Migration and the Notion of Return in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers

This article is published in the Tasambo Journal of Language, Literature, and Culture – Volume 1, Issue 1.

Okache C. Odey
Nnamdi Azikiwe University


Africans are leaving the continent in droves as a result of the harsh socio-economic and political situations. People who are leaving to seek better opportunities elsewhere envisage a bleak future if they remain in their country. Many Africans have migrated to Western countries especially the United States in search of a better life but most often when they get there, they do realize that things are not the way they imagine it to be. While some do return to their homeland, others are unable to return out of shame for failing to achieve economic success or for several other reasons. Both NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers explore this idea. This paper draws from postcolonial theory and employs the qualitative analysis method to examine the experiences of the characters in the two texts. The paper concludes that traveling to America may not offer socio-economic emancipation for every African migrant.

Keywords: Migration, Otherness, Marginality, Reverse Migration.


In recent times, the harsh socio-economic reality in many countries in Africa is making people leave their home countries in search of a better life in the West. A large number of aspiring African migrants do entertain the illusory notion that migrating to the West offers a path to financial emancipation. It is this belief that is propelling people to leave the continent in droves in search of a better life in Europe and North America. Salazar (2011: 586) notes how “imaginaries play a dominant role in envisioning the green pastures” as migrants seek a better life away from their country of birth. Salazar (ibid.) further emphasizes how illusory perceptions of other places fuel migratory aspirations in intending migrants. Hron (2009: 20) equally argues that when migrants migrate to the West the “‘myth of successes misleads many people into thinking that through sacrifice and hard work they will eventually gain success (….) others believe that upon arrival, the hardship of immigrants will eventually disappear as (they) assimilate in their new home” and this idea is pushing many Africans to leave their home country to Western countries.

The notion that migrating to the West offers a way out of poverty is not entirely true as Hron observes that “many become increasingly disillusioned and depressed when they finally grasp that financial success or social mobility is not easily achievable in their new environment” (p.20). The destination country is often not a land of limitless opportunities as migrants perceive it to be.

It will not be entirely accurate to say that migrants do not possess information about the West but rather, the information may be inadequate and may not capture the stark reality of the receiving country. Relatives and friends living abroad may also conceal the realities of life abroad as they tend to project that all is well with them. Many African migrants often experience disillusionment when their expectations differ greatly from the realities in the new environment. Disillusionment is the tearing of the veil of illusion thereby forcing the migrant to come to terms with the true picture of things in the new place of abode and Fouron (2009) drawing on the experiences of many Haitians in the United States, asserts that:

The landscape of migration is littered with broken dreams of many Haitians, who after risking their lives on the high seas and coming to the United States in the vain hope of living in a free world, doing honest work, and regaining their lost humanity, have become totally disillusioned with life in the United States. And after spending decades trying unsuccessfully to build new lives and reach out to the larger American society, many have discarded the idealistic dreams they nurtured before they left Haiti. (pp.102-3)

Many migrants after settling in America do come to realize that the dream of a better life is not for everyone. While some embark on reverse migration to start all over in their home country, many others are unable to return due to shame and many other reasons.

Several studies have been done on both texts that explored different themes. Diakhate’s (2013) study, for instance, explores how the harsh economic and political realities trigger migratory tendencies in the characters of Bulawayo’s debut novel. The paper concludes that America is not exactly the land of boundless opportunities, especially for illegal migrants. The concern of an article by Motahane and Mokombe (2020) explores the theme of home in Bulawayo’s novel and how it relates to identity formation in transnational space.

Toohey’s (2020) interrogation of Mbue’s debut novel examines how the collapse of the financial market in 2008 led to the collapse of the dreams of many Americans including that of the protagonist Jende and his family. Onuoha’s (2020) paper reveals the extent to which Jende and his family strive to actualize the American dream while at the same holding on to their African identity in America.

This paper examines the socio-political factors fuelling migration and the experience of the characters when they settle in America in Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers.

‘Scatter to Foreign Lands’: (Dis)Illusion(ment) and the Impossibility of Return in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel depicts how the harsh reality of life in an unnamed African country is pushing the citizens to seek a better life elsewhere through the eyes of the child narrator, Darling. Through Darling and her friends, Bulawayo seems to bemoan the depressing state of affairs of an unnamed country in Africa. Wilkinson (2016) opines that the voice of the child narrator and those of her friends provide Bulawayo the means to profoundly critique the socio-economic and political realities of the unnamed country.


The children cannot go to school because their teachers have all gone to neighboring countries where the conditions of service are better. The depth of deprivation that the children are subjected to makes them resort to going to Budapest to pick fruits to eat. The sorry state of things in the unnamed country is a reflection of the failure of leadership in many African countries. Postcolonial African leaders were unable as Mbembe (2001: 2) argues, to “bring the African to where he or she can enjoy a fully human life.”

Socio-economic Despair and the Quest for Hope Elsewhere

The uninhabitable socio-economic and political realities of the narrator’s country account in large measure to why many of the people are leaving in search of a better life elsewhere. The children also desire a life elsewhere from the stifling socio-economic and political realities of their homeland. Darling informs her friends of her desire to migrate to America to live with her Aunt Fostalina. Bastard, the seemingly self-appointed leader of the group, equally desires to migrate not to a distant land like America but to South Africa because if things turn out to be different from the way he imagines, then he can make his way back home. So to Bastard, his migration plan has within it, the notion of return migration because he believes that “you have to be able to return from wherever you go” (p.14). Bulawayo’s novel is set in a country that is deeply dysfunctional as nothing seems to be working properly. If Bulawayo has Zimbabwe in mind as the setting of her novel portrays, then the story is a brutal denunciation of the socio-economic and political mismanagement of Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party. She is unsparing in hitting the ruling class in her country, damaging blows, again, and again. Bulawayo’s debut novel, according to Sibanda (2018), exposes the dysfunctional state of many postcolonial African governments and the negative effects on the lives of the people.

It is not surprising that the children detest their homeland as they consistently refer to it in a derogatory term like kaka (shit in the Shona language) country and when they play the country game, none of them wants to play countries such as Congo, Somalia but they prefer to play what they refer to as country-countries such as America, Britain, and Canada. To Cobo-Pinero (2018), Darling and her friends prefer to play the name of any developed country because a name can empower and inspire confidence. The children are not happy playing in many countries in Africa because the socio-economic and political situations of those countries do not inspire them to dream. Darling begins to nurse illusory ideas of the US as a place that will offer her what her natal country is unable to do. She refers to the United States as “my America” because the country inspires her to dream of buying a Lamborghini that she sees in highbrow Budapest. Darling believes her dreams can only be realized if she migrates to America.

We Need New Names examines how post-independence disillusionment with the socio-economic and political realities in many African countries is pushing the people to seek a life better than the one in their country of origin. The situation in the narrator’s country is dreadful. Many people have died as a result of the bad policies of the government or due to the ravaging scourge of HIV/Aids. The cemetery named Heavenway according to the narrator “is mounds and mounds of red earth everywhere like people are being harvested like death is maybe waiting behind a rock with a bag of free food and people are rushing, tripping over each other to get to the front before the handouts run out. That is how it is, the way the dead keep coming and coming” (p.132).

The narrator’s country becomes a place to flee from as it is no longer habitable for the people. Ndlovu (2015) asserts that Bulawayo’s novel “focuses on uncelebrated migrants whose nations’ problems have made staying put at home a hostile option” (p.3). Abandoning the suffocating reality of the homeland becomes inevitable for Darling and many others. And in a particularly poignant chapter titled ‘How They Left,’ the narrator depicts a grim and helpless picture of a people fleeing their country in droves to other lands in pursuit of a better life. The passage captures the notion of a borderless situation in postcolonial discourse as people move from one place to the other in search of a better life. Darling joins those leaving in droves as she eventually migrates to the United States to be with her Aunt Fostalina. As she leaves, her grandmother, Mother of Bones, bemoans the situation forcing the citizens of the unnamed country to “scatter to foreign lands in droves” (p.149).

Disorientated Voice in the Land of Hope

When Darling gets to the United States, the country she considers to be her country, it does not take long for her to realize that the reality of life differs from her illusions. She says “Some things happen only in my country, and this here is not my country; I don’t know whose it is” (p.147). She clearly cannot make sense of the weather, “With all this snow, with the sun not there, with the cold and dreariness, this place doesn’t look like my America, doesn’t even look real. It’s like we are in a terrible story like we’re in the crazy parts of the Bible, there where God is busy punishing people for their sins and is making them miserable with all the weather” (p.151). But despite Darling’s discomfort with the weather, she prefers to be in America dealing with the snow because unlike where she is coming from, there is plenty of food to eat.

Just like many African migrants upon settling in countries in Europe and North America, Sibanda notes that Darling discovers that America is not exactly as she had imagined it to be in her home country. This is probably because many African do not take time to get proper information about the weather, immigration policies, and socio-economic and political structure of the destination before migrating. In America, Darling cannot reconcile her expectations and the true state of things. This strengthens Ngom’s (2020: 11) position that, migrants’ disillusionment stems from the fact their “expectations is not close to the reality” when they eventually settle in the new society. The few times Darling writes to her friends back in her home country, she tells them nice things about America but she is careful to leave out the not so nice ones. She is careful to leave out things “because they made America not feel like My America, the one I had always dreamed of back in Paradise” (p.188). To sustain the illusion to those back home that America is a land of boundless opportunities, the migrants wear themselves out taking on several undignified jobs to keep body and soul together in America and to meet the obligation of relatives and friends back in their original country. Aunt Fostalina gets a house in Budapest for Darling’s mother and grandmother, Mother of Bones but she does this by wearing herself out working two jobs in a hospital and a nursing home to complete the payment. The situation is kind of ironic because the house in Budapest is better than the one in America. There is a kind of suspension of living the dream life in the host country as many migrants find out that the life they aspire to live is only tenable if they make good money and return back to their county.

Darling comes to realize that she may never be able to make enough money that will enable her to acquire her dream car, Lamborghini Reventon, the one that was made as if the manufacturers had her in mind. She says “The thing is, I don’t want to say with my mouth that if the car costs that much then it means I’ll never own it, and if I can’t own it, does that mean I’m poor, and if so, what is America for, then? (p.225) The outcome of migrating to America by Darling does not match her expectations and there lies her discontent. She laments as she shuttles between two jobs, “When I’m working at the store, I have to come here, even though I don’t like the idea of cleaning somebody’s house, of picking up after someone else, because in my head this is not what I came to America for” (p.263). She may not have come to America to be a cleaner but some barriers restrict her from those kinds of jobs due to her status as an undocumented immigrant. Sibanda argues that those barriers that migrants like Darling and her Uncle Kojo (Aunt Fostalina’s husband) contend with in America tend to “imprison them in a state of restricted physical and economic immobility that is dictated by their illegal status” (p.85). Darling merely moves from Africa to America but there is no significant change in her social and economic status. There is a movement that does not translate to socioeconomic mobility and so the reason for leaving her country is somehow defeated. Whether in her home country or America many African migrants like Darling may not experience social and economic mobility. They go in pursuit of the mythical American dream but as Fouron (2009: 103) asserts that “in the end, the lure of the good life at the very center of globalization has proved to be an illusion and a nightmare for many, if not most, of them.”

Failure of Dream and the Impossibility of Return

Darling gets into America with a student’s visa which has an expiration date and when it expires, she can leave America but she cannot return. Uncle Kojo who is originally from Ghana cannot leave even though he went to college in America, he has been there for thirty-two and his son, TK was born there but Uncle Kojo still has no papers. Darling and Uncle Kojo can leave America but since they do not possess residence permits, they may not be able to return. The notion of return migration does not ring very well with many characters in We Need New Names. The impossibility of return in the novel stems from the fact that characters such as Uncle Kojo and Tshaka Zulu are not legal residents of America. It is increasingly unlikely that both men will return to their country of origin. Without the prospect of becoming a legal resident, it will be impossible for Darling to also return to her country.

We Need New Names is therefore a fictional representation of the push factors fuelling the desire in many Africans to seek a better life outside of the continent. To curb the exodus of Africans to the West in search of a better life, African leaders need to adopt a new approach to governance and like the child, the protagonist says “In order to do this right, we need new names” (p.82). The novel offers a solution to what will stop the mass emigration of Africans to other continents. The solution is quite simple as proffered by the child protagonist. Africans cannot continue to do things the old way and expect things to change for the better and for Africa to be a land habitable for the people we need to change the way we think, the way we do things, and most importantly, the leaders need to change or be changed. So, to get Africa working for the people and in so doing, stem the migratory trend across Africa, Bulawayo seems to suggest that not just the political leaders but all Africans need to change the way we think and do things.

‘Fleeing Limbe’: Broken Dreams and the Possibility of Return in Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers

Behold the Dreamers revolves around a Cameroonian immigrant family in New York in pursuit of the American dream. The American dream according to Barone (2021) is the notion that irrespective of whether an individual is an American citizen or an immigrant, they should be able to pursue their dreams and build the type of life they want if they put in the required hard work. The United States is seen by many people as a country that offers limitless opportunities for anyone to advance in life. So just like Jende and Neni, his wife, many migrants across the world flock to the United States to grab their share of the American dream.

Jende strongly believes that America has something for everyone and it is this illusion that is making migrants flock to the country. In Cameroon, Jende sees his future as bleak as a result of the harsh socio-economic situation and so, when he gets financial help from his cousin Winston in the US, he decides to migrate with no intention of returning to Cameroon “until he had claimed his share of the milk, honey, and liberty flowing in the paradise-for-strivers called America” (p.19). To attain a level of economic fulfillment, Jende believes it is only achievable if he migrates to the United States.

Jende can get a job as the chauffeur to Clark Edwards, an investment banker with Lahman Brothers. It is not the most impressive of jobs, but it enables Jende to provide for his wife Neni, and their young son Liomi and to send money home to Cameroon. Jende securing a thirty-five thousand dollar-a-year job as an undocumented migrant is a major stride financially for him and his family. The reaction of his cousin Winston when he calls to break the news that he has secured the job driving the Edwards is a sardonic commentary on the limits of immigrants’ aspiration in America so that proximity to wealth was itself the prize, a sort of vicarious prosperity.

Neni also dreams of becoming a pharmacist and she believes it is realizable in America if she gets good grades in school. Doing well in school is important to move up the social and economic ladder in America but Neni as a black person, a woman, and a migrant; faces several hurdles in actualizing her American dream aside from doing well in school as Nkealah (2020: 203) notes that “for immigrant women, upward social mobility is even elusive as they are defined by their otherness, which exists on three levels, black, female and immigrant and are assumed to be deficient in the capabilities required for successful citizenship in the U.S.A.” This idea is reinforced when her white course supervisor seems to doubt her intellectual ability to pursue a course in pharmacy probably because she is a black immigrant woman and this aligns with Said’s argument (2000: 183) that, the West considers the Orient and in extension Africans as bereft of “critical perspective, of the intellectual reserve, of moral courage” required to succeed in their chosen career.

Jende and Neni believe they are on the way to realizing the American dream. Jende is earning more than he can ever dream of in Cameroon and he is even sending money home. Neni is studying to actualize her dream of becoming a pharmacist. So, it is absolutely not out of place for them to dream of achieving whatever they set out to achieve if only they work very hard. Many African migrants travel to the United States with the notion that as soon as they get into the country, their hardship will cease, and within a few years through hard work, they will begin to live the American dream. They soon realize that to attain success, they also need to dismantle the factors that designate them as the other. Factors such as immigration policy, race, nationality, and class tend to limit the social and economic mobility of many African immigrants. As Jende and his wife try to blend into society and pursue their dreams, they find themselves contending with what Adichie (2008: 3) sees as the conflicted fate of migrants, “with the many ways in which America is wonderful and the many ways in which it is not.” Mbue’s novel gives an insight into the challenges that African immigrants go through in the United States of America in search of the sometimes elusive American dream.

Vince, Clark Edwards’s first son, who is unwilling to toe the path of corporate business that his parents want for him, tells Jende not to accept the lies about how every kind of dream is possible in America as long as you work hard. He tells Jende. “people don’t want to open their eyes and see the truth because the illusion suits them” (p.103). While Jende believes everyone wants to migrate to America, it is ironic that an American, Vince, is in a hurry to leave the greatest country in the world for a third-world country, India.

Collapse of Dreams

For Jende to remain in America and pursue his dream of a better life he needs to get a legal residence permit. His status as an illegal migrant is a major hindrance to his assimilation into American society. He feels no sense of belonging in America until he gets the resident permit. So when Bubakar calls to inform him that his asylum application was denied, Jende’s quest for the American dream begins to crumble. Things seem to be falling apart around him and he believes “there was nothing anyone could do. No one could save him from American immigration. He would have to go back home. He would have to return to a country where visions of a better life were the birthright of a blessed few, to a town from which dreamers like him were fleeing daily” (p.60).

Jende and Neni begin to feel physical pain as a result of the threat of deportation and this confirms Hron’s (2009: 25) assertion that “many immigrants suffer a wide variety of psychological and physical disorders resulting from immigration.” Jende feels pain in his feet all the way to his back and Neni suffers from ‘headache’ and she is unable to sing or put two words together without thinking of the word “deportation.” And when Lehman Brothers collapses, the Jendes’ American dreams goes down with the company and it proves how fragile the American dream is in the first place because “all through the land, willows would weep for the end of many dreams” (p.185). The strain of losing his job coupled with the fear of deportation; begin to have serious psychological effects on Jende and the relationship with his wife becomes strained. He eventually finds out that America does not have the best of everything because no country on earth does. He gets a job washing plates in two restaurants and no matter how he tries to console himself; he just cannot push away the realization that he has suffered an undignified fall in the quest of actualizing his American dream. He also gets to understand like Nkealah (2020: 203) argues “that the dream of immigrants living a better life in America is not attainable for everyone.”

Disillusionment and the Possibility of Return

Jende gets to the point where he tells his wife he is ready to go home to Limbe. He says to Neni, “I don’t like what my life has become in this country. I don’t know how long I can continue living like this, Neni. The suffering in Limbe was bad, but this one here, right now (…) it’s more than I can take” (p.307). For the first time in their marriage, Jende pummels Neni for insisting that she wants to stay in America. She is not swayed into going back to Limbe even with the fact that her friend Betty has been in the country for thirty-one years, working two jobs as a certified nursing assistant and she is still trying to make ends meet. Also another of her friend, Fatou, has been braiding people hair for twenty-one years without any tangible thing to show for all the years of hard work. Neni tends to think that getting the right paper is what they need to partake in the American dream but in a speech which indicates that Jende now understands how things work in America, he tells his wife:

That’s not true,” he said with a sad shake of his head, “Paper is not everything. In America today, having document is not enough. Look at how many people with papers are struggling. Look at how even some Americans are suffering. They were born in this country. They have American passports, and yet they are sleeping on the streets, going to bed hungry. Losing their jobs and houses every day. (p.307)

To succeed in America, Jende comes to realize that it transcends having the right immigration documents but that it is woven within the socio-economic and political structures of the country. Jende admits that it makes no sense for one to keep struggling to survive because he wants to stay in America. The reality dawns on the dreamer from Limbe that expectations and outcomes are quite far apart as it concerns realizing one’s dream of making it big in America. Jende’s dream was deflated by the reality of his new homeland. He becomes disillusioned as it dawns on him that the dream of making a pocket full of American currency and having a photo of a happy life to buttress it, is largely an illusion for someone like him.

Bastard the seeming head of the roaming children in Bulawayo’s We Need New Names tells his friends that one needs to be able to hit the road and return home when things get bad in a foreign land and this is exactly what Jende decides to do when his dreams come crumbling in America. With his family, he decides to embark on reverse migration back to his original homeland as Nkealah (2020: 203) asserts “that the possibility of such immigrants attaining their goal may lie in returning to their home country since America denies them any claim to upward social mobility.” Home is certainly where you return to when things become difficult in a foreign land. So Jende’s notion of the home, therefore, aligns with that of the poem written by his boss, Clark Edwards that:

Home will never go away

Home will be here when you come back

You may go to bring back fortune

You may go to escape misfortune

You may even go, just because you want to go

But when you come back

We hope you’ll come back

Home will still be here. (p,150)

When Jende decides to return to Cameroon he discovers that “without any treatment, his back stopped aching” (p.353). So the pain is psychological rather than biological and it ceases as soon as he resolves to return home. Thus, the thought of home brings healing for the returning migrant who feels traumatized in a foreign land.

Ironically, the dreamers returning to their home country will certainly experience better living conditions than in America. They will dwell in a better abode than their cockroach-infested one-room apartment in downtown New York. So the dreamers “flee to distant lands for the riches that could not be gotten in Limbe” (p.227) and they return from that land to a three-bedroom brick house with a garage and maids to attend to them. While Neni acts temporarily as one of the maids to Cindy, Edward’s wife, in America, the reverse is the case as she returns home. The upward social mobility of the Jongas’ afterward in Limbe is largely due to their sojourn in America. So while they are unable to live the dream life in America, they are going to do that in Limbe, Cameroon.

Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers clearly illustrates through the experiences of Jende and his wife, Neni that it is one thing for people to aspire to the American dream and another to be able to actualize it. Immigrants especially those from Africa to find out when they arrive at their destination in the West that due to their designation as the others according to Said (1996: 59), they often stand as marginal figures outside the “comforts of privilege, power, being-at-homeness” in their new society. This often deprives the immigrant of accessing the full socio-economic and political opportunities of the host country. It is therefore imperative that aspiring migrants from Africa possess the right information in regard to the socio-economic, political and immigration policies of the country they intend to settle in. So why the American dream may not necessarily be a myth, the experience of the African immigrant characters in Mbue’s novel portrays the fact that it is certainly not achievable for everyone.


NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers are both novels by two African writers that explore the issues that are pushing many Africans to the United States in the quest for the sometimes elusive dream of the good life. This paper examined some socio-economic and political issues responsible for the emigration of Africans to the United States in search of a better standard of life. African political leaders need to improve the social, economic, and political situations in their respective countries to stem the exodus of people out of the continent. The paper reveals through the experiences of the characters in the two novels the barriers that confront African migrants as they try to integrate and actualize the American dream. This paper also reveals that due to certain social, economic, and immigration factors, the American dream is not attainable for every migrant.

The failure to realize the dream of a better life and the legal status of the characters in Bulawayo’s novel makes it impossible for them to return to their country in Africa. The protagonist, Darling and Uncle Kojo due to their illegal status are consigned to the marginal space in the United States so while they can leave they cannot return to the country.

In Mbue’s novel, Jendi the central character comes to realize that he cannot access economic opportunity in the United States as a result of his status as an undocumented immigrant. The immigration status of his wife equally acts as a barrier in her quest to achieve her dreams in the United States. He decides to embark on reverse migration to start over again in his home country.

This paper examined the barriers that African migrants in the United States need to surmount to actualize the dream of a better life. The paper concludes that migrating to the United States is not necessarily a way out of poverty because it is not every migrant that can actualize the American dream.


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 DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.36349/tjllc.2022.v01i01.008 

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