Ellen Banda-Aaku is not new to the African writing scene. Her first book, “Wandi’s Little Voice” won the 2004 Macmillan’s Writers Prize for Africa in the children’s books category, and her short story, “Sozi’s Box” won the 2007 Commonwealth Short story competition. With Patchwork, her first book for an adult audience (published by Penguin in June 2011), Aaku demonstrates her versatility and talent for telling a good story, even as she tackles serious social themes.
Aaku’s book, which won the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing, is set in Zambia. The story, presented in two parts, revolves around the life of Pumpkin, who we first meet as a nine year old growing up with her mother, Totela in Tudu Court, an apartment complex in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Pumpkin’s tata, Joseph Sekavungo or “JS”, is a successful businessman, who is both generous to a fault, and a serial womanizer. And though, he hardly comes to visit Pumpkin and her mother, he makes sure that they live comfortably. Nonetheless, the toll on the family is evident. Abandoned by J.S, Totela turns to drink and when things become unbearable, she draws support from her mother, Grandma Ponga, who ‘hates J.S. as passionately as Ma loves him.”
Meanwhile, little Pumpkin bravely attempts to act like all is well even when her playmates taunt her about her unusual family situation:
“But even last week you say your tata will buy you a big doll,” Bee says. “But he doesn’t come.”
“It’s not, he doesn’t come! It’s he didn’t come,” I snap at her.
“Okay,” Bee flicks my words away with the back of her hand. “He didn’t come.” She stresses her words and pulls a face.
“I told you my tata works.”
“I know he work, but where he sleep?” Bee stands up, abandoning the game.
One day, Pumpkin’s father comes home unannounced to find Pumpkin’s mother dead drunk. Angrily, he drives off with the young Pumpkin, taking her to stay with his official wife. There, Pumpkin starts a new life with a step mother who loathes her for representing the shame that her husband has brought into her house. But the young Pumpkin is no angel herself, and as we learn along the way, she is capable of cruel lies and acts of meanness.
In the second part of the book, we meet a grownup Pumpkin, newly returned from the UK, and now a successful architect and mother to a child of her own. But despite her apparent success, Pumpkin cannot escape her past. Like her mother, and, perhaps reflecting her upbringing, she is insecure. When she suspects her husband of having an affair, she confronts the offending woman, and the two end up in a fight on the street, which almost ends tragically.
Meanwhile, life has moved on for the rest of Pumpkin’s family as well. Her mother, who has since married another man, is ailing, apparently weighed down by a skin rash, weight loss and chest pains. With help from Pumpkin and Grandma Ponga, she seeks help from traditional healers. And Pumpkin’s father is now a politician standing for the country’s presidency. In the middle of a bitter campaign, a dark secret is revealed, one that threatens J.S’s political ambitions. In the end, J.S is survives, only to encounter a cruel twist of fate, not, surprisingly, involving a woman.
Despite its simplicity, considering that most of the story is told through the eyes of a child, Patchwork touches several contemporary social themes and explores them with a light but revealing touch. Though set in Zambia, this is a book that speaks to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a journey into contemporary African society, covering themes like relationships and the practice of polygamy, HIV/AIDs, the challenges of growing up as a girl-child, and the pull between tradition and modernity.