Rating 5 stars
I went to see Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi speak about her new book, a collection of short stories called Manchester Happened, not too long ago. At the event, she also spoke about her novel Kintu and the struggle she’d had to get it published. She talked about the lack of interest from British publishers and how it took the novel being published in the USA and being a success there for it to be picked up in the UK. It was an eye-opener to hear her say that the reason no publisher in Britain would take a chance on the book was because they didn’t believe that there was enough of an audience for the work.
Kintu is a masterpiece. A sprawling epic, it’s divided into six Books, each focusing on a different descendant of the first Kintu. Kintu Kidda is a regional governor in the kingdom of Buganda during the eighteenth century. Book I tells his story, starting with Kintu Kidda’s pilgrimage to show his loyalty to a new king. A tragedy during the journey results in Kintu’s family line being cursed. The novel then follows Kintu’s descendants to see how the curse plays out and whether it can be thwarted.
As well as being a family saga, Kintu is also a novel about the way people try to explain away tragedy and difficulty through telling stories about their lives. These stories enable them to recast their experiences in a way that seeks acceptance from the people around them. We all do it in different ways – each time we start a new job, whenever we meet someone new that we hope to make a connection with. It struck me that Makumbi understands that humans are storytellers at heart, and that our folk traditions, our religions and the modern equivalents of packaging ourselves for wider consumption are all part of our need to constantly narrate our lives and complete the gaps in our understanding of who we are.
If Kintu Kidda is the origin of the story, then the character who cuts through each narrative section of the novel, Kamu, a descendant of Kintu alive 250 years later, is its connective tissue. Kamu sets the story in motion in the prologue and from the off is representative of the way the curse has played out. He is present but barely noticed in most of the novel, but his story is important because it speaks of the forgotten.
I found the novel revelatory on the complexities of Ugandan history, with different heritages being forcibly absorbed into the Ganda people’s way of life. Only the wandering Tutsi resist integration, with devastating consequences for Kintu Kidda’s clan. The Tutsi are seen as unclean because of their unwillingness to conform. Humanity, eh? We do like our differentiation.
It was also revelatory on the power structures in the family of a provincial governor, the hierarchy of wives and the selection of an heir. But this is all set dressing for the humanity of the characters who love and hate, worry and take action, and take on life with humour. Kintu Kidda and his family are funny people.
The story of Kintu’s curse takes on the status of legend for each of the family lines studied across the novel. Suubi’s grandmother tells her a version of the story that has subtly changed meaning over the generations through which it has been passed down. Suubi’s story is a tragic one. Her twin and her mother die in childbirth. Her father commits suicide. Suubi is abandoned to the inadequate care of her aunt and begins a life on the margins.
Through Suubi, we learn what it was to be a vulnerable girl in 1980s Uganda. Makumbi also uses Suubi’s story to shed light on the connection between mental illness, such as schizophrenia, and African cultural traditions that include the fear of witchcraft and belief in a spirit world that traps on earth those who do not die well. Suubi is haunted by her dead twin. Her behaviour suggests a mental illness that includes psychotic episodes and both auditory and visual hallucinations.
Suubi also attempts to construct an alternative life story for herself. The reality of her childhood is so traumatic that she invents a fictional family living in England, and then tries to integrate with the family she works for as a house servant. Later, when she finds herself socialising with her boyfriend’s friends, she suffers physical pain in reaction to having to invent anecdotes that present her life as ordinary.
Kanani Kintu’s immediate family do not speak of the curse. Kanani’s name is a rendering of Canaan in Luganda. He heads up a family of Christians who seek to nullify the curse through the protection of the Christian god, rejecting their wider family as they do so. They are a window onto a fundamentalist Anglican sect known as the Awakened.
Kanani and his wife Faisi (Faith) pursue their religious fundamentalism to the point of neglecting their twin children Ruth and Job, who eventually choose to follow a less prescriptive form of Anglicanism. The pull of the Kintu clan and its curse is too strong, though, and Ruth ends up living with her father’s cousin Bweeza when she becomes pregnant at the age of thirteen. Through her son Paulo, a reconnection is made with the clan.
Across the novel hovers the spectre of AIDS and HIV. Uganda is a country like any other, with the wealthy leading lives of privilege and the poor trying to make ends meet whatever way they can. For some of the female characters, this making ends meet involves prostitution, an occupation that brings with it a high risk of contracting HIV. For the privileged men, it is easy to find sex whenever you want it, and it doesn’t have to be with your life partner. HIV is at the back of the minds of some male members of the Kintu clan, such as Isaac Newton Kintu, but not enough for them to change their lifestyles.
The last character that Makumbi focuses on is Miisi Kintu. He is an old man. His children are dying. Each time a child of his dies, he rescues their children and soon has ten grandchildren in his care. Miisi is an educated man, a Communist and someone who begins to realise that choosing to reject the privilege that his education affords him is an insult to the poorer people he lives among. Miisi was the most interesting character in the book for me, perhaps because I share a lot of his outlook on life.
Finally, the descendants of Kintu Kidda come together in the clan homeland, and find that Kintu is forgotten among the villagers, but that his wife Nnakato is revered and considered part of the landscape. Makumbi understands that landscape has memory. Towards the end of the novel, she has Isaac ponder this.
As Isaac walked towards [the shrine], he was overcome by emotion. Did Mayirika occupy this same spot? Did Baale and Kalema play about here? Does the ground remember Kintu’s feet? The ground has a memory he was sure: it was beyond comprehension, beyond sight and beyond touch, but he knew it.
I really enjoyed reading Kintu and exploring the traditions of African culture and the ways in which European culture has tried to squash it down. I laughed when Miisi dismissed the idea of African countries as nothing more than European imagination. Africa is the cradle of humanity, its people follow ancient traditions and have a different understanding of the world to the supposedly enlightened way of thinking in Western society. Miisi, with his British education, tries to rationalise away the traditions that hold the Kintu clan together but ultimately can’t resist them. Makumbi’s novel made me think about how Western powers treat Africa as though it is a recalcitrant child, because we in the West can’t understand the African way of existing in the world. It seems too connected to nature and spirit, it is frightening because it doesn’t fit with our science based approach to life, and so we try to diminish its legitimacy. We try to force Africa to live our way, and in doing so we hold Africa in economic poverty. We need to stop trying to dominate Africa. It does no good.
Kintu is an important book because it entertains at the same time as it challenges. It presents the complexities of Africa in a way that engaged my Western conditioned mind and encouraged me to think about Africa differently. I loved all of the characters, with their particular foibles and I loved the way Makumbi wove their stories together. I also loved the strength she gave to the female characters, who live in an extreme patriarchal society but understand their position in its power structure. That the final Kintu heir is a woman is a glorious thing.
This is a novel worth reading. I look forward to reading more by Makumbi.