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We need new names
NoViolet Bulawayo, Granta
March 05, 2013

Okay, it’s like this. China is a red devil looking for people to eat so it can grow fat and strong. Now we have to decide if it actually breaks into people’s homes or just ambushes them in the forest, Godknows says.

That doesn’t even make sense. Why does it need to grow fat and strong if it’s a devil? Isn’t it all that already? I say.

We are back in Paradise and are now trying to come up with a new game; it’s important to do this so we don’t get tired of old ones and bore ourselves to death, but then it’s also not easy because we have to argue and see if the whole thing can work. It’s Bastard’s turn to decide what the new game is about, and even after this morning, he still wants it to be about China, for what, I don’t know.

I think China should be like a dragon, Bastard says. That way, it will be a real beast, always on top.

I think it must be an angel, Sbho says, with like some superpowers to do exciting things so that everybody will be going to it for help, like maybe pleading or dancing to impress it, singing China China mujibha, China China wo! Sbho says. She is dancing to her stupid song now, obviously pleased with herself. When she finishes she does two cartwheels, and we see a flash of her red panties.

What are you doing? Godknows says.

Yes, sit down, that’s just kaka, who will play that nonsense? Me, I’m drawing country-game, Bastard says, and he picks up a fat stick.

Soon we are all busy drawing country-game on the ground, and it comes out great because today the earth is just We are back in Paradise and are now trying to come up with a new game the right kind of wet since it rained yesterday. To play country-game you need two rings: a big outer one, then inside it, a little one, where the caller stands. You divide the outer ring depending on how many people are playing and cut it up in nice pieces like this. 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 USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia 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 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?

If I’m lucky, like today, I get to be the USA, which is a country-country; who doesn’t know that the USA is the big baboon of the world? I feel like it’s my country now because my aunt Fostalina lives there, in Destroyedmichygen. Once her things are in order she’ll come and get me and I will go and live there also. After we have sorted the names we vote for the first caller. The caller is the person who stands in the little inner circle to get the game started. Everybody else stands in the bigger circle, one foot in his country, the other foot outside.

The caller then calls on the country of his choice and the game begins. The caller doesn’t just call on any country, though; he has to make sure it’s a country that he can easily count out. It’s like being in a war; in a war you don’t just start to fight somebody stronger than you because you will get proper clobbered. Likewise in country-game, it’s best to call somebody who is a weak runner so he can’t beat you. Once the caller calls we scatter and run as if the police themselves are chasing us, except for the country that’s been called; that one has to run right into the inner ring and shout, Stop-stop-stop!

Once everyone stops, the new country in the inner ring then decides who to count out. Counting out is done by taking at least three leaps to get to one of the countries outside. It’s easier to just count out the country closest to the outer ring, meaning whoever did not run that far you just do your leaps nice and steady; the other country is counted out and has to sit and watch the game. But if you are the new country in the inner ring and cannot count anybody out in three leaps because you were not fast enough to stop the other countries, you pick the next caller and leave the game. It continues like that until there is only one country left, and the last country standing wins.

We are in the middle of the game, and it’s just getting hot; Sudan and Congo and Guatemala and Iraq and Haiti and Afghanistan have all been counted out and are sitting at the borders watching the country-countries play. We are running away from North Korea when we see the big NGO lorry passing Fambeki, headed toward us. We immediately stop playing and start singing and dancing and jumping.

What we really want to do is take off and run to meet the lorry but we know we cannot. Last time we did, the NGO people were not happy about it, like we had committed a crime against humanity. So now we just sing and wait for the lorry to approach us instead. The waiting is painful; we watch the lorry getting closer and closer, but it seems far away at the same time, like it’s not even here yet but stuck somewhere else, in another country. It’s the gifts that we know are inside that make it hard to wait and watch the lorry crawl.

This time the NGO people are late; they were supposed to come on the fifteenth of last month and that month came and went and now we are on another Eyes look at us that we cannot really see because they are hidden behind a wall of black glass. month. We have already cleared the playground because it’s where the lorry will stop. Finally, it arrives, churning dust, like an angry monster. Now we are singing and screaming like we are proper mad. We bare our teeth and thrust our arms upward. We tear the ground with our feet. We squint in the dust and watch the doors of the lorry, waiting for the NGO people to come out, but we don’t stop singing and dancing. We know that if we do it hard, they will be impressed, maybe they will give us more, give and give until we say, NGO, please do not kill us with your gifts!

The NGO people step out of the lorry, all five of them. There are three white people, two ladies and one man, whom you can just look at and know they’re not from here, and Sis Betty, who is from here. Sis Betty speaks our languages, and I think her job is to explain us to the white people, and them to us. Then there is the driver, who I think is also from here. Besides the fact that he drives, he doesn’t look important. Except for the driver, all of them wear sunglasses. Eyes look at us that we cannot really see because they are hidden behind a wall of black glass.

One of the ladies tries to greet us in our language and stammers badly so we laugh and laugh until she just says it in English. Sis Betty explains the greeting to us even though we understood it, even a tree knows that Hello, children means Hello, children. Now we are so excited we start clapping, but the other small pretty lady motions for us to sit down, the shiny things on her rings glinting in the sun.

After we sit, the man starts taking pictures with his big camera. 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.

Then the cameraman tells us to stand up and it continues. He doesn’t tell us to say cheese so we don’t. When he sees Chipo, with her stomach, he stands there so surprised I think he is going to drop the camera. Then he remembers what he came here to do and starts taking away again, this time taking lots of pictures of Chipo. It’s like she has become Paris Hilton, it’s all just click-flash-flash-click. When he doesn’t stop she turns around and stands at the edge of the group, frowning. Even a brick knows that Paris doesnt like the paparazzi.

Now the cameraman pounces on Godknows’s black buttocks. Bastard points and laughs, and Godknows turns around and covers the holes of his shorts with his hands, but he cannot completely hide his nakedness. We are all laughing at Godknows. When the cameraman gets to Bastard, Bastard takes off his hat and smiles like he is something handsome. Then he makes all sorts of poses: flexes his muscles, puts his hands on the waist, does the V sign, kneels with one knee on the ground.

You are not supposed to laugh or smile. Or any of that silly stuff you are doing, Godknows says.

You are just jealous because all they took of you are your buttocks. Your dirty, chapped, kaka buttocks, Bastard says.

No, I’m not. What’s to be jealous about, you ugly face? Godknows says, even though he can be beaten up for those words.

I can do what I want, black buttocks. Besides, when they look at my picture over there, I want them to see me. Not my buttocks, not my dirty clothes, but me.

Who will look at your picture? I ask. Who will see our pictures? But nobody answers me.

After the pictures, the gifts. At first we try and line up nicely, as if we are ants going to a wedding, but when they open the back of the lorry, we turn into dizzied dung flies. We push and we shove and we yell and we scream. We lurch forward with hands outstretched. We want to grab and seize and hoard. The NGO people just stand there gaping. Then the tall lady in the blue hat shouts, Excuse me! Order! Order, please! but we just laugh and dive and heave and shove and shout like we cannot even understand spoken language. We are careful not to touch the NGO people, though, because we can see that even though they are giving us things, they do not want to touch us or for us to touch them.

The adults have come from the shacks and are standing slightly to the side like they have been counted out of country-game. They don’t order us to stop When they look at my picture over there, I want them to see me. Not my buttocks, not my dirty clothes, but me. pushing. They don’t look at us with talking eyes. But we know that if the NGO people were not here, they would seize switches or pounce on us with their bare hands, that if the NGO people were not here, we would not even dare act like we are doing in the first place. But then the NGO people are here and while they are, our parents do not count. It’s Sis Betty who finally gets us to stop by screaming at us, but she does it in our language, maybe so that the NGO people do not understand.

What are you doing, masascum evanhu imi? Liyahlanya, you think these expensive white people came all the way from overseas ipapa to see you act like baboons? Do you want to embarrass me, heh? Futsekani, don’t be buffoons zinja, behave at once or else we’ll get in the lorry and drive off right this minute with all this shit! she says. Then Sis Betty turns to the NGO people and smiles her gap-toothed smile. They smile back, pleased. Maybe they think she just told us good things about them.

We stop pushing, stop fighting, stop screaming. We stand in a neat line again and wait patiently. The line moves so slowly I could scream, but in the end we all get our gifts and we are happy. Each one of us gets a toy gun, some sweets, and something to wear; I get a T-shirt with the word Google at the front, plus a red dress that is tight at the armpits.

Thank you much, I say to the pretty lady who hands me my things, to show her that I know English. She doesn’t say anything back, like maybe I just barked.

After we get our things, it’s the adults turn. They stand in their own line, trying to look like they don’t really care, like they have better things to do than be here. The truth is that we hear them all the time complain about how the NGO people have forgotten them, how they should visit more often, how NGO this and NGO that, like maybe the NGO are their parents. Soon the adults get small packets of beans and sugar and mealie-meal but you can see from their faces that they are not satisfied. They look at the tiny packages like they don’t want them, like they are embarrassed and disappointed by them, but in the end they turn and head back to the shacks with the things.

Its MotherLove alone who does not join the line for food. She stands there like a baobab tree, looking at everything from the side, in her bright gown with the many stars. There is a sadness on her face. One of the NGO ladies takes her sunglasses off and waves to MotherLove, but MotherLove just stands there, not waving back, not smiling, not anything. Sis Betty holds out some packages.

Hawu, MotherLove! Sis Betty shouts in a silly voice like she is coaxing a stupid child. Please come, bantu, can’t you see we’ve brought you gifts? she says. The NGO people hold out more little packages to MotherLove, and the two white women even bare their teeth like grinning dogs. Everybody is waiting to see what MotherLove will do. She turns and strides away, head held high, the bangles on her arms jingling, the stars on her dress shining, her scent of lemon staying in the air even after she is gone.

When the NGO lorry finally leaves, we take off and run after it; we have got what we wanted and don’t care how they want us to do. We wave our toy guns The NGO people hold out more little packages to MotherLove, and the two white women even bare their teeth like grinning dogs. and gifts in the air and shout what we want them to bring us next time: shoes, All Stars, balls, cell phones, cake, underwear, drinks, biscuits, US dollars. The groaning sound of the lorry drowns our voices but we continue to run and shout regardless. When we get to Mzilikazi, we stop because we know we cannot get on the road. Sbho screams, Take me with you! and we’re all screaming the words, screaming and screaming, like somebody said the lorry would turn around and take whoever screamed the loudest.

We watch the lorry get smaller and smaller until it’s just a dot, and when it finally disappears we turn around and walk back toward the shanty. Now that the lorry is gone-gone, we do not scream anymore. We are as quiet as graves, sad like the adults coming back from burying the dead. Then Bastard says, Lets go and play war, and then we take off and run to kill each other with our brand-new guns from America.

*This is an extract taken from We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, which will be published by Random House on 21 May.

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