Bulawayo was born and raised in Zimbabwe and attended Njube High School and later Mzilikazi High School for her A levels. She completed her college education in the US, studying at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Texas A&M University-Commerce and Southern Methodist University respectively. In 2010, she completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Cornell University, where her work was recognized with a Truman Capote Fellowship.Her novel We Need New Names was released in 2013 and was included in the 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist.This made her the first black African woman and the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Currently, she is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and she has begun work on a memoir project.
Happy Birthday Africa President
We get to Number 10 to find the president raising fists all over. On the big wall around the power station that caught fire last Sunday, on the tall gates of the blue Zioja church, on the fat pole where we sometimes play spin, on the shed where Clifford cuts hair, on the durawall that surrounds the tuck-shops where old ladies sit selling all sorts of stuff, on the sides of the shed where people wait for combis to town, on the trees along the main road—the posters are everywhere. We stand in a huddle by the power station wall and tilt our heads and look at the posters one by one even though they are exactly the same.
Godknows says, Who put him up there? Why did they put him up?
Well, whose face would you rather, your father’s? Bastard says. He elbows Godknows out of the way and steps to the wall to study the president. It’s early morning but the sun is already high above our heads, searing us like we owe it money. In the distance, radios blare the morning news but it doesn’t take long before the sound cuts out. Years ago it used to be you’d hear all kinds of noise from people mad at the power cuts but not anymore.
Down the main road, cars drive drunken-like to dodge potholes. When they approach us heads stick out the windows to look. We turn from the wall and watch the cars with the sun in our eyes and stand akimbo, posing like we made the posters ourselves. Now and then somebody shouts, whistles, pumps a fist in approval, and we pump fists back, proud because standing here under the president like this makes us feel something strange and awesome in the pits of our stomach.
Those numbers don’t even need to be there, it’s like they’re just spoiling things, Sbho says, nodding at the posters.
Can’t you see it says ninety? Godknows says.
Of course we can see that, any idiot can, I say.
Well, then it’s only a number, it doesn’t need to stand for anything, like look over there at that yellow sign that says 25, who said it must mean something? Godknows says.
Or maybe that’s just his favorite number, like mine is twelv—
You all are dunderheads and you just need to stop talking, Chipo says, and I laugh, shield my eyes with my hand. Jesus, the sun.
That’s his age. Don’t you know it’s his birthday tomorrow and there’s a big party at Fields stadium? That’s why they have all these posters, Stina says. He leans against the wall and relaxes into it, rubs his arms like it’s cold under the sun. We look at the president anew now, like we’ve never seen him in our lives. Stina knows everything but on this one I think maybe he doesn’t know what he is talking about, I mean, even Khulu, my grandfather, doesn’t look this great and he is not even close to ninety. Khulu just looks like a proper old person—wrinkled skin, stooping back, grey hairs. Something is wrong with his left knee and mother can’t raise the money the hospital wants for an operation even though she works and works and works, so that adds to Khulu’s old person’s gait. He also has this habit of just dozing all over the place, and forgets stuff, and says things that do not make sense, like this morning I gave him his tea black because there was no milk, and he looked at me real hard and said, Is there sense eating like paupers with all this wealth that we fought for? and I had to suppress a giggle and look next door at NaNqo wringing her laundry so Khulu didn’t see I thought he was plain crazy.
The president is so beautiful I wish he were my own grandfather. There are no serious wrinkles on his face. His black skin looks so fresh and finely polished – if you could buy skin, his would be expensive none of us would afford it. And look at his neatly trimmed hair, besides a small hint of grey at the front it’s real nice and black, just like the little strip running from his nose to the top lip. Then he has these clean glasses that just go with his face. I don’t care what Stina says but I’ve never seen a ninety-year-old who looks like this.
Heh, the police are here; I thought maybe they were not coming back after yesterday, Sbho says, pointing down the road.
Why wouldn’t they come? I mean the stupids are here everyday like they heard thieves are born on this road, Bastard says. His voice is disgust, is like he will spit something poisonous.
Down the road, just a little past the shade where people wait for combis to town, the traffic police have gathered. They wear these crazy lime-colored sleeves and carry these boards and notebooks and pens, like they are getting ready to write stories. There are five of them—two women who wear matching hats and grey shirts and navy trousers with these cargo pockets at the side. The men wear shoes the color of dry blood and grey shirts and khaki trousers that match the potholes on the road. We watch them split up so there’s three manning cars coming from town, two on the side manning cars going to town. Already, the short female one is flagging a lorry carrying a squad of men in city council uniforms.
We see Brother Nkululeko at the top of the road and we know him from his cheap China yellow shirt that he never takes off and his gait and the battery-operated radio that he always cradles in the nook of the elbow. We watch him cross at the traffic light that hasn’t worked in a while and start to come our way, stop by the squad of girls in Townsend uniforms. We see him start talking to them with his body. The girls just stand and clutch their book bags and watch him. When Brother Nkust reaches a hand toward the tall one she takes a step back as if he reeks. He reaches for the next and she too does the same, and it goes on and on we start giggling, but we’re careful Brother Nkust doesn’t see us because we know what he can do to us. We see him finally throw his free hand in the air to tell the girls fokolo, make that turn of his, and proceed our way, his gait like he owns the road, all of it, even with the potholes, with the tar that’s chipping away at the edges. When he gets within earshot he turns back to the girls, who will not hear him now, and yells, Keep making like your vaginas are made of diamonds and see who’s taking you to school, dunders!
When Brother Nkust sees the president he thrusts his radio into Bastard’s arms and walks up to the wall. We hear him mutter, My father, and then he bows his head respectfully.
Is he praying? Should we all bow our heads too? Sbho says.
He means the president, Stina says.
What, the president is Brother Nkust’s father for real? Godknows says, and Stina shakes his head. I have to keep moving my feet even though I’m standing in one place because the earth is just so hot under my feet, it is burning.
This man, Brother Nkust says, tapping a poster with a crooked index finger and nodding. This man, Long live this man, his Excellency, Happy Birthday Africa President, Brother Nkust says, now his fists in the air to match the president.
He is no longer just talking to us, but to the cars that are passing by, to the people inside the cars, to the people that the people inside the cars left at home, to the policemen who are stopping the cars, to the money that the policemen are collecting from the drivers of those cars and stuffing in their own pockets, to the Townsend girls who rejected him, to the cars that will stop for those girls, to the students and teachers the Townsend girls will find at their school, to the Main road that will take those girls and everybody else to their destinations, to the potholes on the road, to the men who built the road, to the trees and khaki grass and rocks and litter around us, to the brightest sun above that is mauling everything.
Do you have any idea just what this man has done for you, for us, for this country? Brother Nkust says, his finger on the president. I look at his faded, saggy jeans, at his threadbare shirt with the dark armpit stains, at his dusty zhing-zhong flip flops, and think of how his voice, thick and proud and sure, does not match him. If you closed your eyes you’d think it were coming from a man dressed like the president—in a beautiful blue suit and milk-white shirt and spotted tie and flowers on his breast pocket.
Did he die for our sins, too, I mean like Jesus? Godknows says. Stina and Bastard hi-five, laugh. Brother Nkust looks at Godknows real serious, and then at Stina and Bastard.
It’s no laughing matter, boys, and when you’re a little older, you’ll know. You see this place, this location, and this whole country? Everything in it is ours, Brother Nkust says. Now we aren’t even paying attention to Brother Nkust; now we’re looking at this beautiful strange car coasting down the main road. It’s red at the top and black at the bottom, folds and furrows all over. It looks more like a thing than a car, and I just wonder what it’s doing on this tattered road. When it gets to the police they stand aside and fold their hands and watch it pass. Brother Nkust whistles, nods his head.
Now, did you see that, boys? That’s one of the most expensive cars out there; the only one of its kind in this country and it was here. On our road! Brother Nkust is gesturing wildly now, his face alight as if the car is his.
How did the person get one of the most expensive cars out there? Godknows says.
Because he’s a thief, Stina says, and kicks a brick, hard, as if it’s made of plastic. He doesn’t even wince. The brightness disappears from Brother Nkust’s face and he looks visibly upset, like Stina just insulted his mother.
Hey-hey, boy, watch your mouth now-now. That’s Mr. M’s car, and he’s no thief. That’s how people get hurt, talking about what they don’t even know, Brother Nkust says. You can tell the warning in his voice. Stina shrugs, stares at the sun.
Who is Mr. M? Sbho says.
That Minister of Mines dude. Owns this bank and all these businesses and houses. They are thieves, all of them, do you know how much they pay themselves, do you even know? Stina’s face is ugly, his voice breaking like he really’s been stolen from, like that crazy car we’ve just seen was meant to be his. Bastard shakes his head, walks up to the president.
Yo, man. When I grow up I’m really joining the government, shiiiiiit, Bastard says.
What’s your problem, boy? Just what are you being disrespectful for? Now Brother Nkust’s voice is hardening. Sbho and I look at each other.
Man, get a grip and open your eyes and quit talking shit, Stina says. There is something angry and alive in his voice, something that makes me want to clap for him but then I decide, from Brother Nkust’s clenched face, not to do it. Everyone is looking at Stina with respect because we’ve never heard him sound like this, especially with a grown man.
I mean, look at you, Brother Nkust. In a country-country you’d be at work, holding a decent job and making money to take care of your family and living in a decent house with electricity and a toilet with water to flush when you take a shit—
Before Stina has finished his sentence, Brother Nkust knocks him down with a two-feet and he is lying on the ground, struggling under Brother Nkust who is pummeling him with fists. We all yell at Brother Nkust to leave Stina alone, and Bastard tries to pull him off, but he keeps clobbering. He is unmovable. Stina yells, saying things that drive Brother Nkust madder and madder so the blows keep coming. I glance behind us, at the president, down the road at the police who are busy making money. Cars slow down and honk but they keep going. It’s only when this old woman carrying a bunch of brooms appears from nowhere. She starts hitting Brother Nkust with the brooms until he gets off Stina and walks away, waving fists and yelling insults. Nobody tells him he is leaving his dead radio behind.
Later, after the old woman has gone, after Stina has dusted himself off, after we have covered the small drops of his blood with soil, after we have yelled all the insults we know at Brother Nkust’s retreating back, we sit in a row under the president, our backs against the wall, and just watch the main road. The sun has proper exhausted us by now. Somebody’s stomach growls and we laugh. Stina sits with his elbows resting on his thighs, palms covering his eyes, which means he is thinking. We sit watching and waiting, after what happened we know it’s best we wait for Stina to decide what we do next. Finally, when I’m thinking we’d explode like popcorn from the sun, Stina stands and confronts the wall. Then, without a word, he reaches up and starts taking the president down but the poster refuses to budge, like maybe it was ironed there. Stina tugs and pulls, tugs and pulls. We all rise.