My African book project is starting to wrap up with We Need New Names: A Novel, by NoViolet Bulawayo. It’s a coming of age story about modern Zimbabwe, involving a young girl whose childhood is spent in a nation in disarray. She eventually leaves for the United States, and then has to deal with the complications of race and assimilation.
To be honest, I didn’t love the book, and a few notes rang false. It’s an African novel for an American audience, and it felt stereotypical – like Americanah with characters who have less money. At one point, the children break into the house of a wealthy white resident, who has portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Cecil Rhodes on the wall. That seemed like a forced symbol.
I’ve simply read too many novels of this genre in recent years, while doing this. That’s what the market wants, and I can’t blame a writer for going after the market. I was in the mood for something new.
Zimbabwe is notorious in financial circles because of the country’s legendary hyperinflation. The government printed so much money to meet its obligations that its currency became worthless. Right now, a hodgepodge of international currencies fill in for the worthless Zimbabwean dollar.
Zimbabwe’s economy is small – GDP is $2100 per person – and it is tied to mining and agriculture. The nation has had only one ruler, Robert Mugabe, since it achieved independence in 1980. It is the example of a failed, corrupt state, the nation that South Africans point to when they worry about the future of their own nation (or are in a self-congratulatory mood).
From an investor perspective, this is a nation that could do better. The population is literate in English – with 86.5 percent of the population able to read and write. It has close ties to South Africa. It needs new leaders, not new names.