God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions

worldFrom the moment of my birth, I have been inextricably linked to three nations – the United States, the land of my mother’s birth; Canada, where my father was born; and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where I was born. Even though I carry a U.S. passport and have now lived in the U.S. for more than 55 years, I’ve never forgotten my deep roots in and ties to Canada and Zimbabwe (and Zambia, where I also lived as a child). So there’s something in me that instinctively recoils when I hear the words, “America first.” It’s not the association of that phrase with the 1940s and anti-Semitism (disturbing as it is) that makes me recoil; rather, I dislike the idea because it seems to suggest that America is more important than other countries, that we should always be self-interested at the expense of other people in other places.

My own experience and understanding of Christian faith doesn’t fit well with the idea of “America first.” My missionary kid birth and upbringing conditioned me from the beginning to think about other countries besides the U.S. Even after returning to the States, my parents kept in touch with people in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and they were deeply interested in what happened in those countries. As former missionaries, they also maintained their connections with Brethren in Christ Missions in other countries, such as India, Japan, and Cuba.

Except for Canada, I didn’t travel outside the U. S. after we returned from Africa in 1961 until 30 years later in 1991. By then, I was an at-large member of the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. I served on the board for 19 years, including nine years as chair. While serving on the board of MCC, which works in approximately 50 countries, I had the opportunity to travel to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, Zimbabwe , Zambia, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, and Indonesia. These visits always affirmed the fundamental value of individual people of all races and colors and creeds. I have wonderful memories of the people I met, and when I think of these countries, I often think of specific people, especially women, who worked hard and cared for their families just like I do, often under very difficult circumstances.

[Aside: I’ve written before about how my international travel taught me much: “Stories from Around the World, Part 1 and Part 2.” I’ve also written about “Books to Expand My World” highlighting books that remind me there is a world out there beyond the United States. Here’s Part 2 of the post about books.]

From a Christian point of view, caring more about one’s own country and its people seems to be at odds with the concept of being citizens of heaven and the kingdom of God, rather than earthly kingdoms. Jesus didn’t say, “God so loved the United States” (or Palestine, where he lived); he said “God so loved the world.” God created everyone in God’s image, not just Americans, and if we truly believe that, then we should care about the welfare of all people, not just those who live in the United States. John’s vision of a huge choir composed of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (a multi-ethnic and multi-national kingdom of God) points to a much less ethnocentric and nationalistic view of the world than what is currently being promoted in many places.

All of this is not to say that I’m not patriotic and don’t appreciate the kind of life I enjoy in the United States. I confess to feeling a fairly high degree of patriotism during the Olympics, as just one example, and I can’t help breathing a little sigh of relief when I set foot on familiar American soil again after traveling internationally. I also don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t integrity in taking care of our own people; there is a bit of hypocrisy in railing against poverty, inequality, oppression, and discrimination in other places when we aren’t working hard enough on those issues here at home. Self-interest is a good thing (as Jesus himself suggested when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”), although not when it ends up always putting personal interests ahead of the needs of others, or hogging the lion’s share of resources when others are suffering.

As Christians, we are connected to a global fellowship, a worldwide church; we care about the welfare of everyone, regardless of where they live. But beyond that, as human beings,  we are all connected to people all over the world. The contemporary world is inextricably interconnected and interdependent, more so than at any time in history, given the relative ease of travel, increased technology, and the ubiquity of the Internet. What we do here affects people in other places, and what other people do affects us; this is especially true when it comes to the use of limited natural resources. Globalism seems to have become a dirty word, but that doesn’t make sense to me. The “America first” mentality seems to operate out of a zero-sum philosophy: we have to be first, which means that no one else can be first; we can’t contribute to the well-being of others in other places because that means we can’t take care of ourselves. Why does it have to be either-or; why can’t it be both-and?

The time-honored ending to every presidential speech is “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” I understand and respect that, knowing and appreciating that presidents speak as the chief representative and promoter of and advocate for one specific country. But sometimes I also can’t help wishing they would add, “And God bless the whole world, no exceptions.”

 

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Makanalia and One Missionary’s Legacy

The name Makanalia is one I’ve known for almost as long as I can remember. My father had a very special relationship with this woman he first met in 1954 when she was a young girl living in her rural village in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and he was out visiting village schools. In his missionary memoirs, he describes noticing a girl sitting in the front row who had difficulty seeing the blackboard. He says, “Somehow, I developed a feeling that she needed special help and also I had the conviction that she had real ability…. I don’t remember just how I was prompted to take her to the mission or just what the circumstances were that caused her parents to give permission, but…permission was given, and she agreed that she would go with me.”

IMG_0887Twelve years ago, when I was in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe for the Mennonite World Conference global assembly, I met Makalania Dhlamini. This was just a couple months after my father had passed away, so it was particularly poignant for me to hear her profuse thanks for what he had done for her so many years before. I didn’t really understand then the depth of her gratitude, and little did I know then that I would see her again – on my home turf at the assembly in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

When we happened upon each other the first day of the assembly, she gripped my hand tightly and held on as we greeted each other. Again, she expressed her profound thanks for what my father had done. As we talked, I asked her to tell me the story I had often heard before but never from her. There were details that differed from my father’s account in his memoirs, but the basic outline was the same. One of the questions I’ve had for a long time was why her family was willing to let her go off with the white missionary, not knowing if or when she would ever return. Her answer was simple: “They trusted Umfundisi Sider; they trusted the missionaries.” (Umfundisi is a term of respect.)

She also talked about what my father did as a miracle. She remembered that the rural roads (if they could even be called roads!) were often muddy and impassable, and frequently Dad’s car would get stuck in the mud. I have vague memories of my mother back at the mission station worrying about where he was when he didn’t get home at the appointed time. In his missionary autobiography, Dad tells of one particularly memorable time of being hopelessly stuck in the mud, which may be the incident I vaguely remember. This time, however, when he was taking Makanalia with him back to mission station, there were no problems.

While that was perhaps a miracle on a smaller scale, the real miracle for Makanalia was that she was eventually able to get glasses for her poor eyesight, earn enough money from working to pay her school fees, attend school, and receive a teaching certificate. In his book, Dad describes her accomplishments: “She has been a teacher for many years,… [including being] a teacher of special education for the handicapped in Bulawayo…. She has helped to start both the Lobengula and the Bulawayo Central churches in Bulawayo. She has been a wonderful wife, mother [of four children], teacher, and example of Christian character and leadership.” All these accomplishments would not have been possible had my father not been moved by her plight all those years ago, and “fetched” her from her village, to use Makanalia’s word.

IMG_0297I still don’t think I quite grasped the depth of her gratitude until I took her to my father’s grave as she had requested. One of her main reasons for coming to the U.S. and to Pennsylvania for the assembly was to see where the missionaries had come from, and specifically to see where my father was from. On our way to the cemetery where my parents are buried, she said, “I know he’s not really there, but I want to see where his body is buried.” As we were driving up cemetery hill in Grantham, she commented, “We should have brought flowers.” I led her to the grave, and together we cleared away grass clippings that were obscuring the gravestone. She knelt down on the ground in front of the stone and asked if she could pray (watch and listen to her prayer):

“Let me pass the Word to all I come across. Help me, Lord, to love the poor, the fatherless, the orphans, those with nothing. I didn’t have anything when Lewis Sider picked me up. I had nothing. There are many in Africa with nothing, who have no school fees. I had a chance. Let me give them a chance…. I thank you, Lord. I prayed for this chance to come and thank you for their [the missionaries’] lives. I know they are waiting somewhere where we shall meet and sing together. I look forward to that day when I will see Umfundisi and tell him I am home too.”

By the end of the prayer, she was sobbing, and I was in tears as well. She finished her prayer, got up, and we started back to the car. She said again, “We should have brought flowers.” Across the way I noticed some Queen’s Anne’s lace and pink clover; I picked a few flowers and took them to her. She carefully and lovingly placed them on the gravestone. And then we left.

Just that morning at church, my Sunday school class had been discussing an article from Christianity Today entitled “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries.” The author cites research showing, among other things, that “[A]reas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”

My parents’ “proselytizing” missionary service was during colonial times, before the British colony of Southern Rhodesia became the independent country of Zimbabwe. Despite their deep love and appreciation for the black people of Southern and Northern Rhodesia (where they also served), in later years their attitude toward them seemed to reflect a somewhat colonial mentality and sounded paternalistic and condescending to my more “enlightened” ears. I also know that during the war in Rhodesia in the late 1970s between loyalists to the white government and those wanting independence and black rule, some blacks criticized the missionaries for not being more outspoken against the white regime on behalf of the black majority. Plus, given the bad economic and political situation in Zimbabwe for more than a decade now, with the country that was once thriving and considered the breadbasket of Africa deteriorating in many ways, the research conclusions cited in the article could ring a little hollow. What happened? Why couldn’t the influence of the missionaries have prevented the economic and political tragedy in Zimbabwe?

Missions methods have changed since my parents were missionaries, and my own views on missions have been mixed and complicated at times. But seeing Makanalia again and hearing her genuine and deep gratitude for what my father and other missionaries did for her gave me a new appreciation for the legacy they left. During the assembly and after, I watched her interact with several retired missionaries (see photos below), and there was nothing but mutual respect and love. Another older gentleman from Zimbabwe, Knight Ngwabi, age 83, who we hosted in our home the last night of the assembly, also fondly remembered my father from more than 65 years ago. The Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe, for many years now under the leadership of the indigenous people, is thriving, in part because of the sacrifice and dedication of people like my parents. It was good for me to reminded of that by people like Makanalia.

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Makanalia chats with former missionaries. From left to right, Robert Lehman, George and Mary Olive (Lady) Bundy, and Eva Mae Melhorn Brubaker. Knight Ngwabi is also in the middle photo.

 

Recommended Reading: Two African Novels

Once again my book clubs have introduced me to books I may not have found otherwise – two more to add to my growing collection of African novels.

Book coverHalf of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is about the civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, something I knew next to nothing about. Before reading this novel, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the only mental image I had of “Biafra” was of starving children. If you’re like me and know next to nothing about Biafra, here’s some background from Wikipedia: “Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). The inhabitants were mostly the Igbo people who led the secession due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. The creation of the new state that was pushing for recognition was among the causes of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War.” I had no clue about the war, and certainly not from the perspective of those who were on the minority Biafran side, so this book was educational in addition to being a good story.

When I think about where I was and what I was doing from 1967-1970, I suppose it’s at least a little understandable that I didn’t know much about Biafra. I was in college and graduate school at the time; I didn’t have TV and I didn’t listen to NPR in those days (actually, NPR was incorporated in February 1970, after the Biafran War was already over), so my knowledge of world events beyond the Vietnam War was fairly limited. That feels like a poor excuse, however, for my ignorance!

In Half of a Yellow Sun, the story of Biafra is told from the point of view of five characters (all Igbo except one): Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy; Odenigbo, a university professor and revolutionary; Olanna, the professor’s mistress; Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene; and Richard, an Englishman infatuated with Kainene. As you might imagine, the war was horrific, and yes, to explain why my only mental image of Biafra is of starving children, there was widespread hunger and deprivation because of the war.

Perhaps the most haunting sentence in the book is this one, which is also the title of a book about the war written by one of the characters: “The world was silent while we died.” During the war, the citizens of the breakaway country of Biafra struggled to gain recognition from other countries, and it didn’t seem like the rest of the world cared very much that thousands of people were suffering and dying in this little tiny country with few resources but lots of pride. I couldn’t help thinking of other times when it has seemed like “the world was silent”: Rwanda, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Syria…and the list could probably go on. What is our responsibility in situations like this? What can and should we do? I honestly don’t know.

Front CoverThe second African novel I read recently is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I was much more familiar with the setting and issues in this book because it takes place in colonial Rhodesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is after I left Rhodesia in 1961 and after Ian Smith declared unilateral independence from Great Britain in 1965, but before the height of the war that resulted in majority black rule and the change of name to Zimbabwe in 1980. Nervous Conditions has been described as one of the best African novels, and is the first by a black Zimbabwean to be published in English outside the country.

The story is told from the point of view of Tambu, a young girl who leaves her rural village to go to the mission school run by her wealthy, British-educated uncle. The book explores coming of age, gender and identity issues. The title refers to the sense of displacement and feelings of ambivalence that come with being a native in a colonial system – everyone in the novel has a “nervous condition.”

There was a lot for me to identify with in this book. It takes places at a time that was not all that far removed from when I lived in Rhodesia. In many ways, the story felt like my story being told from the opposite point of view. As a missionary kid, however, I saw the world I lived in from the point of view of missionaries who believed they were doing a good and right thing – not only by bringing the good news of the gospel to the native people but also by improving their lives with education and medical care. These were good things, but it never occurred to me to think about how the missionaries and other white settlers also disrupted life and created a whole new set of of challenges for the native people. The novel shows the work of missionaries and colonialism from the other side, and how education and white people changed things irrevocably. I appreciated this perspective which is different than the one I grew up with.

The effects of education, westernization and money are explored, along with the loss of traditional values. There is also a loss of language and culture, and distrust of the new culture that seems to be taking over. Family dynamics change when some are able to receive an education and others don’t, when some have wealth and opportunity and others don’t, when those with wealth and advantage are expected to share with and take care of those who don’t. The “nervous condition” of Tambu is clear as she desperately wants an education and forsakes her village and family to get it, even as she critiques her more worldly-wise cousin for her inability to speak the native language anymore and her rebellious attitude toward her parents, especially her father. The cousin’s own “nervous condition” has tragic results when she suffers from an eating disorder that eventually requires professional help to save her life. Interestingly, there are no significant white characters with unique personalities in the book, even though so much of life is controlled by whites. This is Tambu’s story, or as she puts it in the opening paragraph, a story of escape, entrapment and rebellion, told in a fairly introspective style.

There’s so much more to both books that I haven’t mentioned, so you’ll just have to read them if you want to know more!

 

 

December 22, 1961

December 22, 1961 is the marker between two lives: my life in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and my life in the United States. On this date in 1961, my parents, my younger brother Rich and I arrived by ship in the New York City harbor, having left Africa several weeks before. My parents packed up our belongings at Macha Mission in Zambia while Rich and I were in school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and then traveled to Bulawayo to meet us. Rich and I left school before the end of the term, and as a family we took the train to Cape Town where we boarded one of the Cunard ships to Southampton, England. There we boarded another ship (the S. S. United States, I think), bound for New York.

Even though I was 13, I don’t have all that many clear memories of the trip. I do remember thinking it would be cool to arrive in the U.S. in winter with a tan from summertime in the southern hemisphere, and so like a teenager, I tried to work on my tan on the deck of the Cunard ship while we were still in warm weather. I also remember a day off the ship in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. That day is particularly memorable because my mother and I went alone while my dad stayed on the ship with my brother who was having one of his nine-year-old meltdowns.

The morning we arrived in New York I was so excited. We hadn’t seen my older brother John for six years – since the day we left New York for Africa in November 1955. In the meantime, he had grown from an awkward teenager to a college senior, and I was now the awkward teenager. I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like for my parents to finally see their son again after so long. As I recall, five people came to meet us in New York: my brother John; my maternal grandmother; my uncle Glenn (married to my mother’s sister); Jacob Kuhns, representing the Brethren in Christ Board for Missions; and his daughter Marian who was then a freshman in college home for Christmas. After going through customs and collecting all our luggage, we set out by car for Pennsylvania, stopping once along the way for something to eat.

Although we were headed to my aunt and uncle’s home in Mifflin County for Christmas, we stopped briefly to unload most of our things at the house in Grantham where we would be living. In the evening, as we neared Grantham on Route 15, someone pointed out the lighted steeple of the Grantham Church on the Messiah College campus. I’ve never forgotten my first sighting of the steeple of what has been my home church ever since. The next day, we went shopping for winter coats and boots. In my memory, it either had recently snowed or it snowed that day, so the boots were important.

Before 1961, my Christmas memories range from special holiday parties at boarding school at the end of the term, to missionary get-togethers where the adults and kids exchanged names and gave gifts to each other, to Christmas Day services on the mission stations when people came from the surrounding villages with their containers to receive a gift of salt from the mission. I also remember Christmas 1954 when we were on furlough and living in southern California. My mother’s entire family was together in one place at the same time: my grandmother, the six siblings and their spouses, and the fourteen grandchildren. The only person missing was my grandfather who had passed away in 1950 while we were in Africa. The cousins exchanged gifts. My cousin Art had my name and gave me a toy baking set, complete with miniature Betty Crocker cake mixes. I was enthralled, and believe it or not, I still have a few pieces of the baking set left that my grandchildren play with now!

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My high school senior picture taken in 1963, with me wearing my 1961 Christmas gift from my brother

For Christmas in 1961, it was just my grandmother, my aunt Mary and uncle Glenn and two cousins Andy and Peggy, and our family. It was important not only because our family was together again for the first time in more than six years, but also because it was the boundary between my two lives. The only gift I remember from that Christmas was a crew neck sweater that John gave me. Either by happy coincidence or because my mother and brother conferred beforehand, the sweater perfectly matched the wool plaid pleated skirt my mother had made for me in Africa before we left from fabric one of her sisters had sent her from the U. S. The sweater and skirt together created my most fashionable outfit, which was really important for me as a shy and socially awkward 13-year-old desperately trying to fit in with American culture.

After Christmas, we settled in the missionary home in Grantham, and when school started after the Christmas break, I entered the second half of tenth grade as a 13-year-old (see “Re-Entry” for what that was like). So much of who I am today was formed by the 13 years of my life before December 22, 1961, but so much has happened since too. Today, as I reflect on this 52nd anniversary of my family’s arrival back in the U. S., I am nostalgic about the past but also incredibly grateful for the present, filled with the prospect of another Christmas with my wonderful husband of 42 years, our two children and the beautiful people they chose to marry, our three grandchildren, and new little one due to make her appearance early in the new year.

Of Coat Hangers, Red Earth, and “Home”

In 1992, more than thirty years after I left the African continent, I returned for the first time. As my plane landed in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the city where I was born, I was overcome with emotion, as though I had finally arrived home after a long absence. For the previous 31 years, I had lived quite happily in the United States – finished high school, graduated from college and graduate school, pursued a writing and editorial career, married, and raised two children. Home has been here in the U.S. since 1961; why was I overcome with emotion when I set foot again in the country and city of my birth?

I thought about these emotions this past week when two very different things reminded me of my childhood in Africa. First there was an unexpected response to my blog from someone who went to the same school I did in Zambia. Thanks to the Internet, Jane had happened across the blog when she was searching for “Beit School,” the name of the school we attended in Choma. We were even there at the same time for a couple years. Unfortunately I don’t remember her; she is three years younger than I am and therefore probably was not in my circle of closest friends.

We e-mailed back and forth a couple times, and I found out a little more of her story. Jane and her family moved around a good bit, and she went to several different schools in both Zambia and Zimbabwe. Shortly after her marriage, she and her husband moved to the United Kingdom where she has lived ever since. In 2000, when white-owned land in Zimbabwe was being seized by the government and other vigilantes, her farmer parents were attacked and beaten; they soon left the country and also moved to the U.K. Jane was prompted to do her Internet search by an episode of the TV show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” which was narrated by a South African journalist born in Zambia. The show made her think about how she has never felt like she belonged anywhere; the one time she went back to Zimbabwe in the 1990s, she knew she didn’t belong there. And she doesn’t feel like she’s really “at home” in the U.K.

Then there was the coat hanger. A few weeks ago, a friend (a missionary kid himself) who has been working in Zambia for the past several years returned to the U.S. for a few weeks. He e-mailed me to say he had a coat hanger in his possession with the name H. A. Sider printed on it. Would that be me? He and his wife found it in the house where they’ve been living at Macha Hospital in Zambia.

DSC00080Of course it’s me (H. A. Sider = Harriet Alice Sider, my birth name), but how did a coat hanger with my name on it end up in his house? The hanger was probably one I carried back and forth with me to Beit School. There were lists of items boarders were supposed to take to school and everything had to be labeled with each student’s name. The list may have included a certain number of hangers. The last place our family lived before we returned to the U.S. was Macha Mission. I’m sure my mother didn’t think there was any need to transport hangers across the Atlantic Ocean and so this hanger stayed in the main mission house at Macha after we left. (She made similar decisions about other items that I regret more than her decision not to bring this hanger – like my Raggedy Ann doll which would have far more sentimental and potential monetary value!) As various people came and went out of that house in subsequent years, the contents were likely shuffled among the other houses on the Macha Mission compound. Eventually it ended up in the house where Chris and Marlys live; they recognized the name on it and decided to reunite it with its owner.

DSC00081So this week I took possession of the coat hanger again. It’s not in the best shape and it certainly isn’t fancy – just a simple curved piece of wood with a long nail threaded through a hole and bent for the hook. The nail/hook is loose and doesn’t stay in place. My name is faded. Most people wouldn’t take a second look at it. But it’s still a “working” coat hanger and it brings back a flood of memories from those days when everything I owned had my name on it, when I was in boarding school with girls like Jane.

In her e-mail, Jane sent me a link to a poem called “Homeland.” The author was also born in Africa, and Jane resonated with the feelings expressed in the poem. I did too. The poem talks about “flame-coloured earth” and “blood-red clay beneath my feet,” and in those phrases unwittingly connects with my coat hanger from Macha. In my memory, one of the distinguishing features of Macha Mission, where the coat hanger lived for more than fifty years, was its red earth. My brother and I used to play in that red dirt, building towns for his collections of Dinky Toy cars and trucks and accessories.

The title of the poem is key to its meaning and emotional impact. For many people who were born in Africa and/or spent a significant chunk of their lives there, it will always be “home,” and they would identify immediately with these lines: “Home of my heart. Land of my birth” and “Never complete. Never whole./White skin and African soil.” I’ve heard former missionaries to Africa talk about how the continent and its people captured their hearts and they left part of themselves there when they returned to North America. I think my dad was like that; if it had been totally up to him, he would have been perfectly happy to have spent the rest of his life in Africa and be buried there. He would have understood deep within him those words, “Home of my heart.”

The poem and the feelings it captures also help to explain my own emotions as I landed in Zimbabwe in 1992 after having been gone for more than 30 years. I’ve had a good life in the U.S. and I love my family and the country of which I am a citizen and that I call home, but there’s a part of my heart that is still in Africa and still calls it home too.

We Need New Names: A Book Review

We Need New NamesI was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, so you can understand why the word “Bulawayo” leapt out at me from the book shelf in Barnes & Noble a few weeks ago. There it was, a book written by someone named NoViolet Bulawayo, on the shelf of books by new authors. When I confirmed that the author is indeed a native of Zimbabwe, I had to buy the book, a novel called We Need New Names.

I’ve read a number of books by white Zimbabweans, such as Alexandra Fuller’s Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, and Douglas Rogers’ The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa. There’s also Love in the Driest Season, by an American foreign correspondent on assignment in Zimbabwe. And I have two previous works of fiction by black Zimbabweans on my bookshelf: Zenzeli: A Letter for My Daughter, by J. Nozip Maraire (1996), and Songs to an African Sunset, by Sekai Nzenza-Shand (1997). However, none of these books is set in the area of Zimbabwe with which I am most familiar – among the Ndebele people near Bulawayo. And neither of the novels deals with the political and economic disasters in Zimbabwe of the last 10-15 years.

NoViolet Bulawayo is the pen name of Elizabeth Shele, who came to the United States from Zimbabwe when she was 18 years old. She chose NoViolet for her first name in honor of her mother whose name was Violet, and Bulawayo for her last name because, as she said, the city of Bulawayo is “her people.” She earned her MFA at Cornell University, won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, and is now a fellow at Stanford University. We Need New Names is her first novel.

As you might expect, the novel is highly autobiographical. The main character is a 10-year-old girl named Darling. The first half of the novel takes place in Zimbabwe, presumably in Bulawayo, although neither the country nor the city is ever named; the second half takes place in Michigan, where Darling comes to live with her aunt. Darling is the narrator of her own story.

A couple of the reviews I read praised the first half of the book but said it deteriorated when the setting shifted to the United States, while another, tellingly published on the New Zimbabwe website, said that Bulawayo hits her stride in the second half as she describes the feelings of loss and displacement that many immigrants feel. I find myself agreeing with both assessments: I “enjoyed” the first half more than the second half, probably because the story of the daily lives and exploits of Darling and her friends in their shantytown was compelling, while I was put off by how she and her new friends in Michigan spend a lot of their free time. On the other hand, the plight of immigrants, especially those who are in the U.S. away from their immediate family and whose legal status is in jeopardy, is very movingly and starkly portrayed in the second half. I couldn’t help wondering whether the reviewers who criticized the second half missed the point.

This is not an easy book to read – not because of the writing style, although you do have to get used to that – but because of the subject matter and how it describes both what has happened in Zimbabwe and what it’s like for immigrants here in the U.S. Earlier this year, I read the classic Nigerian novel by Chinua Achebe called Things Fall Apart. The words of that title echo throughout We Need New Namesthings have fallen apart disastrously in Zimbabwe. If you’re looking for a fun read about carefree life in Zimbabwe from the point of view of a child, this isn’t it. If I was hoping for something that would transport me back to the country where I spent my childhood, this book didn’t do that. If I didn’t want to be made uncomfortable by the  perspective of a young black Zimbabwean reflecting on what happened when the white people came, I shouldn’t have read this book. However, for many other reasons, I recommend the book. Just three examples of why I found the book so compelling:

1. A non-governmental agency (NGO) is delivering relief supplies. Darling and her friends wait impatiently for the gifts they know are coming as five NGO workers get out of the lorry. The children are motioned to sit down, and one of the workers starts taking pictures, “like 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” (p. 54). The scene made me think of the NGO I know best that has sent food to Zimbabwe during times of drought and economic distress, one I highly respect and support and on whose board I once served – Mennonite Central Committee. I hope Darling and her friends would not feel the same way about MCC workers!!

2. The two chapters written in the third person paint vivid and unforgettable word pictures of why so many have left Zimbabwe and how they lived once they came to the U.S. From “How They Left”: “Look at them leaving in droves. . . . When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands. . . . They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same” (pp. 147-148). From “How They Live”: “Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised. . . . Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really wanted to say remained folded inside, trapped. In America we did not always have the words” (p. 242).

3. From her new home in Michigan, Darling describes her longing for home. She says she has two homes inside her head – home before and after Paradise, the shantytown where her family now lives. Her mother and aunt have three homes inside their heads: home before independence, home after independence, and then “the home of things falling apart.” Her grandmother has four homes inside her head: “home before the white people came to steal the country. . . ; home when the white people came to steal the country and then there was war; home when black people got our stolen country back after independence; and then the home of now” (p. 194).

This is a book I might need to recommend to one of my book clubs because I would really like to talk about it with someone! Nigerian writer Ikhide R. Ikheloa is effusive in his praise for this new addition to African literature: “Let me just put it out there: This is probably the best book I have read in a very long time, perhaps in a decade, certainly the most poignant ode to identity, alienation and longing.” I don’t know if I would go that far, but it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read in awhile.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s account of the first time she returned to Zimbabwe

An interview with NoViolet Bulawayo (before the publication of We Need New Names)