Through the eyes of a young girl, Pumpkin, Banada-Aaaku tells a story of interplay between power, money, and sex in urban Zambia. Joseph Sakavungo, affectionately known as Tata, has all the trappings of an African BIG MAN. He comes from a poor minority tribe in rural Zambia, and works his way up to contesting for presidency by the end of the story. He has a wife, Mama T and four boys, but he also has several mistresses, one of whom is Pumpkin’s mother, the glamorous Totela. Out of the frustration of being abandoned by Tata, Totela becomes an alcoholic, and Tata “rescues” his daughter to live with his wife, Mama T and his family. Totela is helpless and unable to stand against the powerful Tata. As to be expected, Mama T resents Pumpkin, but would never dare say anything to the overbearing breadwinner, Tata.

In this gripping story, Banda-Aaku brings to the fore the impact of BIG MEN on women around them. Although he provides for them all materially, Mama T, Totelo and Pumpkin are all emotionally trapped by Tata. They revere him. Their status and identity is bound to his.

Although Mama T ill-treats her step-daughter, Pumpkin, I can’t help but feel deep compassion for her. I can relate to her pain and vulnerability. Like most women in her position, she seeks refuge in the church where she uses her status as Tata’s wife to create her own power base. Totela seeks refuge in alcohol. Pumpkin seeks refuge in lies. Her confused identity leads her to steal, lie and be spiteful. She steals Mama T’s ring and spits in her tea. Later on, her insecurities impact on her relationship with her own husband.

Banda-Aaku highlights the different complexions of patriarchy through this “providing” yet disempowering husband, Tata. He reduces Mama T’s role to that of “looking after” his needs. In return she is expected to be unquestionably grateful, and to ask no questions.

Telling the story through the eyes of a nine year old Banda-Aaku reminds me of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. The language is fresh, honest, and sincere. It gives Banda-Aaku permission to use unfettered descriptions. Pumpkin concludes that the reason why she has never seen Tata and Mama T kiss is because of their big stomachs. Their lips would never reach each other. She talks about boxes of food and envelops of money left by Tata when he visits Totela and Pumpkin.

The story jumped from a nine year old Pumpkin, to a 31 year old married Pumpkin with her own child. Although this was set out as Phase 2 of the book, I felt robbed of aspects of Pumpkin’s young adult life. Also, although interesting, the details about Pumpkin’s childhood friends do not add much value to the story line.

I was pleased that at the end of the book, the death of Tata brought my favourite characters, Mama T and Pumpkin, together.

Patchwork is a worthwhile read. Banda-Aaku’s compassionate treatment of the villain, Tata, makes him real. For his daughter, despite his weaknesses, he remains Tata. She is shattered that in the end he dies with yet another young mistress, Salome.

For feminists this is a classical African BIG MAN story. The book would be a good read for men too. They would gain a better understanding of how some of their behaviours impact their children.

The book won the Penguin prize for African Writing.


Ellen Banda-Aako