June, Last year, Nneka Lesley Arimah asked of Kintu, “Is this the great Ugandan Novel?” This is precisely why I bought the book. Curiosity. Hype. Stan for everything Arimah and Makumbi. Love for Ugandan writers generally—Innocent Acan, Beverly Nambozo. Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire. Okot p’Bitek. Jennifer Makumbi. The best rest.
If there was a “great Ugandan Novel”, I had to be part of it.
I was low on cash (Nigerian school leaver, writer, the usual), yet I bought Kintu (pronounced ‘chin-too’) at the Ake Festival bookstore where I volunteered. Autographed. Hardback. The most expensive book I spent money on. Then, you know that thing where you keep postponing something because you don’t want the excitement to be over so soon? Spent two months admiring the cover. Didn’t start reading until January this year.
The downside to such hype—especially in literature for literature sake (that is, not academic)—is that precious few works ever live up to it. But when Yejide Kilanko and Zukiswa Wanner both excitedly chant that Kintu is the hottest thing in African lit in the moment, you have to pay attention.
Jennifer Makumbi’s multi-generational chronicle of events that determine the history of a colourful character ensembleis simply mind-blowing, for want of a less-cliché expression. Through five generations, Kintu explores family values, history, myth and politics in Uganda’s troubled history.
In January 2004, when Kamu Kintu is lynched by vicious crowd, a woman says, “that is what happens to a race that fails to raise to raise its value on the market.” While Kamu’s body lies unclaimed in the mortuary, we follow the Kintu lineage back to 1750 Buddu kingdom, when the ambitious Ppookino (governor, in case you’re wondering) Kintu Kidda journeyed with his tribe across the perilous wasteland o Lwera to swear fealty to the then Kabaka of Buganda Kingdom, and unleashed a curse that would plague his descendants for generations.
I once read somewhere that if a book doesn’t catch your attention in the first 20 pages, you should drop it. Kintu trumps that “rule” easily, at once catches your attention from the get-go, never gives it up. Even in its slowest parts.
A friend calls Jennifer Makumbi the “storyteller archetype”: does not spend time on ornamental sentences, just goes straight to the point, keeps hitting you with it. I am inclined to agree even though I love my gorgeous sentences running and running with adorning metaphors, “prose…that steals your breath away.” Where Makumbi truly shines is how she is able to keep doing this, hitting you straight up with traumatic revelations, and yet still takes care of you, the reader, how she balances the gruesome parts of the novel with humour, wit and compassion. Like the proverbial rat that bites your skin off while blowing air at it.
When I started writing in 2015—those flash fiction days, sharing stories in short bursts and one-on-one literary duels—concerned readers (judges in Flash duels, commentators, voters) earnestly hammered on the show-don’t-tell rule. This “rule’ has sort of shaped my writing carer so far. So you can realize my initial reservations about Kintu’s prose. But you see, it’s refreshing to come across a writer who gives a stout middle finger to this ‘tyranny’, as Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire put it, and does so with such expertise. In essence, stories like this, like folk tales, need to be told not shown.
There are so many things to say about Kintu, and all of them are positive. You will fall in love with Makumbi’s glorious use of language. The culture detail. The refusal to pander to European—and American—dictates. “English’s tendency to obliterate other languages does not apply here,” Bwesigye wrote on JRB last year.
When Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi won the Windham Campbell Prize last year, Quartz reported “A Ugandan author once dismissed, rejected even, for being “too African” has won a major literary prize’. While that statement is flattering, the reality of the achievement is one that’s worth punching the air for: Kintu did struggle to get published.
Aaron Bady said of Kintu, “Makumbi doesn’t need to be explained. She says what she wants to say in her novel with clarity, skill and a staggering capacity for storytelling.’
One thing truly sets Kintu apart, something it doesn’t get enough credit for, and if you don’t pay enough attention, you will miss it. Kintu acknowledges (through Misirayimu Kintu mostly) that Europeans messed with Uganda—and Africa by large—but doesn’t romanticize it, doesn’t dwell on it. Europe is neither the hero of the story, nor is it the Villain.
Jennifer Makumbi said in an interview “I realised that if you put Europe in your book, they will peripherise your culture and just focus on Europe. Even if you look at the areas of study, they are called “precolonial”, “colonial” and “postcolonial”. It is as if Africa does not exist outside of the colonial experience.” So she went on to write a book where Uganda stands on its own, stands with its own history. Bam.
So what, you guys fucked shit up. Meh. We still got our own stories, duh.
I like to call Kintu the book of books (just like her Commonwealth Prize-winning story of stories Let’s tell This Story Properly, ha!); the 5 books that make up Kintu are the coming together of themes: gender identity, sexuality, religion, nationalism. There’s so much to say about them that would turn this review into dissertation, so I will leave you to discover for yourself (buy the book, hey!) But here, some teases: the Pookino Kintu struggles with his obligations as a “seed dispenser” in 18th century Buganda; Kanani eats terribly cooked food for 40 years because you can’t be a married man and cook in Uganda). At the end of chapter 4 of book one, Kintu “knew the snare of being a man Society heaped such expectations on manhood that in a bid to live up to them some men snapped.”
Kintu is a healthy blend of culture, history, humor and wit. Makumbi has created an immense amount of characters, colourful ones too. While it may be difficult to keep up at times, with every minor cast demanding its moment in the limelight, their discrete stories are compelling enough to keep you interested. Yes, Nneka, Kintu is the great Ugandan novel.