Book of the month: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The author of my latest book of the month has been on my radar for a number of years. She was the winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and her debut novel, Kintu, has been widely praised. The fact that it has taken me so long to get her is probably due to fact that her novels are often talked about as sagas that deal with national history. Having read such a book as my original choice for Uganda back in 2012, I suppose I felt no hurry to read another novel in a similar vein.

I was wrong. From the moment, I started The First Woman, I was hooked into the coming-of-age story of Kirabo, a girl struggling to find a sense of self in the turbulent years during and following Idi Amin’s dictatorship.

Nansubuga Makumbi is an exceptional writer. Drawing on Ganda oral storytelling traditions and myths, her prose shimmers with energy, urgency and fun. There is an extraordinary directness to her descriptions that at times had me gnawing my fists with envy at her talent. From the scornful teenagers whose ‘eyes were slaughter’ and the wealthy student ‘driven everywhere as if he had no legs’ to the neighbour so forbidding that ‘if you saw her coming while you peed by the roadside, you sat down in your pee and smiled’, the characters in this novel leap off the page by virtue of its author’s vibrant writing.

Funny but never caricatured, they reveal multiple sides as the plot plays out. Indeed, one of Nansubuga Makumbi’s many strengths is the way she plays with psychic distance (a concept neatly explained on writer Emma Darwin’s brilliant blog) to reveal the inconsistencies and hypocrisy threaded through human thought.

Culture clashes are a central theme. As Kirabo navigates her way between rural and urban worlds, European and Ganda traditions, and past and present, the narrative sparks off myriad insights. For British readers, the reflections on the ‘disruption of Ganda time’ by colonial rule – which, among many other things, reduced the three-day weekend to two days and imposed the 24-hour clock – may be particularly interesting. Take this description of the protagonist’s efforts to reconcile the two systems:

‘Kirabo had even learnt to balance her mind at that precarious edge where she saw time in its natural, Ugandan mode but articulated it in the upside-down English mode. At first, it had felt schizophrenic as her mind computed ten hours of day but she said four in the afternoon.’

The novel’s discussion of the mechanics and power of storytelling is similarly thought-provoking. Indeed, the book contains some of the most memorable explanations I’ve read of how narratives can be used to acquire wealth and influence, and to subjugate others. ‘Stories are critical,’ as family friend Nsuuta tells Kirabo towards the end of the novel. ‘The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.’

Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to the novel’s exploration of feminism, or mwenkanonkano in Kirabo’s mother tongue, Luganda. Although many of the issues and struggles portrayed will be familiar to readers in the global North, Nansubuga Makumbi presents a much more holistic, embodied consideration of women’s attempts to assert themselves than many will be used to. Women’s physicality is frankly discussed and menstruation even has a hand in shaping the plot – an approach that feels quite different to that of the more familiar, often rather dry and cerebral, Anglo-American feminist manifestos. The book also throws up some fascinating thoughts on intersectionality and the ways different kinds of privilege and history divide us.

As with all ambitious stories, the book presents some challenges. Perhaps the biggest for Anglo-American readers will be the cultural differences that may make a few of Kirabo’s decisions hard to understand. Chief among them is the fact that, having never met her mother, she resists the temptation to ask her family about her, preferring instead to try witchcraft and put posters up around her school appealing for information. Nansubuga Makumbi does an excellent job of elucidating the power dynamics of the clan system (using the ingenious ploy of having older members explain many of the intricacies to children), but there are moments where this reticence and respect for elders risks feeling a little too much like a plot device. (Although this may be more of a insight into the limitations of this reader’s imagination than any failing of the novel.)

Good writers offer insights into other places and situations. Great writers offer insights into other minds. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a great writer. I’m just sorry it took me so long to read her.

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld, 2020)

Picture: ‘After the Rainforest, Uganda’ by Rod Waddington on

Uganda: tough choices

I was in two minds about this one. Everyone I’d spoken to about Ugandan literature, from writer Musa Okwonga to the folks at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, had come back with the same recommendation: Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino (or Defence of Lawino, depending on which translation you read).

The only issue was that the work was a narrative poem, rather than a prose piece. While I was planning to consider narrative poetry from countries where novels, short stories and memoirs in English were in short supply, I found the idea of opting for poetry when there were prose options available difficult.

In the end, flying in the face of one of the most unanimous recommendations I’ve had so far this year, I decided to add the p’Bitek to the list but to choose a novel. Oh God, I thought as I spiralled Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa down on to my Kindle, please be good.

Set in the 1970s and 1980s, this ambitious novel tells the story of post-independence Uganda’s turbulent struggle for peace and identity through the eyes of Mugezi. Growing up in an abusive household before, during and after the Amin years, he witnesses the impact of national events on those around him and, through the choices he makes, reveals how individuals internalise and play out the currents of politics in their own lives.

The idea of a single person or part of something standing for the whole is a running theme in the novel. Whether it’s Mugezi’s parents’ disastrous wedding night, during which the happy couple have to be helped to consummate their union by the bride’s aunt, which ‘in many ways typified the whole of their marriage’, or Mugezi’s emulation of ‘St Amin’ in his stealth campaign to take revenge on his violent mother by a series of unpleasant pranks planned with military precision and despotic flair – at least in the days before his admiration of the dictator is ‘killed by the murderous light of truth’ – synecdoche is the order of the day.

Unusually for a novel written in English, the book was first published in translation – in Holland, where Isegawa has lived since 1990. This is particularly striking  when you consider the author’s love of putting language through its paces. From the very first sentence – ‘Three final images flashed across Serenity’s mind as he disappeared into the jaws of the colossal crocodile’ – he reaches for creative forms and tropes to surprise, intrigue and emote.

Perhaps the most striking example is his description of Mugezi’s aunt’s gang rape by soldiers, in which the clinical report of the duration of the event, the precise number of thrusts and touches she endured and the quantity of bodily fluids produced communicates the emotional toll the ordeal took far more effectively than any subjective description could.

Now and then, the ambitious scope of the novel causes problems. There is so much context to explain that the work is hi-jacked by odd passages of socio-political exposition and the narrative feels distended by this, like a python that has swallowed but not yet fully digested a large meal. Similarly, the expansive cast of characters woven through Mugezi’s experiences give parts of the novel a baggy feel.

But the positives far outweigh the negatives. The book is funny, shocking and vibrant by turns, throbbing with anger and hope. Isegawa has made history his story, and that is no mean feat. How the work compares with Song of Lawino, I’ve no idea – I’ll have to read that next year and find out…

Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa (Picador, 2011)