NKOLE NKOLE, Lusaka
BEGINNING in the mid-80s, she was no stranger to Zambian television viewers as she anchored the evening news and interviewed various high-profile members of society.
And just as Maureen Nkandu became a household name during her time at the national broadcaster, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), her private life, too, came under the spotlight.
Now, for the first time in her life, Maureen is setting the record straight about her private and public life and doing so simply by telling her own story in the autobiography Tried and Tested: My First Fifty Years.
Not surprisingly, Maureen’s book opens with one of her most vivid childhood memories. She was chosen to read a speech in front of Queen Elizabeth II on behalf of all children of the Commonwealth at only 12 years old. This was after her written speech was singled out as the best during a national writing competition.
She describes how, at the end of her speech, an impressed Queen Elizabeth asked her what she wanted to be when she was older. Maureen replied straightaway, “A TV Star,” and Queen Elizabeth responded reassuringly, “Well, so you will be.”
Maureen sweeps the reader right in as she describes her early childhood and being born into a well-to-do middle-class family.
She describes her home environment as being constantly abuzz because both her mother and father had children from previous marriages before settling down together and especially because extended families were common then.
“There were stepsisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins and sometimes friends, all living together. Some came to visit and others lived with us. It was often a dysfunctional home with squabbles, gossip fights and backbiting,” she writes.
Maureen learnt to assert herself from a young age to counter bullying from older siblings and hostility in school.
Her mother, Grace Chakulunta, a social worker, and her father, Faxon Nkandu, a journalist, politician and freedom fighter in the 50s and 60s, are described as strict parents in her autobiography.
Despite her firm upbringing, Maureen is considered the delicate flower of the family and is ‘Daddy’s girl’.
In 1972, her father leaves his job as news editor of the Times of Zambia and gets a position in Nairobi with the All African Conference of Churches (AACC).
Maureen ignites the readers’ senses through her recollection of her first day of class in Nairobi and the smell of wax crayons. “To this day each time I smell them I am reminded of my first morning at school,” she recounts.
The Nkandu family soon settles into a comfortable life although only for two years because her father is informed that he has been considered for a job in the diplomatic service, particularly in America.
You can sense the family’s excitement as the news is shared in the Nkandu household; excitement that would be short- lived.
Initially, the family views the rumoured appointment as Mr Nkandu’s long overdue reward for his contribution to Zambia’s liberation struggle as a dedicated freedom fighter.
Things take a turn for the worst for the family shortly after they return to Zambia, however. Maureen’s father is tipped off by a friend in the intelligence network that someone has falsified information about him having worked with external forces while in Nairobi.
He is convinced he has been made to return home in order to suffer.
The family becomes desolate and desperate and is eventually rescued by Mr Nkandu’s cousin, Simon Greenwood.
Their desperation is portrayed so intensely when Maureen’s mother is forced to chop for firewood the fine oak dining table and chairs which were sent from Nairobi when the family returned to Zambia.
At the age of 18, in 1985, Maureen makes her way to ZNBC, then Zambia Broadcasting Services (ZBS), to realise her dream of becoming a TV star.
Although she is ridiculed at first for being young and naïve, her star quality is soon discovered and her broadcasting career takes off from there.
She earns the nickname ‘Young Maureen’ from first President Kenneth Kaunda during her first assignment at State House.
She also gets her first lesson on mainstream reporting the same day from Dr Kaunda, who notices her absent-mindedness and informs her what is expected of her.
Her good looks and excellent broadcasting skill earn her a legion of fans and stalkers in no time. Her fame also earns her many foes within the workplace and also in her family.
Nevertheless, she perseveres with the strong support of both her parents.
Her romantic relationship with Kalusha Bwalya is described in good detail in the book, an exciting and highly talked about romance which Maureen recounts as her first love.
It results in a child, a daughter, and a very short-lived marriage, ended abruptly and without explanation by Kalusha and leaves both Maureen and Kalusha’s parents devastated.
After her boss’s shameless and unrelenting advances towards her, a fed-up and disgusted Maureen decides to leave ZNBC for good.
She moves to South Africa in the North West Province where she walks straight into a life of comfort after securing a job with BOP TV.
Her TV job is glamorous but it becomes impossible for her to stay in South Africa as an ANC operative friend warns her to get out of the area for trouble is brewing at the height of the apartheid era in 1993.
She meets the man whose name she would eventually take up at an airport departure lounge in Johannesburg.
Later, Maureen openly shares about the domestic abuse she suffered during her marriage to Daniel Mundea, a union which also produced two sons. Occasionally she would use heavy make-up to cover up severe beatings by her husband before appearing in front of the TV.
She makes it clear that her reason for sharing her experience of domestic violence is “for all to see that despite being a public personality, with my own finances, I stuck to the marriage. There was always the belief that things would get better. In my case I didn’t want to be seen as the woman of failed marriages…”
Her war reporting experiences in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and also in countries like Sierra Leone are described in dramatic detail with tense moments that fill a reader with anxiety and also awe at Maureen’s at-times-foolish bravery.
She shares fondly about working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London and also her struggle adjusting to life there.
Maureen demonstrates good balance in depicting the people in her life. While she holds great respect for her parents, she simultaneously describes their flaws and personal struggles, often brought on by life’s experiences rather than a natural fault of their own. The openness with which she describes their vulnerability evokes raw emotion.
Her sincerity stands out, too, when she describes her romantic relationships, which even though a source of much pain-had their happier moments still and kept her hoping for better.
Tried and Tested: My First Fifty Years has just the right measure of drama, suspense and romance all rolled into one.
It will make your heart sore at the hardships depicted by Maureen and the pain which occasionally seems too brutal but it will leap again at the courageous moments when she shines in her natural journalistic brilliance.
Ultimately, Maureen’s courage wins the reader over and her story proves that life is not one smooth straight line and there is so much more hidden behind the lights, camera, action and make-up.