Kintu: Telling a Uganda Story

Volume 15, Issue 3  | 
Published 05/02/2019

Author: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Original Publ: Kwani? 2014

Reviewer: Garnette Oluoch-Olunya

At the 2nd East African Literary & Cultural Studies Conference held at Makerere University, Kampala in 2015, I read a paper on J N Makumbi’s Kintu as part of a panel on Ubuntu.  Afterwards, I was approached by a Ugandan participant who asked if I was not aware of the novel’s potential role in the resurgence of Baganda hegemony? Makumbi admitted to me, at a different forum, that she had variously been called a ‘royalist’.  Our national identities, so new, remain fraught, caught up in a historical fabric that is patchy at best. And so, as some suspect that Makumbi may be purporting to tell the single Uganda story, yet others have celebrated Kintu, hailing it as the new Uganda novel that will do for Uganda what Chinua Achebe’s Things fall Apart did for Nigeria. If Achebe was concerned that Africans wake up to the fact that our imperfect pasts were not ‘one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God's behalf delivered [us],’ Makumbi states a similar anxiety. She places colonialism in perspective as just one of many encounters in Uganda’s long history. As she explains: ‘Kintu flowed out of a desire to give Ugandans a taste of their own long and complicated history, to do for Ugandans something like what Chinua Achebe’s novels did for Nigerians in the 1960s: to make them look at a hill, for example, and know that the Ganda have been climbing it for centuries. To remind them that Uganda’s history did not begin in 1962, when it gained independence from Great Britain, or even a few years earlier, when Europeans first “discovered” them.’ Indeed, that Uganda was more than what she calls ‘a European artefact’.

Makumbi worked on the manuscript of Kintu for ten years, and so it is not surprising that she has given us a powerful story, an intricately interwoven family web, an epic of origins based on the story of Kintu, the first Ganda, and his descendants into the present. The novel opens with the seemingly senseless killing of Kama Kintu, drawing the reader into a vortex of intrigue as the murder peels back the layers on centuries of tensions, both new and ancient. And out leak deeply held family secrets, superstitions, religion; we encounter benevolent, and oppressive patriarchal structures, the colonial, twins as signifying, HIV, and of course, the centrality of the Buganda Kingdom. We get a glimpse of the horror of Idi Amin even as we laugh at the absurdity, presented in a school textbook that ‘J H Speke Stood in this Exact Spot Somewhere Nearby’. She offers the ridiculous - that Speke allegedly ‘discovered’ the source of the Nile, led there by the local people - with a light touch. And yet we are aware that for Makumbi, some of these issues hold pain and personal loss.

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.

Last modified on Tuesday, 05 February 2019 02:38

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