by Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire.
“Breaking the rules attracts implications, Jennifer.” I overhear British writer and feminist Sara Maitland delivering these warning shots to Jennifer Makumbi. Makumbi has chosen to publish her debut novel on the continent and the snub felt by the publishing industry in the West has probably become more pronounced as Kwani?, a Kenyan publishing outfit, swims in the praise that Kintu is receiving. Nonetheless, Maitland encourages Makumbi “to carry on breaking the rules”.
It is advice Makumbi probably doesn’t need from her mentor. Kintu is a rulebook in rule-breaking. Instead of focusing the story on a central character, Makumbi centres Kintu on an idea: a curse; more specifically, a family curse that touches so many families, so many characters. The story begins in the 18th century and races through history up to today. By this time the characters in the first family have begotten sons and daughters, who have, in turn, begotten sons and daughters.
The legend of Kintu is a story most Ugandans know. In Muganda they first encounter it in primary school. In Buganda the story is told orally. Either way, a typical Ugandan reader comes to Makumbi’s Kintu with a certain familiarity, a certain knowledge of the story and certain expectations. But, instead of the folktale, readers are catapulted into the contemporary: 5 January 2004. Kamu Kintu is brutally murdered by a mob in a city slum. It’s an emotionally powerful start, and the emotion it evokes grows as Makumbi tosses you around and pushes your mind back to the 1700s. The point is made. Even if you know the story, this is not one of those books whose contents you can guess at without reading it.
We’ve grown accustomed to equating African literature with postcolonial literature, to beginning with things falling apart. But imagine the period before Things Fall Apart. This is Book 1 of Kintu. Makumbi takes us back to 1750, to a depiction of life before the white man. These scenes are not as we have seen them elsewhere – nasty, brutish and short – but respectful and respectable. The Ppookino of Buddu province, Kintu Kidda, adopts a Rwandan refugee child that he accidentally kills while on his way to see the Kabaka in the capital. He does not bury the child well and Kalema, the dead, makes this known to him in a nightmare. It is a secret that Kintu almost unwillingly chooses to keep, attracting a curse from Ntwiire, Kalema’s biological father.
We’re also accustomed to novels with glossaries explaining words such as Ppookino, the Ganda title for a chief. So when Makumbi simply throws it down on the page the wake-up bell is sounded as to whom the book is written for. Next, Makumbi completely excises the white invasion and brings the story forward to the year 2004. The second book begins in the sub-town of Mmengo, where Suubi Nnakintu, whose last name noticeably echoes Kintu’s, lives. Ganda clans have specific names that distinguish members of one clan from another. Because Kintu Kidda is the patriarch of this clan, the name Nnakintu indicates that she is a “daughter” of the clan. This matter of lineage becomes a guiding thread throughout the novel.
This is just one of the ways in which Makumbi suggest that both colonialists and postcolonial theorists overestimate Europe’s contemporary or historical influence on Africa. Despite the European influence, contemporary Africans frequently return to something beyond colonialism to explain the everyday. As one character, Bweeza, says, “He calls me, the English way, to distance unwanted relatives. But blood speaks.” They also have the power to accept or reject colonial ideas. Bweeza rejects Christianity while her brother Kanani embraces it. The result is a mélange of Christianity and heathenness, a chaos that can be understood and explained by the overarching concept of African contemporaneity.
In Kintu, the everyday Ganda myths and folk tales usually reserved for oral literature flow seamlessly with contemporary prose; and those who rail against African literature with an anthropological bent can go hang on tomato trees. Makumbi teaches us, the readers, much about ancient Ganda culture without us realising it. There is even a point where we are given a proper Ganda sex education lesson!
Thematically Kintu is equally adventurous. This book is not just about a curse. If there is a rule that a book should have a central theme, Makumbi gracefully tosses it aside. From homosexuality in pre-colonial Buganda to the Christian fanaticism of the East African revival days, through to HIV/Aids, traditional spirituality and psychology, child sacrifice, mental health troubles, murder and palace intrigue, Makumbi explores the multitudinous issues, the everythings of our lives.
If there is a hero it is the women in the book, a heroine then, or rather many heroines. Refusing the usual division between traditional servitude and the modern liberated woman, Makumbi shows how women have always subverted masculine power structures from within: from Kintu Kidda’s wife Nnakato, who manages her reluctant husband’s sex schedule, to Zaya, the young girl who runs away from her husband and doesn’t look back; Nnayiga, who strokes her husband’s masculine ego even as she manipulates him; and finally Kusi, a woman who avenges her brother’s death. While the book is an epic, in her portrayal of women she refuses grand narratives, choosing instead to explore, dissect and celebrate those small moments that make all of our ordinary lives extraordinary.
In examining all these issues, Makumbi is never moralising or didactic. We emerge from reading Kintu none the wiser as to the author’s views on any of the issues raised. We can’t even begin to guess which character speaks for the author. Makumbi’s voice is indistinguishable among them. It’s in all of them. It’s in none of them. Her background leaves us no more enlightened. If anything, it merely reinforces her position as a rule-breaker. She was the first Christian female student to cause trouble for university administrators at Islamic University in Uganda, where she received a Bachelor in Education degree, followed by a degree in African Literature from Manchester Metropolitan University and a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. That she returned to the African continent to publish Kintu, after winning the inaugural Kwani? Manuscript Prize in 2013, leaves me in no doubt that Makumbi will be producing ground-breaking fiction, while breaking the rules, well into the future.
This story features in the new edition of Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.
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