Patchwork is set in Zambia and is a two part story of Pezo “Pumpkin” Sakavungo and her relationships in a Zambia affected by an independence struggle from neighbouring Rhodesia and internal society issues like xenophobia and poverty. On one hand, it’s her dysfunctional childhood story from when she’s about 9 and then on the other it’s her grown up story when she’s 31.
Ellen Banda-Aaku is relatively unknown in literary circles in Kampala so it was a privilege reading her 2011 book which won the Penguin Prize for African Writing in 2010. The prize is more known to residents of Southern Africa so it explains why this book isn’t known too much higher up.
Patchwork is the first title I’ve read from a Zambian author and it feels very much like it was written by a Ugandan, not just because of the themes shared culturally but the similarities between the two languages Nyanja and Luganda.
I started off this book while reading Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and was shocked by the similarities in the first three chapters. Here was a young girl living with her mother “Ma”, but despite loving her still desired to live with her father “Tata” and prayed for a wedding in the future.
From the onset, the image of Pumpkin being patchwork starts forming. In between homes and parents, she becomes a mischievous brat of a girl who does everything to look unaffected by the world around her. She fights, lies, steals and does what seems natural to her if it protects her confidence.
The book is a smogasboard of themes that are commonplace, not just in Zambia or Uganda but possibly the world. Pumpkin’s 9 year old version highlights issues unique to childhood and she pulls it off convincingly. Banda-Aaku’s writing details expressions, mind train and conversations that reflect how a child would behave. Some of the issues she touches on range from living with a single parent, to living with a step parent, to moving to and fro homes, discovering “bad manners” and its effects like abortion, to mention but a few.
When the page is turned and Pumpkin is an adult, the issues grow up as well. We’re dealing with topics such as infidelity, jealousy, HIV/AIDS, politics, business and xenophobia.
What Banda-Aaku manages to do is tell very many stories from the eyes of Pumpkin. Her relationships with her mother, and grandmother; father and stepmother; husband and friends; father’s mistress and her rival. In my opinion, she’s not a likeable person but she’s genuine and honest. You are not swayed because she’s telling her side of the story, you’re swayed because she’s being vivid and candid and while life’s not being too terrible, it’s not being too kind either.
I must say that the most noticeable thing in Pumpkin’s story is her relationship with her father. He is cog that is connected to each area of her life. The circumstances range from expected to shocking especially when you discover that her grandmother, and her rival are all connected to him amorously. For her, the struggle goes from him being a father, a support, to being a womaniser and a pain. It’s what makes the story rich and gives it its potency.
It was an emotional ride. Being Pumpkin’s invisible friend through her domestic trials with her mother, grandmother, father, husband, neighbours, step brothers, stepmother, and rival can only lead you to a place of understanding and sympathy. The story itself weaves you through places where love and hate balance each other out, where forgiveness is asked but perhaps never given. Where there is loss but healing unexpected.
It’s a story of one girl/woman in a world who is patchwork.