| October 21, 2011

Writers Changing Lives: A Chat With Ellen Banda-Aaku


Ellen Banda-Aaku

Sometimes, the book that sticks with you isn’t the happy book with a storied ending of love and laughter conquering all. Sometimes, the toughest stories make you fall in love with the power of the written word.

It happened that way for Ellen Banda-Aaku, author of children’s book Wandi’s Little Voice and a new novel Patchwork, which won the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing in the fiction category.

For Ellen, the book that gave her tingles (not necessarily in a good way) was Flowers in the Attic, the V.C. Andrews novel about an abusive mother and grandmother.

“I was at the age when I thought all mothers were all good people, then I picked up this book. It seemed so real, and so sad. There was something about it that had made me wish I hadn’t read it,” recalled Ellen, who read a copy of the book a friend lent her when she was about 14 or 15 years old. “After reading it, I thought about it for a long time. I remember thinking how powerful the writing was and how strongly the character was portrayed.”

A good story always drew her in, and she was quick to spin out one of her own as well. As a kid, Ellen—who was born in Woking Surrey, United Kingdom, grew up in Zambia, learned two African languages (Bemba and Nyanja) in addition to English, and has lived and worked in Ghana, South Africa, the U.K., and Zambia—was the storyteller in the family. But, because she had not been exposed to many Zambian authors when she was young, it hadn’t occurred to her to write down her tales until much later in life.  She didn’t start writing until she was in her 30s.

When she did, Ellen, who grew up in a house filled with books from abroad and parents who valued education, couldn’t help but notice the absence of black characters and voices in the works she was reading. She filled that gap by writing children and young adult books based on her experiences in Africa.

“I write to tell a story and try not to dwell on the message of the story – I find thinking too much about a message kills creativity.  I also prefer to keep my message subtle. When dealing with teens it’s more effective to be subtle than to lecture,” she said. “However, of the four titles I’ve had published, I do find that my stories generally address family connections, relationships, and growing up. Although my stories are set in Africa, the themes are by no means exclusive to Africa. I enjoy writing for young adults and I feel there is a need for more fiction that teenagers growing up in sub-Sahara Africa can relate to.”

Fostering a lifetime habit of reading is another thing on Ellen’s mind, and Worldreader’s, too.

“If we want children to be lifetime readers, there needs to be ways for children to read outside of schools or to read other books,” she said, noting that in many places in the developing world reading is usually done in conjunction with government-mandated schoolbooks. “In the U.K., schools have reading hour and the idea is to promote general reading. By giving children unstructured time to read, even if it’s only 30 minutes a day, children will be reading more and they will look forward to reading time.”

Another problem, of course, is simply accessing books. While governments may subsidize textbooks, finding hard copies of other kinds of book is difficult. Additionally, the price of paper books, especially imported titles, makes it hard for many African families to buy.

“E-readers would make it easier for children to read, and conversations are happening about how to make books more accessible,” she added. “People appreciate reading, but now it has to be backed up with resources, money, and infrastructure.”

Hopefully, all of those things will come together sooner than later. Thanks for the chat, Ellen!

Ellen has donated her short story, E is for E-Waste, to our program. We’ll be uploading and giving our kids more short stories from other authors soon. Keep an eye out.

For more information about how Worldreader is bringing books to all in the developing world using e-readers, visit us at Worldreader.org.


Ellen Banda-Aaku’s short story donated to Worldreader’s students and teachers.