I came across Kintu on Word By Word, Claire McAlpine’s blog, where she talks about books and life and creativity. Claire reads widely, across cultures. When she recommends a book I generally take notice. Kintu was her favourite from 2018. It is a prize winning novel written by Ugandan novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. When I finally got my hands on a copy I have to admit I was daunted. The book is thick, the print small; both factors which had me reconsidering my decision to limit my kindle purchases this year. Both factors which, by the end of the first page, were irrelevant.
Kintu is a family saga spanning 350 years, set in and around what is now Kampala. The structure is interesting. The story opens with a prologue describing the murder of a descendant of Kintu, a chief of the Buganda people. The remainder of the novel is told in the form of six books.
Book One sets up the story with the account of Kintu Kidda’s journey in the mid 1700s across an inhospitable desert, o Lwera, to demonstrate his allegiance to the latest king. On the way he kills his adopted son. It wasn’t intentional, at least I don’t think it was, and Kintu doesn’t think of it as such. It was violent. Kintu fails to give Kalema a proper burial and he attempts to keep the death secret. Kalema’s natural father a munnarawanda discovers the tragedy and curses Kintu. The legacy is immediate and enduring. Kintu’s favourite wife’s only natural born son dies, the grief is too much for her to bear and she kills herself. Kintu descends in to madness. And this pattern of unwitting mistakes with dire consequences of thwarted love, of lives cut short, of mental ill-health is repeated through time.
The four subsequent books, each tell the story of a modern day descendent, each affected by the curse, or not, depending on whether you see the charactersitics and the events that play out in their lives as pre-ordained, or simply their lived lives. That is over to you, and to the characters. Each understands the matter of the curse differently. Some don’t know about it, some attempt to ignore it, others try to absolve themselves from it.
The copy of Kintu I read included an introduction by Aaron Bady. I skipped it, to read the first page only to be hooked from the first sentence:
There was a knock.
To me those four words reverberated with doom and I just had to know what happened; the urge to keep reading was much too strong to stop for an introduction. And that was a shame. The introduction is excellent especially if, like me, you happen to be unfamiliar with Uganda. My knowledge was limited to being able to find Uganda on a map, and the accounts of the terrors of the dictatorshop of Idi Amin as presented on the news of the day.
As with The Baghdad Clock, I loved the way this book quietly presented alternative ways of looking at things. Makumbi, through her characters, makes it clear those years of the Amin regime, and colonisation for that matter, don’t define Uganda or Ugandan people. Just as there is no one shared and universal truth about the Kintu family, she shows us there is no one Ugandan view of history. It all depends on your point of view, your lived experience.
The Amin years do get attention. But they are not what the book is about. Rather it is an account of family members making their way through life, treading the same ground their ancestors trod, looking forward, as well as back, dealing with what life thows at them as best they can.
The final book, The Homecoming, weaves the previous strands, not exactly into a cohesive whole, but in to a story which reflects the chaos of what it is to be part of a large family. Not everyone agrees, not everyone gets along; some mysteries are resolved, others aren’t, perhaps the curse is dealt to at last …
Throughout this novel I had to work hard to make sense of the character names, and the setting. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi doesn’t make concessions for the non-Ugandan reader. There is no glossary of terms, no map. There is no explaining. And why should there be, Mukumbi is a Ugandan writer telling a Ugandan story. There is, however, a telling of the family’s lived history, from multiple points of view. That’s the kind of history that matters to me. It all makes Kintu a demanding and ultimately enriching read.
Here’s a sample of the evocative description and action characteristic of Kintu, read by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi:
Note: Aaron Bady’s introduction includes a sobering account of the state of the publishing industry. This book, despite Makumbi having won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, was turned down again and again mostly, it seems, because it was “too African”. Fortunately, Transit Books saw Kintu for the great work of literature it is. I’m grateful for that.
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (2017) Transit Books
Winner of the Kwani? Manuscript Project
Longlisted for the Etisalat Prize for African Fiction
Categories: On Books