Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Review published on August 10, 2018.

I imagine a lot of reviews of Kintu opening with a worthy comment or two about the importance of this novel, we will get to that, but let me just say before that, this is a fantastically entertaining read. Full of colourful and rounded characters and absorbing stories. Makumbi is a natural storyteller and Kintu is a mix of research and invention that just pulsates with passion and intelligence. The novel encompasses war, tradition, culture, ethnicity, sex and tragedy – all realised in the story of one cursed family. So Kintu is a family saga that spans the generations of Kintu from the 1750s to the post-millennium world. It’s a novel of breath-taking scope and variety. There are dips but generally this is a vibrant, dynamic and engrossing read.

Kintu opens in 2004 in Bwaise, Kampala. Kamu Kintu’s woman, she’s his wife in all but name, wakes her man early, there are men at the door. Kamu recognises the local councillors, but once they get him outside of the house they tie his hands behind his back and lead him away. A crowd gathers following the cries of a small child that they have captured a thief. The vendors become angry, especially when they think that the councillors are trying to spirit the thief away. They begin hitting Kamu, the blows become more violent until an axe handle knocks him down and a stone crushes his skull. It’s a tragic mistake which, three months later, leads to the deaths of the four councillors and six men connected to the killing. This is the first time we hear of the curse of the Kintu family.

Buganda, 1750. Kintu Kidda is Ppookino of Buddu Province (governor), he has gathered his men at midnight to make the journey to the new capital Lubya Hill to pay homage to the Kyabaggu, the new Kabaka. They travel at night and sleep in the day to avoid the worst of the heat. Kyabaggu is the latest to grab the throne, there have been five kings since Kintu Kidda became Ppookino. As the journey progresses we learn a lot of Kidda’s family. He wanted to marry his wife even though her twin sister, slightly older, was not yet wed. He got his way but it led to some bad feeling, he was expected to marry the older sister first. His wife, Nnakato, can’t conceive. So the sister steps in to provide children, she gives them four sets of twins before Nnakato finally has a son, Baale. We know this is trouble, Kidda knows it too, it’s preoccupies him as he travels. Kidda’s adopted son, Kalema, a Tutsi shepherd boy, is with him on the journey. When Kidda chastises the boy for his misbehaviour, the unfortunate slap to the head kills Kalema. The body is hastily buried but when Kidda returns home he cannot tell his wife or the boy’s father what happened. Slowly the incident plays upon his mind and Kidda eventually breaks down. This careless act is the beginning of the family curse. The curse that haunts each story as we come forward in time.

Kintu doesn’t deal with the colonial period or the Idi Amin era directly, some have criticised this absence in the novel. I think it was a conscious decision to avoid well worn territory and the cliché that everything about modern Uganda is a result of those two factors (African novels are expected to deal with colonialism, Ugandan novels with Amin). It’s not entirely true, in any case, because the modern characters carry the legacy of the past with them (personal guilt and association). Colonialism is irrevocably bound up in the politics and culture of Uganda but Makumbi is saying Ugandans are defined by so much more (patriarchy, heritage and belief, for example).

I really like the fact that Makumbi doesn’t make concessions for an audience unfamiliar with Africa’s past, Ugandan words and phrases are never explained or anglicised, as an aside to the story. This is not difficult to follow and it maintains the narrative flow and distinct identity and flavour of the novel.

The cast of characters are as varied as they are numerous. The majority of the story is told from the perspective of the male characters but often it is the women who stand out. Makumbi tackles the themes of masculinity in Ugandan society and the misconception of women in patriarchy. Makumbi brings a modern perspective to issues of myth, cultural identity, gender, patriarchy and even mental health and wellbeing. Through the Kintu family a vast and rich history emerges that helps us to understand the modern country and its people. I can only speak as an outsider but I suspect some Ugandans will be reflecting on their identity after reading Kintu. A fascinating novel.

Paul Burke 5/5

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Oneworld Publications 9781786073778 pbk Jan 2018

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