Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and the Great Ugandan Novel: Kintu
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Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu is a charming fable, a wide-ranging historical fiction, and a critical historiography, and—once you’ve read it—it will either baffle or depress you that US and UK publishers weren’t stepping on each other to take up the project. The novel, which won the Kwani? Manuscript Project prize in 2013, was published by the Kenya-based Kwani Trust in 2014. But, apparently, it took several years for US and UK publishers to see how this fresh, intelligent, critical, and ambitious reframing of Ugandan histories could be of interest to a wide English-language public.
“Kintu,” pronounced Chintu, is the first man of Bugandan creation folklore, the father of all. Yet Kintu doesn’t open deep in Bugandan pre-history. It begins with a mob killing in January 2004, in the slums of a personified Kampala, a city that “perches, precariously, on numerous hills.” At one point, we’re told, Europeans lived high in these Kampala hills. The Europeans left, and a new Ugandan gentry moved upland, after which country-dwellers took over the surrounding flatlands. Bwaise, the slum where the mob killing takes place, is the “swamp beneath Kampala’s backside.”
In the book’s opening pages, Kamu Kintu—the first of the Kintus who we meet—is accused of an act of unspecified thievery. Local Councilors take Kamu from his Bwaise home and tie his hands behind his back. A market full of people hear the word “thief,” and collective ire is roused. The novel flashes through overlapping images of thieves, who are not only the reason “why there was no supper the previous night,” but also are embodied in “the president who had arrived two and a half decades ago waving ‘democracy’ at them” and “tax-collectors taking their money to redistribute to the rich,” and even God himself.
After Kamu’s death, the mob flees. But, three months later, on the ninth of April 2004, Bwaise’s residents will wake to find Kamu’s death avenged. The corpses of four councilors and six other men—all involved in Kamu’s death—will be “strewn along the street.” Who has enacted this revenge on behalf of an impoverished, unlucky myth-bearing loner? And why?
The story of Buganda, 1750
After this brief introduction to one of the modern Kintus, we whirl backwards through time to Buddu Province, Buganda, in the year 1750 CE.
This short, novella-length section is full of all the charms of a detailed historical novel. It reads as meticulously researched, and it expresses a fully realized past that is not centered on Uganda’s relationship to Europe. It’s easy to see why some UK publishers wanted Makumbi to re-write the novel set entirely in the eighteenth century—although this would have defanged the project, leaving the mid-1700s orphaned in space-time, as though it were a world apart.
Instead, the novel’s two times are deftly interwoven, and the events we read about in the middle of the eighteenth century remain alive in the bodies of our contemporary characters. We see the eighteenth-century ancestors in our contemporary characters’ patterns of behavior, in their sneezes, and in the Things Fall Apart-esque curse that hangs over the extended Kintu family.
And, just as the reader has fallen in love with the characters of eighteenth-century Buganda, we are returned to Monday, January 5, 2004. We come back not just to the deceased Kamu Kintu, but also to a host of other Kintu relations, whose lives are layered and cross-hatched one over another. All are struggling with personal demons, and most have an amnesiac relationship with their past: either forgetting, having forgotten, or desperate to forget.
The next Kintu descendent we meet is Suubi, a young woman who’s clever and competent, but manages to hide a secret past. Orphaned and packed off to work at a young age, Suubi was the brightest child in the household she served. Her employers sent her to school, and, over time, Suubi was treated almost as the family’s own daughter. When we meet Suubi as an adult, she has convinced herself that these upper-middle-class employers were her real parents. It is only with great reluctance that Suubi allows her blinding, comforting bandages to be ripped off. It is with even greater difficulty that she joins the Kintu family reunion of April 2004, where she is key in efforts to lift the family curse.
The stories of many other Kintu descendants are woven in and around Kamu’s and Suubi’s, and we meet a wide range of professionals, missionaries, farmers and essayists before we reach the early April reunion. It is not only Suubi who finds the family history difficult. All the characters are, with pasts complicated by the traps of class, war, disease, Europeanization, religion, a patriarchal lineage, a masculinist historical tradition, and more.
Bweeza—named Magdalene by her evangelical Christian parents—is among those least afraid of history. Yet Bweeza also grows impatient with the flaws inherent in looking back through a patriarchal, patrilineal lens. “If a man cannot be sure of his sons except by the word of a woman, then a daughter’s children are more reliable. Do you see how tradition shoots itself?”
Neither is Suubi the only one among the extended Kintu clan who doesn’t know her parents. Paolo struggles to discover, and then hide, the identity of his father. And Paolo’s harsh, childless Grandmother “was adopted by a Dutch family but when they were returning to Europe they passed her on to a German family and then a British one. She ended up with an Awakened family.” She and Grandfather Kanani are both “Awakened” Christian missionaries, and Kanani is the most reluctant to join the family reunion-cum-curse-removal.
On its surface, Kintu could be a sympathetic, multigenerational family novel. Or it could be a folktale-realist tale about removing a family curse. But it’s also about the difficulties of writing Ugandan history—or any history. Yet however you read it, Kintu is also hopeful: suggesting it’s possible to make the difficult pilgrimage into the past, tend to our roots, and perhaps even ever-so-slightly shift the tree.