Running relentlessly through the story is a curse. It is called by Ntwire, the stranger, wronged by the Ppookino, the Governor, who inadvertently murders his adoptive son, but fails to announce the death. The curse has held its potency, linking the characters through the generations. In the end, Kintu’s progeny are drawn to the ancestral shrine to seek resolution through an Oxford-educated medium, Muganda. Such are the ironies in this story.
Published by Kwani? as part of the 2013 Manuscript project, Kintu went on to win the Commonwealth prize in 2014. It has since attracted a UK publisher (One Word Publications, 2018), and US publisher (Transit Books, 2018), and gone on to win the prestigious, and generous Windham Campbell prize for literature, worth $165 000. While the Kwani? call was Africa-focused¾according to Ella Wakatama Allfrey, ‘What we looked for as judges were manuscripts that told stories from the inside without the burden of focusing on how an imagined “West” would view them’, the foreign publishers, in a move that has stirred up controversy, have included an Introduction — that explains the novel to a western readership ¾ in their editions. According to Allfrey in ‘When we talk about Kintu’, having Aaron Bady tell us what Makumbi is trying to say, ‘mansplaining’ this articulate woman is patronizing, a ‘dilution of Makumbi’s astonishing achievement’. It reflects the unevenness that persists in a publishing field that would not at first touch this manuscript because it was ‘unpublishable’, was ‘too African’. It was Bady who carried the Kwani? text back to America from Nairobi on the recommendation of a local blogger, and found a publisher, demonstrating, perhaps, just how nuanced and overlapping these processes can be. Such controversies, here reflecting the powerful residual tensions of race and privilege, throw up urgent issues surrounding the politics of knowledge production, and confirm the relevance of this novel.
Allfray, who has worked in publishing, nurturing and supporting the growth of African writing says of the western publications: ‘I can acknowledge the publisher’s good intentions, I can admire and recognise a kinship with the author of the introduction and praise the content and style, but I look at the cover and see “Kintu by Jennifer Makumbi. With an introduction by Aaron Bady” and all I really see is the decades of work promoting the telling of our own stories, by ourselves and for ourselves, being eroded.’
Kintu is riveting, disturbing, well researched, and beautifully written. It makes for a compelling read. The breadth of its concerns stretches from matters of cultural and ethnic dominance at home, to gatekeeping and marginalisation abroad. For a post-colonial world grappling with truncated pasts and the challenges of crafting a livable identity, be it traditional, gendered, or modern, Makumbi gives us Miisi, Cambridge PhD and village dweller as guide. It is, of course, a harrowing journey, and Miisi mutes the traditional every time it threatens to overwhelm, which is often. His study of bloodletting rituals, even as atonement, fails to prepare him adequately for the task he is called upon to perform¾that of reconciling the present to the past.