Integration barriers facing African immigrants: Othering and reduction in ‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

Cultural exchange while living in a foreign country can be difficult for an immigrant if the local community is not well informed or open-minded about foreign places and people.  This can leave an immigrant feeling alienated in their new country of residence. If the locals do not make an effort to welcome the foreigner and embrace them as a new member of their community, the foreigner could feel ‘othered’ because their differences stand out more than their similarities. In the novel We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, we see an apt portrayal of othering taking place when the protagonist, Darling, relocates to the United States of America (USA) from an unnamed African country, which we can assume is Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia). Dr. G. Beulah accurately surmises, “Darling is used as a voice to depict the subordination of the African community which is alienated and separated from the mainstream with its social, racial, and economical subjugation in We Need New Names” (2019).

Darling and her fellow African immigrants in America never feel that they are part of American community because the Americans which they encounter view them as different, and exclude them as a marginalized minority. An excerpt from the novel, where Darling describes their conversations with Americans, reveals this sense of condescending othering which African immigrants experience in the USA:

“And when they asked us where we were from, we exchanged glances and smiled with the shyness of child brides. They said, Africa? We nodded yes. What part of Africa? We smiled. Is it that part where vultures wait for famished children to die? We smiled. Where the life expectancy is thirty-five years? We smiled. Is it there where dissidents shove AK-47s between women’s legs? We smiled. Where people run about naked? We smiled. That part where they massacred each other? We smiled. Is it where the old president rigged the election and people were tortured and killed and a whole bunch of them put in prison and all, there where they are dying of cholera – oh my God, yes, we’ve seen your country; it’s been on the news” (Bulawayo 2013:237-238).

Darling and other Africans possibly do not verbally respond to these questions because they feel it is futile to expand the viewpoints of Americans, as people are generally unwilling to listen to what they think they already know. Trying to explain the multi-faceted experiences of being African would be an insurmountable task to a person who only wishes to know about the problems in African countries on a surface-level. To these Americans, Africans are reduced to poverty, hunger and disease; to explain humanity, culture, and the richness of daily African life would be difficult to people who have never visited or lived on the continent themselves. Darling’s response with a smile shows her resignation at trying to open the minds of those who choose to restrict their viewpoints. The problems which the foreigners mention are overwhelmingly complex and cannot be explained during small talk. It would take time and a willingness to understand, in order for Americans to change their perception of Africa beyond what they see in the media. 

It is also possible that Darling feels overwhelmed and disempowered by these enquiries. The questions focus on the negative aspects of life in Africa. To hear the problems repeated and emphasized by Americans, could be retraumatising for Darling. The callousness with which it is mentioned could be infuriating and painful to listen to. The Americans speak casually about these tragic events because it has not happened to them, and has taken place in a land far removed from them. By viewing it in this way, they are othering Darling and Africans. Darling feels separated and different from the people who speak of her as someone who comes from Africa, rather than as someone who currently lives in America with them. Instead of finding the common human similarities between them, the Americans focus on the differences. This act of othering possibly causes Darling to believe that her life and country could never be understood by those who seek to exclude, rather than include. Darling’s response with a smile, allows the Americans to continue with their limited beliefs about Africa, without being confronted with different views. 

In We Need New Names, Americans formulate stereotypes based on what they read and see in the media, and do not take the time needed to analyse and imagine the complexities of life for people in Africa. A one-dimensional viewpoint is taken by the Americans, which reduces African countries to the tragedies seen on the news. The language barrier between Americans and African immigrants also poses as a challenge to get to know each other on a deeper level, and to have the necessary conversations which would explain the complexities. As Darling mentions, “Because we were not using our languages we said things we did not mean; what we really meant remained folded inside.” (Bulawayo 2013:140). The language difference is yet another way in which Darling feels excluded and othered. 

Jana Gohrisch states, “Cultural exchange functions as a medium of re-establishing personal identity on a psychological level” (2006). Unpacking this statement provides insight into another reason why Darling and other African immigrants do not engage fully when Americans bring up conversations about their home countries. This might also be the reason why Americans do not ask questions about topics other than what they already know about the continent. If both parties (Africans and Americans) were to have meaningful exchange about their differing cultures, they would consciously and subconsciously transform themselves and their thinking based on new information. If our encounters with others redefine us, then both Africans and Americans would grow towards a more globalized mindset, and shift towards global citizenship, rather than hold tightly onto their known, distinct individual cultures. Integration between cultures would lead to a hybrid identity which shares more similarities than differences. In doing so, each culture can share its own burdens with each other, and Darling would not feel as isolated and troubled as she does. Sharing problems, as well as positive experiences, would build stronger relationships and create respectful, empathetic exchanges between the differing cultures. Much could be learnt about the positive aspects of life in Africa, and the wealth and beauty of the land itself, if these exchanges take place. Expanding circles of friendship which include diverse groups of people, works to grow an individual’s knowledge, and transform their thoughts and opinions about humanity. Through these interactions, people realise that humans have basic common psychologies and personalities. While cultural differences distinguish and potentially separate groups of people, their common human qualities can bring them together based on shared interests and common character traits. Both Africans and Americans miss the opportunity to connect on a deeper level by choosing not to integrate. The more cultures cohabitate with each other, the closer society moves towards a globalized identity with new hybrid cultures forming.  

Moving to a foreign country is challenging for any individual. One experiences culture shock and needs a period of adaptation before acclimatizing to a new culture. In Darling’s case, the transition is made harder because she moves from an undeveloped country to a developed country. As her country collapses politically, economically and socially, she does not have the option to return to her former life. She has to make a success of her new life in America – there is no going back, quite literally. Darling is confronted with many changes which she may not ordinarily choose for herself. This leads to her mental breakdown where she can no longer cope with the expectations placed on her. Polo Belina Moji says, “Movement from the social matrix of one country to another to another changes the way the subject perceives the world and the way in which they are seen by others” (2015). I would add onto this point that movement from one country to another changes the way the subject perceives themself as well. This is something which Darling struggles with, as she is not only dealing with the transformations taking place inside herself, but also having to answer for the changes taking place in her country, which are beyond her control and even her comprehension at her young age. In this interstitial space between two countries, Darling experiences a double consciousness which can only be understood by someone encountering different cultures. For Americans who have been born and brought up in the USA, this double consciousness would be a concept they cannot relate to. 

The longer Darling lives in America, the more subdued she becomes. The confidence which she possessed in Paradise amongst her childhood friends seems to be lost as she tries to create a new identity amongst friends who are foreign to her (Cameron 2013: NP). Losing one’s voice (metaphorically) reveals a loss of power within oneself, reflecting a lack of confidence and sense of self-abandon. Darling finds herself in this pitiful situation, as do many African immigrants, as they live their “American Dream” on the outskirts of society. Adding to Darling’s problem, is that fact that she does not hold legal papers to be in America. For this reason, Darling cannot reveal too much about herself or her country to those who enquire about it, for fear of being caught as an illegal immigrant. In the case of an illegal immigrant, it is best to move around in the shadows of society, rather than to actively participate in it. If found out and arrested by the authorities, it would not only negatively impact the African’s economic position, but also bring shame and embarrassment onto them and their family. Maintaining a positive reputation is important in African cultures. Furthermore, Darling experienced bullying when she first arrived in America, and it is not uncommon for victims of bullying to lose their voice. In this excerpt Darling details for us the way she felt while being bullied, 

“When I first arrived at Washington I just wanted to die. The others kids teased me about my name, my accent, my hair, the way I talked or said things…When you are being teased about something, at first you try to fix it so the teasing can stop but then those crazy kids teased me about everything, even things I couldn’t change…I felt wrong in my skin, in my body, in my clothes in my language, in my head, everything” (Bulawayo 2013: 165).

In conclusion, it can be assumed that Darling would have expected America to be more welcoming to her because the African cultures which she is familiar with, are more community-based. Chielozona Eze eloquently summarises the Afropolitan view on diversity and globalization, 

“The issue therefore is no longer how different we are from others, but rather what we can learn from them, from what we have in common with them. This implies a conscious effort to affirm something in others and to seek to relate to them. Let it be the starting point of encounter. The first question Afropolitans ask when they encounter other people is: what do I (or can I) have in common with this person? The next question is: what is beautiful or admirable in this other? The third is: what can I learn from this person? By the time they have answered all these questions, the issue of how they are different from that person would have taken care of itself. Difference becomes merely a reference point of individuality and respect rather than a point of exclusion of the other (July 2022).

With this quote in mind, it becomes easier to understand Darling’s refrain when communicating with Americans. Though there are several reasons for her refrain as mentioned throughout this essay, the most prominent cause would be that Americans do not have the same approach to diversity and community as she is used to, and to what she may possibly expect. One can then conclude that Darling and her fellow African immigrants shut off during conversations with Americans because their cultural mindsets regarding community, and their social approaches to humanity remain vastly apart. 

Works Cited:

Beulah, G. 2019. Bulowayo NoViolet’s Vision of Otherness in We Need New Names. Paradigms of Marginality in Literature – Exploring the Nuances (accessed 31 July 2022) 

Bulawayo, N. 2013. We Need New Names. Hachette Book Group. New York, United States of America. 

Eze, C. 2016.  We, Afropolitans. Journal of African Cultural Studies 28 (1): 114-119 (accessed 31 July 2022)  

Gohrisch, J. 2006. Cultural exchange and the representation of history in postcolonial literature. European Journal of English Studies 10 (3):  231-247 (accessed 31 July 2022) 

Goyal, Y. 2014. Africa and the Black Atlantic. Research in African Literatures 45 (3): v-xxv (accessed 31 July 2022) 

Moji, P.B. 2015. New names, translational subjectivities: (Dis)location and (Re)naming inNoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Journal of African Cultural Studies 27 (2): 181-190 (accessed 31 July 2022)

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