AiW Guest Nyana Kakoma
When upcoming writers like me hear that Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi started writing Kintu in 2003, we despair. We reach into that part of our brain that always doubts that we will make it at this writing thing and we confirm that we will not if writing a novel takes that long. Until we read Kintu and realise that such a brilliant piece of writing could never have been rushed.
Kintu (Kwani Trust, 2014) tells a story that spans from 1750 pre-colonial Buganda Kingdom to 2004 independent Uganda. It tells the story of a family from when a terrible curse was placed on them and how the descendants fight to survive that curse.
The curse is placed on the family of Kintu Kidda, the Ppookino of Buddu Province, when in a hasty moment he hits his adopted son. Ntwire, the boy’s birth father, curses Kintu and all his descendants. The book opens in 2004 with one of Kintu’s descendants being brutally attacked and it is not long before we see the curse come to pass in a variety of ways.
Makumbi wastes no time in introducing the main themes of her book. This is cleverly done in the epigraph with a quote by John Speke, a European explorer. The ideas of a generational curse, the darkness of Africa and how Christianity was used to justify conquest are laid out clearly.
Text message (sent): Did you know that Bazuukufu (The Awakened) do not have sex for pleasure? It’s in this Kintu book I am reading! Making me feel sorry for our Bazuukufu teachers in high school.
My favourite part of the book was the period of 1760 which features the life of the patriarch, Kintu Kidda. Very little of pre-colonial Africa is written about and it was such a delight to re-imagine with Makumbi how life was then. Makumbi carefully weaves a tale that very clearly refutes the darkness of pre-colonial Africa as painted by explorers like John Speke. Besides the family feuds over power, the community is extremely ordered and life is far from dark. You see it in the preparations Kintu’s bambowa make before they travel, what they carry on their journey, the kind of food they eat and why they eat it. You see it in how they decide what time to travel and at what pace to move and for what reasons. You have to read how Nnakato rehabilitates Kintu when he gets back home after the long trek to be impressed by how organised life was. I also loved reading about Baale being prepared for marriage with counselling from different men on how to treat his new wife. These do not seem at all like people that needed anyone’s help to make sense of their lives.
Text message (Inbox): Goodness! The sex scene in Kintu! Ahaaa! Suubi’s. In case there are others and you’re wondering which one I am referring to.
The power and role of the women in Kintu is pleasantly surprising. There is no single woman (save for Babirye who lays down her entire life for her sister, Nnakato, Kintu Kidda’s wife) that does not stand out. It is the women that make kings; sitting back, biding their time and choosing when to strike so that their children can take the throne. Nnakato, the beloved and childless twin, is the one that is in charge of all Kintu’s wives, ensuring that every woman would have a child at least once in every three years and therefore in every way, taking care of her rather reluctant husband’s sex schedule. There is Zaya, the young girl who runs away from her husband and even when she becomes the talk of the town, does not go back to him. There is Nnayiga, Isaac Newton’s wife, who controls him, knowing when to resist him and fight him off, when to call him and when to make him look for her so that he can truly feel like a man. Even Kamu’s wife, who is desperate to have a child so she can cement her relationship with Kamu, chooses self-preservation when push comes to shove. And in the end, it is Kusi, a woman, that avenges her brother’s death. The women in this novel stand tall.
Makumbi does this ingenious thing of giving the most surprising traits to the most surprising characters. It is Kintu Kidda, a governor in 1750, that is a romantic. In an era where polygamy was the norm, he convinced himself that there was one and only one woman for him. It is Bweeza, the heathen aunt who says, “That is where I get impatient with tradition. If a man cannot be sure of his sons except by the word of the woman, then the daughter’s children are more reliable.” It is Faisi, the unflinching Awakened Christian, who will not shrink her lofty stature in order to make her shorter husband look good. It is Muganda, the Polo clad, Cambridge-educated man that is the medium at the family’s homecoming. And later it is the educated intellectual Miisi that is appointed as custodian of the clan’s spiritual grounds. These characters show us how contrasting beliefs can co-exist and help us question belief without using logic.
I am always more impressed by the language of a book: how words are woven together to deliver the stories, than the themes. The words are what make me pause and go over a paragraph, just so I can get as much pleasure from it as was intended. When it comes to language, Makumbi delivers beautifully. The book is sprinkled with enough Luganda not to turn off any non-Luganda speaker and yet enough to make the book very authentic to the place where it is set. But it is what she does with her description of places that got me. Places in Kintu are characters in their own right. You can picture how Kampala is perched on the seven hills with swamps like Bwaise at the bottom. The O Lwera is very vivid in its fierceness. One can picture colonial Kampala as Kanani saw it and admired it, and so understand why he so despises present day Kampala.
My most recent love, Kintu by Jennnifer Makumbi
I will admit that there are emotional reasons for my love for this book. I grew up near the Kasubi Tombs. If you stand at the tombs, you will see a hill called Lubya. While growing up, there was a house on top of that hill, surrounded by tall, tall trees and we were told that the house was haunted and there were ghosts on that hill. I never went there. Imagine the pleasure I got just seeing “Lubya Hill” in a nicely written book that was not a text book?! It is the same way I felt when I saw Nateete, Wakaliga, Kitunzi, Bulange, Bukesa, Bwaise etc. Places I know. Names I know. I was not reading about people somewhere in Virginia but in Bwaise! That alone gave me so much pleasure!
The slowest part of the novel for me was when Miisi and Kaleebu were talking about Idi Amin. It could be because this is the kind of conversation that I have never heard or something I have never had to speak about (shock, shock all ye that think our lives as Ugandans revolve around Amin). I just couldn’t relate to that part of the book and could not wait to get over that conversation and get on with the rest of the story. Thankfully, it was not that long.
Facebook status update:
So I told #ThisManOfMine, let me read one more chapter then I will come to bed. That was around 10:30pm. Next time I looked up to check the time, it was 2:15am. And that is how Kintu is! So far, I have cried, I have laughed, I have looked, eyes wide open and said, “Yiiiyii! Vvawo!” Banange you people get the book and we talk about it. I don’t want to be like those Game of Thrones fans who spoilt a whole season for their friends!
Jackee Batanda, a Ugandan writer, once told me that when she read Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat gave her permission to tell stories as she knows them. I did not understand what she meant until I read Kintu. Makumbi made me want to write and tell our stories. I could relate to what she wrote because she was not trying to embellish my truth to make it more acceptable to other people that may be outside it. And as a writer still struggling with finding my own voice, I felt this fire to just sit at my computer and write about my world as I know it without being apologetic, even about things that I don’t understand quite yet. Makumbi made me want to be bolder and unapologetic about telling my story. She made me realise that our lives are interesting enough and our stories are multi-faceted enough to be told. That our histories and our names have stories that we cannot afford to keep quiet about.
Nyana Kakoma is a Ugandan writer, editor and blogger on Sooo Many Stories, a blog that showcases Ugandan Literature. Her short stories have been published in The Suubi Collection Pg 30 as Hellen Nyana, Jalada: Just Because You Did Not Win, The Caine Prize Anthology 2013 (Chief Mourner) and the Storymoja blog.
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