born here, just like you! His voice is so full of pain it's as if there is something that is searing him deep in his blood... What exactly is an African? Godknows asks.
Again, seeing major political moments in Zimbabwe's history through the eyes of children opens up big questions. This quote is part of the scene in which Darling and her friends watch from a guava tree as the house of a white couple living in Budapest is taken by force and ransacked. The children, who have lived their whole lives in Zimbabwe and interact almost exclusively with other black people, must question what it means to be African - how much of one's status as an African involves racial descent and its intersection with Zimbabwe's colonial history?
Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because 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, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth lest they be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as theirs. Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves.
Three chapters in We Need New Names break from Darling's first-person narration and enter a more poetic, omniscient narration that follows the general trend of Zimbabwe's people. In this passage, the narration discusses the mass exodus of people from Zimbabwe to other countries in and around 2008, when Darling also moves away from Zimbabwe to live with her aunt's family in America. The quote speaks to the way people sacrificed their comfort and identities to get out of Zimbabwe, knowing that they will not be truly accepted in foreign lands but seeking new lives anyway.
If I were at home I know I would not be standing around because something called snow was preventing me from going outside to live life... But then we wouldn't be having enough food, which is why I will stand being in America dealing with the snow; there is food to eat here, all types and types of food. 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.
When Darling first arrives in America, she is very conflicted about how to feel. In one sense, she has been saying for years that all she wants is to live with Aunt Fostalina in America. Some of her wishes for this life, such as having a safe, warm house with plenty of food, materialize. However, Darling never fully adapts to American life, and her early discomfort with things like snow and a lack of friends make her yearn for the life she had before.
You are not the one suffering. You think watching on BBC mean you know what is going on? 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 or anything and anybody, she says... If it's your country, you have to love it, to live in it, and not leave it. You have to fight for it no matter what, to make it right.
In the most climactic scene of the novel, Chipo accuses Darling of leaving Zimbabwe behind and tells her that she cannot call it her country anymore. In a sense, Chipo equates Darling to the people they merely tolerated as children, such as the NGO people who took Zimbabwe's problems at a surface level and from afar. Darling never resolves for herself whether she agrees with Chipo that Zimbabwe is no longer her home, but Chipo's words clearly upset Darling greatly and the novel ends with Darling reminiscing about a strange memory from her childhood in Paradise.
We Need New Names Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for We Need New Names is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.