We Need New Names Themes

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo follows the young protagonist Darling as she grapples with questions of gender, religion, and the meaning of home.

We Need New Names Hardcover
We Need New Names Hardcover

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo follows the young protagonist Darling as she grapples with questions of gender, religion, and the meaning of home. In this post, we are going to look into some of the themes in We Need New Names. Let’s dive right into it.

Theme of Gender Identity

The theme of gender identity is one of the several themes in We Need New Names. Darling is a product of early 2000s globalism, but also of traditional and Christian values due to her upbringing by her caregivers, Mother of Bones, and her parents. Her family follows a fairly patriarchal structure in which the man goes far off to work and rarely communicates or sends money home to his wife and child. Darling struggles with her identity as a first-born female when her society dictates that the first child should be a male, telling Chipo that her baby will be a male because “the first baby is supposed to be a boy” (page: 5) and then responding “I said supposed, didn’t I?” (page:5) when asked about her own gender. This problem recurs for Darling when her father finally returns home and, in his delirious state, calls her his son, which she does not correct.

Along with these traditional Zimbabwean values, Western religion comes into play in at least two ways. First, Darling sees a woman molested by a priest in front of his congregation on Fambeki mountain under the guise of exorcising her. Second, Darling toys with different ideas about Jesus’s appearance. She tries to colour his eyes brown in a picture to look more like her and everyone she knows. She also compares his hair and garb to that of women, as she does when she sees a picture of her father in a graduation robe, trying to square what she knows about gender presentation with what she is shown of the Western world.


Finally, the book shows many young girls taking on the mannerisms of women, as if practicing their gender role for later in life. For example, Darling narrates, “Is it painful? Sbho says. She is looking at me with her head tilted-like, the way a mother is supposed to do when you tell her about anything serious” (page: 96). Darling too must take on the responsibilities of a grown woman at times, such as when she must hold a baby for a woman at church and when she must stay at home and take care of her sick father, and she does not seem to like these experiences.

Theme of Childhood

Since it is a coming-of-age novel, We Need New Names also focuses on the theme of childhood. Children living in situations of poverty or war often have to mature quickly. In Paradise, the reader can often see the children working through adult issues in childish ways; for example, they play country-game and find bin Laden to collectively work through issues of global power, inequality, and war.

However, traumatic situations can also cause adults to regress in some ways back to childhood, and seeing the world through Darling’s childish lens can also colour adult actions in this way. For example, Darling says that she knows “all this praying for Father is just people playing” (page:100) and that the workers at a construction site a few miles from Paradise, “look like they’ve been playing in dirt all their lives… they don’t look the way adults always try to look” (page:46). These depictions of adults show that everyone is struggling to make sense of the world in similar ways to the children playing games, having childish discussions, and making wishful plans for the future.

Theme of Religion

The theme of religion is shown with a critical and ironic tone in We Need New Names, especially with regard to Western religion’s influence in Zimbabwe. Darling is taken to a church on Fambeki Mountain by Mother of Bones, and they watch as a man called Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro leads the congregation by yelling, shaking people, and occasionally poorly reading brief passages from the New Testament aloud. He has clearly fashioned his church to his own benefit, getting people to give him money and molesting a woman in front of the congregation under the guise of exorcising her demons. Bulawayo shows this through his actions, Darling’s criticisms, and even his jarring name in which the words Revelations and Bitchington are so juxtaposed.

The juxtaposition of “Revelations” and “Bitchington” in the church leader’s name shows the ironic and subversive tone with which the novel approaches organized religion. Bulawayo’s portrayal of the church service, with its emphasis on theatrics, manipulation, and abuse of power, challenges the legitimacy and authority of the religious institution.

Furthermore, Darling questions the influence of Western religion in Africa herself by colouring Jesus’s eyes brown on a calendar owned by Mother of Bones, which she is beaten for. She explains she was trying to make him look like her and the people she knows, which calls attention to the problematic nature of white, Western society expanding into Africa without alteration, supplanting African beliefs and identities rather than enriching them.

Theme of Social Class

Social class and socioeconomic status are clearly important themes in We Need New Names. Darling lives in poverty in Paradise and sneaks into the more developed areas nearby, specifically the city Budapest, to steal from the wealthy.

Bulawayo demonstrates how important mere circumstance is to one’s social class since Darling and her family lived a seemingly comfortable middle-class life during her early childhood but were forced out of this life by a group of men in bulldozers. In Zimbabwe, many are kept in poverty by the changing economic system — especially the change to the dollar that makes the money many had saved up worthless. Bulawayo makes it clear that the poor are not lazy or stupid, depicting Darling’s father and especially her mother as working tirelessly outside the home but still unable to afford even enough food for the small family.

The entire community in Paradise is described as not wanting to move to the shanty town and leave their old lives behind, but after years of this kind of living, they necessarily settle into their roles there.

We Need New Names
Front cover of We Need New Names

Theme of Political Realities

The theme of politics is one of the pervasive themes in We Need New Names. It is constantly hinted at all through Darling’s childish lens. When she and her friends are younger and living in Paradise, they help hang up political posters that promise change. They watch as the adults leave to cast their votes in an election, and come back proud and hopeful, dancing and singing long into the night. They also witness this change not take place, and the way people are buried after being killed for their involvement in such political matters.

Furthermore, the children love to play imaginative political games having to do with global domination and the worldwide search for Osama bin Laden. These hints at politics through Darling’s eyes and the children’s games and discussions mean that the focus of the book stays on emotions and relationships, the ways that politics affect real people in Zimbabwe.

Once Darling gets to America, she is more aware of the political sphere, and early on, she witnesses the election of Barack Obama, which makes her family very happy. Darling also witnesses a speech made by the Zimbabwean president which makes her uncle very happy but her aunt unhappy, something she still doesn’t totally understand, as it has to do with complex lines of trade and interaction between Zimbabwe and the West. For the rest of the book, this is the way Darling interacts with Zimbabwean politics; she watches it on TV and tries to understand how it affects Paradise, her friends, and her family.

Once Darling is in America, her English quickly improves, especially through watching a lot of movies and television and focusing on American words and phrases. However, it is clear that this is not unequivocally good as her mother laughs at her over the phone for speaking like she’s white. Aunt Fostalina has a harder time perfecting her American accent, even though she has been in America much longer than Darling, perhaps because she is older and more set in her ways. She acts as if she takes it as an affront when a woman can’t understand her over the phone, but Darling knows that following this incident, her aunt will go and practice in the mirror until she can say the conversation over perfectly.

Finally, the difficulties in translating across cultures is clear at the wedding Darling attends along with Aunt Fostalina’s family. Here, messages are passed along to the couple being married — an African man and a white, American woman — and much about traditional gender roles in Zimbabwean families is left out when translating the speeches into English for the American guests.

Theme of Home

The theme of home is easily discernible in We Need New Names. After moving to America, Darling one day thinks back about former homes. Darling counts two homes she has had — her home before Paradise and her home in Paradise — conspicuously leaving out the home she has been given at Aunt Fostalina’s.

She narrates that her mother and aunt have had three homes, including their homes before Zimbabwe’s independence, their stable homes during the period following this, and their homes “of things falling apart” (page:193) in Paradise and America. Mother of Bones, she says, had four houses, including one home “before the white people came to steal the country, and a king ruled” (page:194).

Through these memories of homes — even the ones passed down from Darling’s elders to her, which she nostalgically refers to in language clearly taken straight from her mother and Mother of Bones (such as “steal the country”) — Bulawayo gives the reader a road map of Zimbabwe’s history and the way it affected the common people.

Once she has lived in America for multiple years, Darling must question herself about her country. Like the black and white mask, she hangs on her wall, she has a split identity, and it makes sense that she becomes very upset when Chipo tells her over the phone that Zimbabwe is no longer her country or her home. Still, as Darling grows up, she seems to never take America and Aunt Fostlina’s house as her true home, often retreating back to the adventure and camaraderie of her home in Paradise.

Further Reading:

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