This is a blog about me and the things that make me laugh, smile, hurt or cry!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Review of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I first came across Americanah in October 2012 when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie announced on her Facebook page that her new book was coming out in 2013. The noticed explained that the title Americanah ‘comes from the word Nigerians use for those who have left the country for the US and become “Americanised”- a borderline insult’.

Wow, I thought to myself. Chimamanda has written a book about Chongololos. I was immediately sold. Months later when the book came out, in interviews Adichie described it as a book about love, race and hair - an intriguing combination that had me even more interested.

It is always difficult to review a book by a beloved author. Especially one that has received rave reviews elsewhere. You want to like it. In fact, you want to LOVE it. It’s hard not to look for faults, just to prove one is objective. But, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is 21st Century Africa’s foremost writer for a reason. In a nutshell, this is a great book. Her third foray into writing a full-length novel (and fourth publication if you include her collection of short stories), Americanah is a tour de force. This book tackles the difficult, complex and uncomfortable subject of race with boldness.

The book tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who as teenagers in a Lagos high school, fall in love. With time, Ifemelu moves to the US to study and later becomes a famous blogger on race. Obinze is denied a US visa and instead finds himself in London as an undocumented immigrant. Fast forward fifteen years and Ifemelu makes the decision to give up her life in the US and return to Nigeria where Obinze has since become very successful.

Adichie sets the scene very well with a visually poignant descriptive opening sentence at a train station, which takes Ifemelu and the reader to where we kick off the action in an African braiding shop in New Jersey. The book is told over a series of back and forth flashbacks while in the same salon. And we all know how long it takes to braid one’s hair. Actually, hair is one of the major themes of this book. The value and identity that we place on our hair and the relationship that black women and black people have with the kinky hair that grows out of our heads, the hair that we forcibly straighten with relaxers, or the hair that we buy from others and attach to our own hair. Americanah has something on hair for everyone, including male pattern baldness and children’s haircare. As a well-known natural hair advocate herself, Adichie uses Ifemelu’s journey in abandoning relaxers and embracing her natural African hair as a way of explaining her own views and philosophy on the matter (full disclosure, I also have natural hair and blog about it on Naturalistas will be excited to read Ifemelu’s natural hair regimen and will recognise the real-life inspiration for the fictional natural hair forum, where she gets tips and encouragement to go natural. Don’t bother visiting the site, because I tried. It’s not real. Yet.

Like many accomplished writers of short stories, in her full-length novels Adichie has beautiful vignettes of tales that can almost stand-alone. For example, the description of Ifemelu’s mother becoming born again and the ensuing religious fervour, moving from church to church with Pastor and Bishop so and so was so evocative and a complete little tale in itself.

In a similar vein, Adichie’s description of young people’s voracity in reading Robert Ludlum, James Hadley Chase and Jeffrey Archer novels is reminiscent of any high school, as is the discussion on reading culture among young people. Do we have a lack of a reading culture in Zambia and Africa, or do we have a paucity of quality reading materials? I strongly believe it is the latter.

And who can forget the heady experience of first love that is approached so beautifully. This is after all a love story that includes the ups and the downs and the sacrifices and difficult decisions that must be made in life. Americanah is not just Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story, but also about love in general. What drives us to enter into relationships with other people? What about inter-racial relationships, marriages of convenience for immigration purposes, or because of societal pressure to settle down and be like everyone else? Should you settle for someone because of tribe? What about being a kept woman? Or what happens when the one you love is married to someone else?


Americanah also tackles the issue of cultural identity – what it means to be a Nigerian living in Nigeria (or a Zambian living in Zambia) and what that means when you are in another country. There is a passage in the book where the characters trade proverbs in their local language, Igbo. Ifemelu expresses surprise that Obinze knows Igbo proverbs because most young people try to pretend that they don’t speak their language. Sound familiar?

Americanah is about Nigeria, but the experience applies to any African nation. So for many of us who have grown up in Africa, it is sometimes difficult to make others understand why so many cherish ‘The American Dream’, sacrificing everything in order to try and make another life elsewhere. In a country mired in poverty, underdevelopment, corruption or dictatorship, Americanah skilfully handles the tragedy of a generation of youth who are starved of choice. Yes, there is no war, no famine, no mass systematic rape, but without the luxury of choice the odds are stacked against you anyway.

When discussing americanah’s, you also have the phenomena of what we in Zambia call SRB (Strong Rural Background). This is where no matter how long you spend in whatever country, be it the United States or United Kingdom, SRB can never be completely supressed or masked. This is the plight of the character named Bartholomew who tries to compensate for SRB ‘with his American affectation, his gonnas and wannas’.

There were so many other great things I loved about this book. I chuckled out loud many times at the bewilderment of first moving to America. And oh my goodness, they even have ‘Gold Rush’ in Nigeria - where senior male students rush to grab ‘fresh’ female first year students at the beginning of the academic year. Gold rush is many a girl’s dream. Who doesn’t want to be inundated with male attention?

But it is in handling the phenomena of race that Americanah truly excels. What does it mean to be black? Why is race something that makes us so very uncomfortable? Adichie deftly describes what it is like to feel the burden of your race – of your entire people on your shoulders. A large portion of the book takes place in the run-up to the 2008 US Presidential election and the many struggles that America had (and still has) to come to terms with regarding this black candidate called Barack Obama. We follow Ifemelu as a new student trying to settle in America, trying to find work, trying to be understood because of her accent and attempting to navigate not only interacting with white America, but also the complicated relationship between African-Americans and American-Africans. It’s a hilarious passage in the book where the difference between the two is explained at Ifemelu’s first meeting of the African Students Association (for American-Africans). The African-Americans go to the Black Student Union.

It is these distinctions and explanations based on astute observations that make Americanah so remarkable. And just to be clear, Adichie makes the same subtle indictment of modern Nigeria when describing Obinze and Ifemelu’s life there and that of their friends and relatives. Running a business in Africa is not easy due to bureaucracy, corruption, infrastructure and a deeply entrenched way of doing things. The pre-occupation with status symbols and an extravagant lifestyle is very Nollywood but also very real. The rise in disposable income and growth of the middle class makes clear where some of our priorities lie and this is often difficult to reconcile with poverty, equity and our relationship with the less privileged.

Much as I loved the book, I did have one small gripe with the book, and that is the ending, which felt rushed as though there was a page limit that the author had to meet (probably true). In the same vein, I thought Obinze’s story could have been explored with a bit more depth. So because of this, I gave Americanah 4.5 stars. Oh, this is a very long book - 477 pages to be precise. Not that I even noticed it that much.

This article was first published in the Bulletin and Record magazine in September 2013. It kind of went viral, but not for reasons that I thought. Alongside the review, I included a short history of the term Chongololo. Somehow it got scanned and emailed all over the world. You can read that here next week.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Review of Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku

My review of Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku was first published in the Bulletin & Record magazine in March 2013. I first read it for the Lusaka Book Club in March of 2012. Later that year in September 2012, our Book Club had the privilege of hosting Ms Banda-Aaku for dinner and a chat. Since I had already read the book and discussed it in the club, I asked the author questions based on my own initial impressions of the book and what we shared in the book club. When I wrote my review several months later, I opted to stick to my original review, 'untainted' by my meeting with the author.

I have finally gotten round to uploading the review on my blog and as such will include all the questions and answers with the author in so far as I can remember them.

Before I get to the published review, I must say that what I am posting below is my review as I sent it for publication. Astute readers will be able to guess which paragraph was censored from publication. Why do I use the word censored instead of edited? Subsequent reviews published in the magazine were edited as is the right of the publisher/editor to do so. But in my view, this particular review was censored -- as I expected it would be. However, I sent them the whole thing anyway, even though I knew they would cut that part out. I won't say which paragraph it was, but I will come back to it later because I asked Ellen Banda-Aaku about it when I met her.


Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku

Reviewed by Masuka Mutenda

For anyone who is an avid reader, one of the greatest pleasures of a really good book is when you have the privilege of entering into a world which is widely different from your own and yet cosily familiar. If a book has wonderful characters and a great story, then it doesn’t matter if it is set in Iceland in the 1800s. That being said, its really nice when you come across a book that you could almost have written yourself and which seems to be about you, your own family or friends and neighbours. This is how I felt about Patchwork.

Set in Lusaka in the 1970s and 80s, I could relate to everything. From the names of people, the games children played, to the description of the home life at the block of flats where our 9-year-old protagonist Pumpkin, lives with her mother. The book starts off somewhere in Lusaka in 1978, during the time of curfews and threats of bombing by Rhodesian forces. It was a long time ago, but many things are still the same: the rivalries and jealousies of children; the prying eyes and intrusiveness of neighbours at a block of flats; that a man can have a girlfriend on the side, but to the child of that relationship, all the clothes and toys and school fees in the world won’t make up for not having a real Daddy; that regardless of what you see or think you perceive, you can never really know what a person is really feeling or experiencing because you don’t have their life. Patchwork explores these and many other issues.

Banda-Aaku is at her most powerful when writing through the eyes of the young girl who struggles to explain to her friends why her father doesn’t live with them.  JS, Pumpkin’s father is a wealthy self-made businessman who lives with his wife Mama T and their five sons out on a farm somewhere. Through a series of events, Pumpkin ends up living with her father and his ‘other family’ and suffers the usual hardships of an evil stepmother. The book is full of colourful characters such as Pumpkin’s grandmother who runs a tavern; baDodo, Mwanza and Uncle Oscar, neighbours at Tudu Court; Bana Bee, the caretaker’s wife and Pumpkin’s young friends, Bee and Daisy; Sissy, the housekeeper at Tata’s farm and Pumpkin’s only ally. Then there is Zu, Sissy’s husband; Driver; Tembo, Pumpkin’s husband and Salome, a mysterious girl who circumstances thrust into Pumpkin’s life.

One of the traps some writers fall into is creating characters that are morally perfect. Thankfully, Ellen Banda-Aaku has not subscribed to this school of thought. My reaction to the characters in Patchwork, their circumstances and the decisions that they made was much like what I felt when I read VS Naipaul’s ‘A Bend in the River’. Patchwork is full of flawed characters that are difficult to root for. They are faced with difficult decisions that we as the audience may not necessarily agree with, but can definitely relate to. In fact, in Pumpkin, Banda-Aaku has succeeded in crafting a character who is thoroughly detestable and who many will struggle to sympathise with, understand or even like. A lot of what Pumpkin does just doesn’t make sense. But then, isn’t this the case in real life also? There is very little that is black and white in Patchwork, and that is a good thing.

In the last third of the book, we suddenly skip forward 13 years to an adult Pumpkin, married and with children of her own. This jump is quite jarring and to be honest, the voice of Pumpkin at 32 is not as authentic as Pumpkin at aged 9. Perhaps it’s because we skipped a decade, or maybe the author just has more insight into the younger characters. Either way, this last part of the book does shed some light on how our childhood experiences influence our adult lives. In spite of the evidence before us, we make decisions from the perspective of what we saw and experienced as children. This perspective is not always for the better. Being able to acknowledge this and move on is part of growing up and becoming mature. Recollecting some events of the past in Pumpkin’s life that she is forced to revisit as an adult, we appreciate once again that not everything in life is black and white. For example, after an encounter with Mama T, the adult Pumpkin asks herself how she would react if her husband Tembo suddenly brought home a 9-year-old girl and introduced her as his daughter and expected her to take care of her. Pumpkin wonders if she would treat such a child any differently from how Mama T treated her.

One of the themes that pleasantly surprised me in Patchwork was how the issue of tribalism is tackled. I have often had conversations with people who are very quick to dismiss tribalism, tribal discrimination and prejudice as something that doesn’t exist in Zambia. They think tribalism only refers to giving jobs to people from the same clan as you. Of course, people from a dominant tribe are often the ones to express such sentiments. Only someone who has experienced racism, classism, or the caste system can fully appreciate the struggles experienced by ethnic minorities. I have had similar conversations with people from Malawi, South Africa and other countries about this problem. JS or Tata, Pumpkin’s father is Luvale, and so am I. Pumpkin’s real name Pezo and that of her daughter, Mufuka are names shared by two of my first cousins. Tribal discrimination and prejudice is an issue that is so often swept under the carpet by our government and many in society that I was frankly stunned to see it written about so well in a work of fiction.  It is not one of the main themes, but it is an underlying thread in some of the situations that Tata and his family experience. As a Luvale woman who can share stories from friends and relatives of the prejudice and discrimination experienced in Zambia in 2013, I appreciated that tribalism in this vein was acknowledged, but not made the central theme. Sometimes, to be acknowledged is enough and is ultimately more effective.

In traditional African African story telling, the voice of moral authority, the take-home lesson and the resolution of the story and characters are strong themes. I think that this is why Nollywood films resonate so much with African masses. The characters are largely one-dimensional and the bad guys always get their just desserts. For this reason, some people just won’t like Patchwork because the author doesn’t tell us what happens to everyone, we cannot be sure that some of the characters have learned their lesson or will end up alright. Even though I love a story with resolution (not necessarily everything working out for the good), in Patchwork, the author did justice to her characters and her audience by keeping it real.


I have had the privilege of coordinating the Lusaka Book Club for almost 8 years now and we have read books written by authors from all over the world including all over Africa. In this time however, no one ever chose a book by a Zambian author. Does this mean that Zambians don’t write books? Certainly not! It simply means that each member gets to choose a book for the club to read that fits under the literary fiction umbrella. For serious readers, an author doesn’t get any points merely for being Zambian. A good book should stand up on its own merit. So when somebody chose Patchwork, the book club members were excited that a book by a Zambian author that was worth reading, comparatively speaking, had come along. After reading it, we were even more pleased that Ellen Banda-Aaku’s work stood toe-to-toe with other books we had read by contemporary African writers such as Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. However it is still sad to note that Patchwork only came to our attention because it won accolades elsewhere – the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing. A prophet is never appreciated in his own town and it seems, neither are authors. I look forward to the day when we validate our own literary works in Zambia and do not need approval (in form of awards) from others.


Ellen Banda-Aaku -- a lovely person. It was a great pleasure to meet her
The book club member who selected Patchwork was friends with Ellen Banda-Aaku's cousin, who was gracious enough to attend the original book club discussion to shed some light on the author and give us some background to the book. Through her I was able to get in touch with Ms Banda-Aaku with a view to doing an email or Skype interview. This didn't work out very well, but she did mention she would be coming to Zambia at some point and would love to meet with me and other book club members to talk about the book. The meeting happened over dinner on 7th September 2012 at the Bombay Lounge restaurant at Levy Mall. I was saddened and stunned that since publishing the book, she had never actually had an opportunity to meet and talk over it with Zambian readers (not the same as friends, family or media interviews). Up until my article several months later, the book had also never been reviewed in a Zambian publication.

Ms Banda-Aaku patiently listened to and answered ALL of our questions
One of the things which didn't sit well with me and which I thought was fake and contrived in the book was the passage where the title of he book, Patchwork comes from. In the book, Sissy the housekeeper warns Pumpkin about the danger of lies and how one lie on top of another becomes a patchwork that in the end cannot be mended because too many patches have been sewed on top of the original lie. It turns out that this was real conversation between the author and her aunt and is the only passage in the book which is directly from real life. Huh? Go figure! I conceded that if it had come from anyone other than Sissy, I might have believed it. Sorry, but it sounded too sophisticated an analysis coming from the maid.

Listening intently
So what about Tata and Grandma Ponga? What was going on there? Did they have a thing? No. There wasn't anything going on between them, there was no history or relationship. Really? Because Grandma Ponga's hatred of Tata was too much. As you can see, we wanted there to be something more, but she insisted there wasn't. We settled on the fact that Grandma Ponga recognised the kind of man that Tata was and the destructive path her daughter was on by falling for him and wanted to spare her that.

The Lusaka Book Club with author Ellen Banda-Aaku
Two other issues that we discussed were adult Pumpkin's frequent visits to the witch doctor and how common a phenomena it is that many rich and educated people do this, but unlike in other parts of Africa, in very Christian Zambia one would die rather than admit to it. The denial in the face of HIV and AIDS that afflicted Pumpkin's mum is another issue. It was subtle, but not obvious and in your face. This is exactly the experience that many of us have had in our families where people refuse to accept the truth staring them in the face.

The other was how in one sentence she snuck in that Pumpkin's favourite cousin (I forget his name), who went to the US for school and settled there and is hugely successful but never spoken of because he is gay. No one admits to it when one of their kids ends up doing what must not be named. She mentioned that she put that in there and didn't make a big deal of it but just to acknowledge how common this is among Zambian families with children who settle abroad but never come back. Ever. This is one of the reasons why.

Me and Ellen -- yeah, coz that's how we roll!
On to the tribalism aspect. Banda-Aaku comes from a Bemba/Eastern background and has no links to Northwestern Province or the Luvale people at all. How and why then did she tackle a subject which is so rarely acknowledged in our society? This is precisely why she decided to write about it. She said that she never understood why there was so much stigma and discrimination toward the Luvale people nor why no one ever spoke about it, even thought it was so real. I thanked her for bringing this out because it meant so much to me. This is the 21st century and I can name people that I personally know whose relationships were broken up or attempted to break them by parents, aunts, uncles and church members because they didn't approve of their son/daughter or niece/nephew marrying a Luvale. We are not talking ten years ago, we are talking three or four. It is mentioned in the book and I can categorically say it now that I don't think Zambia can ever elect a Luvale president for this very reason. Well, people said that about Barack Obama so perhaps I will be the first? LOL

Ellen Banda-Aaku signs my personal copy
All in all, it was a wonderful discussion and a great pleasure to meet with the author of a book that I had enjoyed so much. That reminds me to order her children's books to read to my niece and nephew.

Of Cars and Food and Hunger


What has brought me back to this erstwhile neglected blog? A series of random thoughts which were too long for a Facebook status update.

They say you shouldn't shop when you're hungry, because you will inevitably buy crap and unhealthy food. One of my resolutions is not to eat in my car, because doing so means that I am hungry and can't wait to sit down at a table and eat. I only break it when I am really hungry. But the reason I created this rule for myself was because of two incidents that happened when I was weak from hunger and ended up eating in my car:


Number one happened one Saturday afternoon after some activity that I cannot recall. I had a hundred and one things to do and by 3pm, I still had not eaten. I grabbed a pie from the supermarket and rushed to my car. I was late for my next appointment, but I was famished. The pie was on the passenger seat, calling my name. I pulled out of the shopping centre and into the main road. And because there was quite a bit of traffic, decided to take advantage and eat as quickly as I could in the car. I was so hungry, I ate that pie in about three large bites. This was between Arcades Shopping Centre and Manda Hill Mall. If you have been to Lusaka, you will know that this is a very short distance of a couple of hundred metres. By the time I reached the Manda Hill traffic lights, the pie was consumed. Satisfied, I looked around to notice two guys in the lane next to mine who had been neck and neck with me and my car the whole way from Arcades and had witnessed my triple-bite face-stuffing. To make sure I knew that they knew what I had just done, they both leaned over, shook their heads and mouthed, "No way!” 

Tjo! It was bad. It was, "earth, open up and swallow me whole now” type of embarrassing.

The second happened a few months ago. I was parked in front of a shopping centre waiting to meet a friend. I had bought a couple of shawarmas and a drink. I received a text message, "delayed". It was almost 5pm and I had not eaten anything since mid morning. I decided to quickly eat my shawarma, again, in the car.

Half way through eating (this time I took slightly smaller bites, although still large), I noticed a guy standing directly in front of me and looking straight at me. From where I was parked, I guessed he was Congolese (DRC) because of the bleached skin (dunno why our friends up north love unnatural yellow skin). Anyhoo, Mr Congo in an extremely tight muscle shirt, proceeded to saunter toward my car. What followed was the worst pick up line I have ever heard in my life (as in, spoken to me directly). 

“I like the way you eat”, he said. After ten minutes of his pleading for my name and number so that we could become friends, my appointment finally arrived and rescued me from Mr Congo Muscles. It turns out he was from DRC and was hoping to stay longer if he made some good friends. *eyes roll*. With the queues at the US Embassy and scores of others trying ti make it to South Africa, we forget that a Zambian green card (because an NRC actually is green - lol), is still making it for some people.

So what is the moral of the story? As you can see from the pictures, there is no elegant way to eat when you are hungry. There just isn't. And that is why in Africa, it is considered very rude to disturb someone while they are eating, and even more so to photograph them.