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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

We developed a simple process to recycle urine. Here’s how it’s done

Most of the wastewater produced worldwide receives no treatment and the nutrients in wastewater go to waste. Here's how households can draw these nutrients from urine

South Africa’s coastal cities may lose their beaches

Urban tourist magnets have nowhere to retreat to as sea levels rise with climate change

DA cries foul play over muted mic

But high court rules in favour of the eThekwini municipality, as judge decries ‘political point-scoring’

eThekwini municipal manager out on bail, but signing off tenders

The NPA is investigating eThekwini municipal manager Sipho Nzuza to determine whether he broke his bail conditions while back at work.

Q&A Sessions: ‘Nobody will be able to stop us’ — Desmond D’Sa

Desmond D’Sa, winner of the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize in 2014, tells Paddy Harper how being forcibly removed from his home at the age of 10 taught him to fight for his rights

Calls to cap Eskom tariff increases

The national energy regulator has been accused of not following its mandate to protect consumers by allowing above inflation electricity price hikes
Advertising

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

See people as individual humans, not as a race

We need to ingrain values of equality in education, businesses, society broadly and religious groups to see people

JJ Rawlings left an indelible mark on Ghana’s history

The air force pilot and former president used extreme measures, including a coup, enforced ‘discipline’ through executions, ‘disappearances’ and floggings, but reintroduced democracy

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…