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Kintu, a refusal to ‘write back’

Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was meant to appear at Durban’s Time of the Writer festival this past week, before its physical iteration was cancelled

Literary festivals are a “nice to have” — especially for authors who need to sell books — but unlike, say, the performance of a play, they are not the primary vehicle for their art form. Literary events around the world have been cancelled, but nothing is stopping us from reading; in fact, social distancing and self-isolation gives us more time to do so. 

Makumbi’s debut novel, Kintu, first published in 2014, is one I’ve been meaning to read for, well, years. It draws on the Buganda origin myth: Kintu was the first man and the father of all people, a Ugandan Adam, if you will. 

In Makumbi’s retelling, this becomes the epic story of a generational curse afflicting the Kintu clan after their leader in the 18th century, Kintu Kidda, unintentionally kills his adopted son, Kalema, by slapping him on the head. 

As described later in the novel by Kanani Kintu, “the curse was specific: mental illness, sudden death, and suicide”. 

The novel opens with a contemporary prologue, depicting one of his descendents, Kanu, being killed by a mob after he’s accused of being a thief — a brutal and vivid tableau of the effects of the curse. 

And then we’re taken back to 1750, to the events that set the curse in motion. The curse is proclaimed by Ntwire — Kalema’s Rwandan biological father — and by the end of this section, Baale, another of Kintu Kidda’s sons and Kalema’s “twin” has died from illness; his mother, Nnatako, has hanged herself because of grief, and Kintu Kidda himself has vanished into the night, never to be seen again. 

The subsequent sections of Kintu are novellas in themselves, each charting the story of one of Kintu Kidda’s descendants in the present day. There’s a young woman, Suubi Nnakintu, who is plagued by the spirit of her dead twin sister; an old man, Kanani Kintu, who has turned to Christianity rather than following the traditions of his ancestors; Isaac Newton Kintu, struggling with caring for his son after his wife has died of Aids; and Misirayimu (Miisi) Kintu, an academic who has returned to Kampala after studying and working in the UK. 

The characters’ story arcs are artfully brought together in the concluding section of the novel, “The Homecoming”, when they hold a family gathering at which they perform rituals to rid the clan of the curse. 

Anyone who’s studied literature through a postcolonial framework has probably come across The Empire Writes Back by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (although my own reading of it was 20 years ago, so it may well be out of fashion). 

The essays in this book constitute a theoretical examination of so-called postcolonial texts — and the manner in which they critiqued imperialism and colonialism. This presents us with a dichotomy: even though authors are theorised as “writing back” against empire, this positions them as responding to dictates of the very institution they are attempting to push back against.

One of Kintu’s singular achievements is that Makumbi doesn’t “write back” in this fashion; instead of centring colonialism, Uganda (and, earlier on, Buganda) are depicted on their own terms. 

In a lecture in Johannesburg in 2018, reported on by Johannesburg Review of Books, Makumbi was clear about her intentions in choosing this approach. 

“The first thing I wanted to do was to tell the world about Uganda,” she said. “When you tell most people, ‘I’m Ugandan’, especially when I went to Britain, the first thing they say is, ‘Ah, Idi Amin!’ or, more recently, ‘Ah, homophobia!’ And you want to say, ‘Look, they’re not the major exports of Uganda. There are other aspects of Uganda.’ But out there, there was nothing good to say or hear about Uganda.”

The novel itself is decidedly not written for the Western gaze. In fact, it was first published by Kenyan outfit Kwani? after Makumbi won its manuscript prize in 2013. As she stated at the lecture, “I wasn’t going to help Westerners. There’s Google. Go to Google and find out what ‘kabaka’ means.” 

While you’re googling, you can also check out the publicity for Makumbi’s next novel, The First Woman, a “feminist rendition” and companion novel to Kintu, which will be out in June. 

This one certainly won’t languish on my to-be-read pile for six years.

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