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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.

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