Silences speak of bitter times
“Your daughter looks just like …” Jennifer Makumbi rattles off the name of one of my aunts whom I don’t see very often. “This one is a Barlow. You wouldn’t have to say anything. You can just see it,” she says to my mother.
This was my introduction to Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. I was seen. Located. Like my mother, I yearn for this kind of recognition, when one is located without explanation or clarification because someone already knows your story.
Makumbi is the author of Kintu, a novel that, in the four years since its release, has become a pillar in Ugandan literature. Kintu opens in 2004 in the streets of the Ugandan capital and, similar to Dust — another groundbreaking novel, by Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor — the book begins with a mob justice killing.
Kintu is the story of a family curse. What is impressive is its temporal breadth. It leaps through time, moving deftly between 2004 (when the story opens) and the precolonial kingdom of Buganda in 1750.
It could be argued that Makumbi skips the best-known parts of Uganda’s history — colonialism under British rule and the reign of the infamous military officer Idi Amin. Instead of dwelling on these well-documented aspects of the country’s history, Makumbi points her pen elsewhere for a more considered, concentrated look at a country that has more to answer for.
The author sounds so much like my aunts in Kampala but her accent is unmistakably British. Or rather, unmistakably both.
Polo Moji, a senior lecturer in the English language and literature department at the University of Cape Town, kindly lent us her office, where Makumbi tells me how, as a child, they would have story time at her grandfather’s house. They would all gather in the sitting room after having a shower, or squat around while their grandmother was cooking in the warm kitchen.
I mention Nsangi, a Luganda folktale about a girl whose mother puts her in a cave to protect her from apes that ate prepubescent girls in their village. Together we would sing “Nsangi, Nsangi, Nsangi mwana wange [Nsangi, Nsangi, Nsangi child of mine],” the song that Nsangi’s mother would sing to her while she was in the cave.
Laughing, we would then pretend to be the apes grunting, “Aha haa, aha haaa, singe ndide Nsangi!” our chests puffed out, fists clenched, arms forward, as if holding large pots. Again, in this tiny moment of a shared story, I am seen and located.
“I don’t know if I would tell my children folktales,” I confess. I tell her that I worry that African culture and traditions are locked within a specific time before colonialism. I want to tell my children many stories, which also include the cities in which we find ourselves; the cities Africans continue to transform with our bodies and work and stories.
Makumbi interrupts me. “The reason Africans insist on that is because it was denied that it existed. The colonial experience broke the creative process because new stories would have been created along the way, up to the 1960s. But this chain was broken, which is why every time you ask we skip colonialism, because we’re very sure of that.”
Uganda became a protectorate of the British Empire from 1894 until independence in 1962. Makumbi speaks about the amount of time spent by Ugandans trying to locate themselves within the colonial framework. Much of the time during that period was spent translating Ugandan traditions and culture into something that Britain could recognise.
“I can’t find the Sixties; I don’t know them. I don’t even know the Seventies, even though by then I was born. All I can retrieve quite comfortably are the Eighties, when I was a girl. The Seventies, I can only remember my parents’ voices, my parents’ fears. So when you are looking for the stories in the Sixties and in the Seventies, look back at the history of those times because people create stories when they are comfortable. When there’s peace.”
I tell her that in recent years my mother has said that her generation doesn’t talk about growing up under Amin and surviving others,such as Milton Obote I and Obote II. She uses colloquial shorthand for his two presidential reigns. Born in 1964, it was the silences that drove her to write her own memoir, titled Flame and Song.
For Makumbi, the rise of the middle class in the 1960s encouraged a new kind of writer. She says she and my mother were afforded a kind of luxury that their parents were not. “My father could not have written the story I have written. My grandfather could not because they could only write what [Chinua] Achebe wrote.”
Makumbi resigns herself to telling their story for them but in a way that is truthful to her. She says she was put off by the way people spoke about Amin in Britain. They spoke about him as though he was a monster born from fairytales.
“I wanted to make Amin human and now, in the second book, I do talk about it. But I still talk about it in that way of silences. Of explosions and silences, because that’s the way he came down to me.”
I think of my parents. My own father’s past only spills out through the anecdotes of others. Jolted back into the scenes, recast. Listening to Makumbi, I try to imagine my father in his youth — tall, lanky and with his eyes too far apart. His stories coming in bursts.
This is how I found out about my father’s recurring dreams about soldiers, or how my parents and my father’s siblings were on their way to a gig and accidentally went down the wrong road. They were stopped by soldiers and a soldier attempted to ram his gun into my father’s head. My father hadn’t seen the soldier lift his gun and he accidentally shifted the car forward. They were pardoned that night.
These stories are always invoked, never shared voluntarily.
“Some of the things that turn up in our books or in history, they are supposed to awaken the memory,” Makumbi says, snapping me out of my reverie. “It’s another aspect of the historical novel. The way it nudges, the way it awakens memory around that place, around the event, around the person. In a way, I think, if we start writing about, for example, those silences that you find around your family, they will awaken [memory].”
Kintu asks Ugandans to reframe themselves in the context of history by asking different questions. The book even questions the advent of homophobia in the Ganda tradition, when Makumbi writes about homosexuality as being quite normal. She discusses the expansion of the kingdom of Buganda and brings to the surface tribal tensions and questions of nationhood. Mental illness, the syncretism of Christianity with traditional beliefs, and the fear of HIV are all gently nudged in her writing.
“I’m waiting to see what will happen when my second novel comes out, because then it talks about a very different aspect of Idi Amin, and we’ll see what that will do to people in their 50s, in their 60s, and some in their 40s.
“You know, sometimes, we tend to forget what would be painful and some of that history is lost like that. Not intentionally but because the mind does not want to remember.” She pauses. “Now that we are 40 years away from the 1970s, what can people remember? Are they safe [from] those memories now that there are 40 years?”