It is dusk. Miisi is sitting on a three-legged stool near the angel's trumpet shrub with his back against the hedge. He double-storey house is a ruin. The roof and parts of the walls on the top floor are in disrepair. A man stands above him. Miisi feels imposed upon because he cannot see past the man. The man is covered in bees. He has a single hair on his head as thick as a big rope.
"Get up and come with me," the man says.
Miisi knows he should ask: who are you? Come with you where? But instead he whines, "You know my hip is bad" as if he and the man have known each other for a long time."
Miisi and the man are standing on a hillside. They are surrounded by trees. The place is familiar even though Miisi is sure he has never been there. The bee man touches a tree and looks it up and down. "This tree will be at the centre," he says as he walks around it still looking it up and down. "It will make the central pole." Miisi is puzzled but the man adds, "Find a tall man, ask him to take ten strides,' the bee man takes a stride. "in every direction around this tree and build a dwelling."
Now they are standing at on the other end of the hill Miisi and the bee man have been taken together on the hillside for years now.
'This is Nnakato," the bee man points to the ground. "You must retrieve her and lay her properly." He looks at Miisi. Even his eyes are bees ...
It is dusk. Miisi is sitting on a three-legged stool near the angel’s trumpet shrub with his back against the hedge. He double-storey house is a ruin. The roof and parts of the walls on the top floor are in disrepair. A man stands above him. Miisi feels imposed upon because he cannot see past the man. The man is covered in bees. He has a single hair on his head as thick as a big rope.
“Get up and come with me,” the man says.
Miisi knows he should ask: who are you? Come with you where? But instead he whines, “You know my hip is bad” as if he and the man have known each other for a long time.”
Miisi and the man are standing on a hillside. They are surrounded by trees. The place is familiar even though Miisi is sure he has never been there. The bee man touches a tree and looks it up and down. “This tree will be at the centre,” he says as he walks around it still looking it up and down. “It will make the central pole.” Miisi is puzzled but the man adds, “Find a tall man, ask him to take ten strides,’ the bee man takes a stride. “in every direction around this tree and build a dwelling.”
Now they are standing at on the other end of the hill Miisi and the bee man have been taken together on the hillside for years now.
‘This is Nnakato,” the bee man points to the ground. “You must retrieve her and lay her properly.” He looks at Miisi. Even his eyes are bees…
—From Kintu, Book V, Misirayima (Miisi) Kintu
Kintu is a huge book. Huge as in big—big time span, many characters. Its first hundred pages recreate the politics, family structures, conversations, and beliefs of the Buganda kingdom in the 1750s. It is one of the surprisingly rare attempts in fiction to imagine an African culture undamaged by invasion. It tells the story of how a curse is directed at all the descendants of Kintu Kidda.
Kintu then leapfrogs over the colonial era, to show how the curse has affected four modern Ugandan families. It saves up Idi Amin until you have read many other things you don’t know about Uganda, but then really gives you the devastation of his downfall and the war in two major stories. It saves up any discussion of neo-colonialism until it is sure you’ve absorbed a lot of less familiar information. It bounces back and forth in time from the 1970s to the 2000s, showing you the same cities and towns in different eras. Four branches of the Kintu clan are each given a book around a major character. Scores of secondary characters also have key roles in the plot, detailed in roughly 450 pages of succinct, powerful writing.
The hinge between the historical novel and the contemporary one is a grandmother relating the legend of the Kintu Kidda curse—and that version differs from the historical reality. We hear different versions of the story and are shown the flexibility and practicality of oral literature. In one tradition, Kintu has disappeared completely and only his wife Nnakato is revered. Tradition survives alongside modernity, but continually overwritten (or rather over-spoken?), useful, alive.
Kintu is huge in impact. Richard Oduor Oduku, who we met in Part One, said this about Kintu, unprompted during his own interview:
“That book is so big here. It presents a world that has its own integrity and social relations. There is no recourse to external explanation for the curse or for undoing it.
“Sometimes we—you—get surprised by how much you don’t know about who you are. For me Jennifer’s book is a link to an on-going world that has not been intruded upon and does not have to pay homage to a disruptive force. Something we have longed for a long time.”
There is not a white character in the book. The colonial era is not described (one of the oldest characters, an obsessive Christian, remembers colonialism with fondness; another character’s grandparents are mentioned as living through it). For the most part, except towards the end, Western education and the diaspora are irrelevant.
Its author is well aware that the book, in its own world, has gone mega.
“Jacob Ross, one of its first readers, said that Kintu is the kind of novel that would become a national book. There was a genuine excitement about it in Uganda that I’d never seen before, a buzz about it. People had been saying that Uganda was a literary desert. There were so many misrepresentations that Ugandans didn’t read. Instead it kept selling out editions in East Africa. I got a letter from the prime minister of the Kingdom of Buganda (a cultural entity inside the political one of Uganda). It tells a Ugandan story in an Ugandan way.”
Until very recently the usual way for an African author to succeed was to win an award, or to publish in the West and be validated there. The success of Kintu came with African publication. In October 2016, Kintu finally found a publisher in the USA (Transit Books), where the book will be released in May 2017. No UK publisher has as yet been found—for a book that is already regarded as a masterpiece. Most UK publishers said something like “It’s too African.”
Too African? The highest possible praise.
Kintu was submitted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize and won first place, meaning that Kwani published it in Kenya for distribution in East Africa by the Kwani Trust. Since then it’s been accepted for publication in West Africa by Farafina Press. Within Africa, on African terms, it became a bestseller.
The same year as first publication (2014), Jennifer won first the African region, then the overall Commonwealth Fiction Prize for “Let’s Tell This Story Properly.” Kintu went on to be long listed for the Etisalat Prize in Nigeria. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi became a name to be reckoned with.
Book One: Kintu Kidda establishes the importance of twins in the Ganda culture. Kintu marries two twins, one for love, one for reproduction—his beloved wife, Nnakato, seems infertile. The second wife’s children are treated as if they belonged to the first.
Book Two: Suubi Nnakintu is set in 2004 tells the story of Suubi and Ssanyu, two twins. They therefore have the same actual names—Babirye and Nnakato—as Kintu Kidda’s wives. But the name Nnakato would give that away, so Suubi gives herself the name Nnakintu. It’s a lie. Any Ugandan would know someone called Nnakato is a twin. That’s something that Suubi wants to overwrite. This is only one of many subtleties of plot and culture that this Western reader did not get.
Her twin Ssanyu Babirye died as a child and haunts Suubi, enraged at being denied.
The first (attack) happened eight years ago on the morning after Suubi’s graduation. She had lain half-awake in bed when a sensation of being “locked” —she could not open her eyes or move or scream—came over her. Yet she could see a young woman standing above her bed looking down on her. The woman looked exactly like Suubi only she was so emaciated that it was surprising she could stand at all. Her skin was dry, taut and scratched. Her hair was in thick tufts. She even wore Suubi’s floral blue dress with an elasticated waist-band, yet Suubi had discarded that dress ten years earlier.
‘Who are you?’ Suubi had tried to ask.
‘Who am I, who am I ?’ The woman was very angry. ‘I am Ssanyu, Ssanyu Babirye, you chameleon! Stop telling lies.’
Says Jennifer: “The story of Suubi and Ssanyu is of the duality in the novel. The duality that is Uganda. We are both Europeanized and Ugandan. We speak both traditional language(s) and English. Someone goes to church, but then will go to the traditional healer. Someone is a scientist but will have an intense spiritual life. We have this saying in Uganda: God help me, but I’m going to run as well. We think two ways at once.”
This duality of holding traditional and modern together is fundamental to Makumbi’s own life story. In the critical element of her PhD, which also consisted of a draft of Kintu, Makumbi talked about her own biography.
One of my earliest memories is of story time in the evening in a village with my grandfather. Another is in the city foraging through my father’s bookshelves of adult books looking for something readable. The most vivid memory however is of my grandfather, who was traditional, and my father, who was thoroughly colonised, arguing about where I should live. My father insisted that I should be brought up in the city where I would get a ‘proper’ education while my grandfather argued that I should remain in the village to get grounding in tradition first, that schools there were just fine. A compromise was reached when I was four years old: I would study in the city with my father and spend term breaks with my grandfather. From then, the conflict between my father and grandfather took on the multiple facets of urban vs. rural, modern vs. traditional, Western vs. African, written vs. oral. Little did I know that this nomadic existence would be replicated at an international level: shuttling between Uganda and Britain as an adult.
In the village, the Luganda language was protected from outside influences. In the city, Jennifer was forbidden to speak Luganda, which was called “vernacular.” BBC English was the standard, and her father force-fed her Western literature. Her first experience of storytelling was in the village, retelling Goldilocks or Cinderella as new tales in Luganda. This novel Kintu could be seen as reversing that process—retelling traditional material for modern audiences.
The same PhD thesis describes Kintu as being a hybrid of forms—the Ganda myth Kintu ne Nnambi hybridized with the Christian myth of Ham.
Kintu is divided into books to mirror the form of the Bible, especially the four gospels, and the story is crossed with the Biblical story of the curse of Ham—the most poisonous of all Biblical stories for Africans. Ham was reinvented as the cursed progenitor of all black people, assigned by God to slavery. The story of Ham is laced through the book. However this intrusion only appears in parts set in modern Uganda. Kintu of the 1700s has his origins in the first man on earth according to the Ganda, Kintu. It is important to note that you also see Christianity evolve from the stiff English version followed by the characters Kanani and Faisi to an Africanised version in 2004, where forms of traditional African worship are firmly entrenched in the Christian worship.
Really? Biblical? I didn’t get that at first reading at all. My first impression was of being lowered into the Ganda culture as it exists independent of Western intrusion.
OK, like Ham, there is a curse—a Tutsi man’s son is adopted by Kintu who slaps the boy once in reprimand—and the young man dies. His biological father Ntwire lays the curse—and all the subsequent history of the clan can be read as a struggle between Kintu’s protective spirit and Ntwire, who is determined to blight their lives.
How does that echo the story of Ham? Ham was cursed by his own father, Noah, for mocking his drunken nakedness. No adoption, no accidental homicide, no curse of one family by another. The sanest interpretation of the Biblical story is that Ham was made a servant of his brothers for his lifetime only. But colonialisation drove itself and its religion crazy. Apologists for slavery made the curse inherited, so that Ham’s children were slaves, and as a mark of the curse, their skins were darkened.
Makumbi’s thesis says:
Kintu Kidda is a trident character, a kind of an unholy trinity figure. A fusion of three characters, he is a nameless and timeless ancestor of the author whispered about in family circles who brought the curse of mental health problems in the family. He is Biblical Ham, son of Noah, from whom Africans supposedly descend. But most of all, he is Kintu the first man on earth in the Ganda creationist myth, Kintu ne Nambi.
The first surprise is how personal and close the story is to the author herself—essentially the family is Makumbi’s own. She herself is a daughter of Kintu.
The second unexpected element is how this actual family story is another kind of hybrid—of tradition and science, or at least a psychiatry-based diagnosis.
But how does it resemble the Biblical myth of Ham? Again, from the thesis:
Biblical Ham brings to Kintu’s character in the novel the idea of the potency of a person’s curse to another and the disproportionate severity of the retribution in relation to the offence committed. Biblical Ham also cements the notion of perpetuity through inheritance.
In other words, Noah’s curse was unfair. Though Ntwire’s only son was taken from him, the ruin of so many lives over hundreds of years is disproportionate.
Is there a recognition of God’s unfairness, implicit in each book’s tale of suffering? One of the key characters is called Yobu/Job. There is something of Job in each of the books of Kintu, including an undertow, like the Biblical book, regarding the inexplicable unfairness of God.
Each of the books focus on one terrible life after another—Suubi, starved by an aunt, and nearly kidnapped to be sold as a human sacrifice only to be haunted by the ghost of her dead twin. Kanani, made one-dimensional by a dour colonial form of Christianity and the betrayal of his children, who bear a child between them. Isaac Newton, unable to walk or speak until six because of child abuse, living through the post-Idi Amin war, and who is convinced his beloved only child is infected with HIV. Miisi, who not only loses his sanity but eleven of his twelve children to war, violence, and AIDS.
Humanity is made to suffer. Kintu is also the name of the first human in Ganda mythology. “Kintu” is a variant of the term “obuntu” or “Ubuntu” which means humanity and leads to the term Bantu which means humans in Luganda.
So the third prong of Kintu Kiddu’s origins, being the first human in traditional Ganda belief, universalizes these books of suffering to include us all, European and African, American and Asian. In this sense, we are all of us children of Kintu, cursed to suffer disproportionately for history laid down centuries ago. I find this reading touching; since, I suppose, it includes me.
It’s not just Job or his twin sister Ruth who have Biblical names. You might need to speak Luganda to see that many of the characters have names from the story of Ham. Most significantly, the first son of Kintu named in the opening, and who is unfairly lynched for theft is called Kamu—Ham. Other characters are named for the sons of Ham—Puti (Phut, Ham’s son), Misirayimu, the long form of Miisi is a form of Mezraim, Ham’s son and Kanani is the Luganda form of Canaan, also Ham’s son. The name of the major character, Isaac Newton, manages to reference not only the Bible, but also the intrusion of European history and science.
This use of hybridized Christian/traditional names is not unique in works of what can be called African traditional belief realism. In her PhD dissertation, Makumbi points out that in The Famished Road, the figure of the abiku child, a birth from the spirit world is called Azaro, a form of Lazarus. Her thesis also examines Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s transposition of the Jesus story to Africa, The River Between.
Though I noticed some sacrificial lambs in the ending, Makumbi’s dissertation points out other resemblances to Christianity at the end—there is a father, a mother goddess, and a son.
However, Kintu has as its epigraph an 1863 quote from John Hannington Speke, the first European explorer to encounter the Ganda. In the quote, Speke sees Africa with its sons of Ham condemned to slavery as “a striking existing proof of the Holy Scriptures.” And of course that meant their position as servants was ordained by God.
The real curse of Ham is colonization. The stories of Kintu also embody the deformities of culture and character inflicted by the curse of colonialization.
“In school as a child I was taught that we Africans are Hamites. I hope this version of ‘history’ is no longer taught in Uganda. This idea that I am a descendant of Ham was deeply engrained in me until somewhere in secondary school we were taught that we are Bantu—which means human, really.”
The last two Books of Kintu confront Europe through the character of Miisi. Miisi is a more familiar figure from African fiction than most of the characters. Miisi is the Western educated man who returns. Miisi, in fact, was educated in both the Soviet Union and Oxford, so he combines many strands of Western thinking—imperialism but also a strand of European resistance to it.
As a controversial writer, Miisi pens an African fantasy that retells Frankenstein in Africa (much as the child Jennifer Nansubuga retold the story of Cinderella). It reads like a new myth called Africanstein. Makumbi, alert to issues of language, tells us Miisi writes it first in English and then translates it into Luganda.
Buganda unlike the rest of Africa was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under the chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house.
Africastein is unlike any other passage in the Books of Kintu. Stories get retold but only orally. This one is a highly symbolic, single-author fixed piece of written mythology. It stands out, though quite short. It strikes the most piercing note of anti-colonialism in the novel.
Before this interview at a reading event with writer Abubakar Ibrahim, I’d talked to Jennifer, convinced that we are to read the curse and the magic in the novel as real. For example, Ssanyu, the vision of the dead twin who haunts Suubi, possesses her and predicts that the angry Aunt Kalata will die before her … and it comes true.
It would be difficult to read the events at the end of the novel (which I won’t spoil) and not begin to feel that traditional beliefs are being validated; that both the curse and the magic that undoes it are real.
I was surprised that Jennifer was quite clear that we are free to read the novel either way: that the curse is an inherited strain of schizophrenia and/or a powerful curse laid in 1750.
“That duality is very African. You will see a lot of literature like that, mental health is read in that way, representing the rational, Western way of thinking but held in a balance with African cultures. Both do work at the same time.”
Miisi, the rationalist author of Africanstein, becomes a very reluctant spiritual leader. Yet it is to him that the visions of Kintu Kidda come—as a man made of bees. The bees arrive when his son Kamu is murdered. Miisi doesn’t know this and doesn’t learn that his last surviving son is dead for some time. The bees arrive as if they are Kamu’s spirit. Then the great spirit, Kintu Kidda himself, arrives in a vision.
Protesting all the while that these visions are the product of his own trauma and mental health issues, Miisi nevertheless is the central figure of the family reunion to banish the curse. He is the prophet who tells them how to lift the curse, while all the while telling them that it cannot be true.
Miisi is the most sceptical character in the book and the one who perhaps suffers the most, and the character who paradoxically may also have the greatest spiritual power. The Christian Kanani sees Miisi as the embodiment of Lucifer. The elders see him almost as a kind of Messiah.
Jennifer, in the interview: “In the novel this is the thing that destroys Miisi who runs mad. The family sees him as failing to have a balance between these two worldviews and that failure destroys him. If you take one view that the family curse is inherited schizophrenia, then he goes schizophrenic, and of course he had depression before and his son’s death tips the balance.”
It is not a spoiler to reveal that his son Kamu is killed—that murder happens in the first chapter. But Kamu’s corpse and its fate (the body lies unclaimed) introduce each of the Books of Kintu. I didn’t get at first reading what role Kamu’s death was playing.
Jennifer in the interview: “Kamu’s death is the trigger. It is the thing that makes the spirit of Kintu decide that he has to intervene and finally end the curse from Ntwire. It is the thing that brings the family reunion together.”
But, my Western mind whispers, only in the plot where magic is real. Miisi doesn’t know Kamu is dead, nobody does, until after the reunion and ritual. In the secular plot, it has no role to play, and that feels untidy to me.
For me, an SFF reader and writer, I just can’t stop the magic being real and thus reading Kintu as a fantasy. And I think Jennifer would say that is a choice she wants me to have.
This is a clan saga, not a family saga.
In a Western family saga, a reader scans for cousins meeting cousins. A Westerner could waste a lot of energy waiting for characters from one Book of Kintu to meet their relations in another. The characters do not come together until Book VI, a gathering of the huge clan to enact rituals to end the curse. The masterful ending then shows all the characters we have met intertwine their fates and finding their outcomes—but the threads do not gather until then. Ugandans would know that there was very little chance of such a huge clan meeting accidentally.
Throughout the novel there are subtleties that simply passed me by. One of the novel’s wonderful stories is that of Isaac Newton Kintu. He is born of a rape carried out by a Kintu schoolteacher of a girl from another clan. Isaac Newton is left in the care of a grandmother and an abusing aunt called Tendo. As a result he doesn’t speak or walk until he is six years old.
Isaac Newton has the happiest of all the personal outcomes in the novel, growing up sane and healthy, so competent that he is given the task of building the encampment, the central structure for the ending of the curse. He is the character who benefits most from the coming together of the clan, but not for reasons I could not be expected to understand.
In Ganda terms, Isaac can only be part of his father’s family, never his mother’s—being raised by his mother’s family means he has no family at all. His joy at the family reunion is best understood in those terms:
Isaac’s body still shook from the intense emotion of the rituals. He sat on the ground to try and gather himself together. He looked around the campsite and thought, “This is real”. To be within touching distance of almost three centuries’ history, to be surrounded by hundreds of relatives whose presence testified to that history. Finally, his own presence on earth was accounted for and his painful life justified. When Isaac looked back at his life—at his friend who stayed with him when he was young, at Ziraba his grandmother and at Sasa—it was not misfortune he saw, it was intervention. Most of all the twins, Babirye and Nnakato had paid him a visit, though they did not stay. There was no doubt that Kintu had tirelessly intervened in his life. Isaac could not contain his trembling.
Significantly, Isaac’s own book is titled “Isaac Newton Kintu” —the last family name being something he claims in the course of the novel.
In Book III we are presented with a family of Christian fundamentalists, Kanani and his wife Faisi. They belong to a dour Church of England cult called the Awakened. Their book traces the development of more African-friendly evangelical forms of worship—something that alarms them. Kanani and his wife are parents of twins, one male, one female. In Ganda culture, twins are believed to have the same soul. The parents dress the boy Job as a girl and the identities of the twins merge for a time.
Somewhere in their intimacy, the twins conceive and give birth to a child. As a young boy, his grandfather tells Paulo that he is the son of Tutsi who made his mother Ruth pregnant. This will have great magical and plot significance later, especially as he takes the name Kalema, the name of the boy Kintu Kidda kills. Paulo Kalema sees his biological parents Job and Ruth outside the church.
…someone recognized him and called, “Ruth, your brother’s here.”
Both Ruth and Job turned. Job said, “Paulo’s not our brother, he’s our son; how many times shall we tell you?”
I knew no other way of reading this than that Job and Ruth are open about being Paulo’s biological parents. They aren’t.
Jennifer: “The tradition is that if you are a twin, you are one person so Job would be considered to be a parent alongside Ruth. The twins could speak this way and it would be very difficult for people to see the real story. The way children belong in Uganda is different. My brother’s children are my children. My son is my brother’s son. He asks me, how is our child?”
When young Ruth falls pregnant in 1972, she is sent to a secular aunt Magda who lives in the rural township of Nakaseke. One of the notable features of the novel is its use of geography to show social change:
Nakaseke was rural and traditional in ways Ruth had never known. They alighted at Nakaseke Hospital and took a narrow path up a steep hill. The path was stoney but covered in dense vegetation. The world here was quiet save for twittering birds, the odd guinea fowl scratching frenziedly or slithering lizards . As they came down the slope, they would stumble on a house here and there. The houses, sometimes as much as a kilometre apart, built with mud and roofed with corrugated iron looked squat to Ruth….The windows were small; Ruth was worried that it was dark inside the houses. Goats were tethered under trees near the dwellings. Children, especially boys in shorts who fabric had worn away at the buttocks, played in the yards.. Once in a while they came across a man wheeling a bicycle, women speaking low tones or a child rushing along the path. Villagers smiled and stepped aside for Kanani and Ruth to pass saying “See you there,” or “Greetings”. Nakaseke looked and felt like a heathen world.
It is a heathen world. Magda is a radical traditionalist—despite her name being Magdalene. In 1972, Magda runs a successful cotton farm, living in a house that looks vast to Ruth. The house—full of relatives and activity, children running to carry bags reminds one on second reading of Miisi’s house in Book V, also rural, also enlivened by an ideology. Kanani calls her cousin—not sister—to distance himself from her. Magda finds his Christianity ridiculous; he cannot bear to stay in her house. He is shocked when she offers the simple solution of an abortion for Ruth. More about the role of strong women later in this article…
Magda shows up again in 2004, now an old woman, now called Bweeza. She has come to invite Kanani to the family reunion and is delighted to see Paulo for the first since he was born. He has a car and drives her back. Nakaseke once seemingly so distant is now a short drive away.
The new shops had an ostentatious air about them as if saying to Nakaseke, modernity has arrived can’t you see? Here hardware merchandise including cement, nails, paint and bolts were sold beside skin lotion, toilet soap, combs and make up, bleaching creams and other skincare products. One shop sold plasticware in all sorts of bright colours but on the shelves, lanterns and wax candles sat next to exercise books, biscuits, scones, and kitenge garments. Even Michelle’s Beauty Salon—which had proper sinks, wall mirrors, padded chairs and modern driers—was empty. Paulo smiled at the war between the new and the old. He wondered how long Nakaseke’s loyalty would hold out against the lure of modernity….
Magda’s huge house was old. It might have been affluent in the 50s and 60s but with age and disrepair, it looked decrepit… an old Bedford lorry with a skinny steering wheel in a black rounded cabin sat on its hinges next to a tank.
Makumbi is excellent on the meaning of landscape, how culture shapes how it is made and perceived. She is particularly good on the hilltop, flood-plain city of Kampala and its suburbs, whose topography mirrors social divides.
In 2010 I first heard Jennifer read aloud. It was the first chapter describing the lynching of Kamu, and I was knocked out. An Ugandan student in the audience said to me, “It’s very hard to hear if your family lives on the hill.” That student was correctly decoding Kamu’s social status, and knew that he would be living in the valleys.
Most of the books focus on a different suburb or part of Kampala. So each focuses on a different ethnic mix or class as well.
“I cover parts of Buganda, mostly set in Buganda and the suburbs of Kampala. For example, Mwengo, which was the capital of Buganda Kingdom. Kampala can no longer be claimed by the Ganda. It is now everybody’s city.
“So it’s a national story but the family is Ganda. The Ganda played a huge role in the history of Uganda. They invited the Christians and then flirted with colonial Britain hoping to use it to overrun other regions. But when they did, the British took it away from them saying it was still the Buganda Kingdom. The British could not say Buganda, because of the silent B, they heard Uganda, that is how the country became Uganda. So much of the history rotates around them because of their central position in the geography.”
Jennifer studied at the Islamic University and then started teaching in Uganda in 1993. She left Uganda in 2001.
“I was not writing then. I started with poetry, just to write a diary, really. I was not one of those people who knew I would be a writer. I really first wrote in 1998, and when I came here in 2001. I rewrote it as my first novel, which was rejected and I put it away.
“I’ve been here now almost fifteen years. I came originally to study. After I finished my Masters I stayed to find a publisher and agent. I’d come here to be a writer and I wasn’t going to leave until I’d published. In order to stay I had to study to renew visa, so I did a PhD in English for three years.
“It was an academic not creative PhD, looking at how African literature is read in Africa and how it is read in the West. I had been teaching literature in Africa and noticed a huge difference in the way people read a novel like Things Fall Apart here and in Africa. The West concentrates on the colonial aspect, while we concentrate on the idea of fear in the novel—how fear raised the character Okonkwo to heights and then brought him down. Westerners read Things Fall Apart still looking for themselves.
“I disagreed with my supervisor. When I raised the idea that readers in the West read African novels differently to readers on the continent she said that it couldn’t be possible because Africa was colonized by Europe and so the ways of reading were imported. Europeans in Africa and Africans in Europe can’t read a different way.
“There was a fear that if I said Westerners read differently, it meant that they read wrong. And that meant fear that maybe they can’t teach it. What they said in the end was that because there was no published research about this, my lived experiences of teaching could not be accepted. They wanted them to have been documented with references, to quote a range of authorities who would not, could not be teaching African literature in Africa. There I was thinking that I could pioneer this idea of a difference in reception of and responses to the African novel.
“I visited African profs around Boston, mainly in Harvard. They said they understood my plight but since the nature of a PhD is a Western construct and I was doing it at a Western university, there was nothing they could do. They told me to go back to the UK. ‘Do what they are asking you to do or you won’t get a degree. Then come back here with your original material and do a post doc with us.’ Basically they were telling me it is the Westerners’ university, their idea of what a PhD is like, the PhD is for them, a PhD is not an African concept. The only person who would supervise a PhD like that was Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o because he too rebelled when he was told to do what he did not want to do. Unfortunately, as I was told, because Ngũgĩ did not get a PhD he could not supervise a PhD. This happened in 2008. I was not about to write a thesis which parroted Western views of African audiences and which would not relate to my lived experience. The idea that lived experience is unacceptable in academia is laughable. Mocks the idea of new knowledge. Makes everything rather derivative!”
Jennifer did not get that PhD at that university. She did later, in Creative Writing from the University of Lancaster.
My Leverhulme grant is to look at the origins of African SFF, so I ask questions about early reading and influences.
“Science fiction is not a genre I was introduced to as a child. For some reason the only comics I saw were Tintin. My literary introduction was fiction for children—Enid Blyton, The Secret Seven, Famous Five, Five Find-outers, then Nancy Drew mysteries and The Hardy Boys. It was as if there was a twenty-year cultural delay.
“I did love The Spear; he was a character in a comic in a magazine called Drum published in South Africa and then Kenya. Lance the Spear is actually included in the next novel because my main character is growing up in the 1970s.
“I had romances too, lots of Mills & Boon, Harlequin, Denise Roberts. Harold Robbins’s The Carpetbaggers, Jackie Collins. These were the books we shared with each other because the libraries were destroyed. Basically if you had one novel, let’s say a Robert Ludlum or Mario Puzo, you would trade it endlessly, until it was in tatters. My trick was to lie about how long it would take me. I would easily read four hundred pages in two days but I would say, I will bring it back in a week. In the three days I would trade it for another book before taking it back. When it came to Mills & Boon I would read [a novel] in four hours. I would nick it from under the pillow, where girls left them in the dormitory, read it and put it back before the girls noticed. At boarding school girls lost their novels, and people would say, go check that girl Nansubuga. But there were other book thieves in the school.
“My dad was a banker who worked for Standard Chartered in Uganda. He started me with Ladybird (a UK children’s publisher), all the fairy tales. Then put me on a steady diet of the abridged books…Dickens and Jane Austen, Mark Twain. He was set on putting me on a literary journey. He knew what he was doing, and it wasn’t African. My dad was terribly colonized in the old way of thinking. He couldn’t talk enough about Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, and he swore by Shakespeare.
“I only discovered African literature on his shelf by mistake because otherwise I would run out of reading material. I chose the thinnest books—Things Fall Apart, The River Between, and also Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams about working in the South African mines. That was my first exposure to South Africa, and oh my God, it was very hard to recover from.
“At O level I was set a lot of Ugandan and African literature, plays mainly, Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel or The Burden by John Ruganda. At A levels we did The Concubine, by Elechi Amadi from Nigeria. It can be read as speculative fiction. It’s about a beautiful woman whom men can’t resist but men who marry her are killed. You don’t find out until the end that she’s like a mermaid, from the sea.”
One of the criticisms of Kintu from Africa is that women replace the men. Most of the men die. Miisi runs mad. His surviving child is Kusi, a female general of great renown. In the last book, Kusi’s orders her troops to take on a particularly nasty task. In the final chapters, Magda using the name Bweeza becomes crucial to the clan organization. Above all else, the way that the memory of Nnakato is revered in Kintu Kiddu’s own region while he himself has been forgotten. Yet, mothers, apart from the matriarch Nakato, don’t count and don’t even appear in the family tree, but so many of the major characters are women—Suubi, Kalata, Ssenga Kizza, Ruth, Isaac’s mother and grandmother, Kanani’s wife Faisi.
Jennifer: “There was a lot of disquiet in East Africa that this was a feminist story with the men removed. They die away and get forgotten. I never thought it was a feminist story. In fact I’ve described it as masculinist because I’d told the story through male points of view. I keep saying, wait till I publish a feminist story then you would see how not feminist Kintu is. But it seems I am the only one convinced of that.”
Jennifer has just finished her second novel, The First Woman Was Fish, now with agents.
“It’s about a child, Kirabo, raised by her grandparents—her mother has disappeared. Kirabo keeps asking about her mother but gets no satisfactory answer. Finally she visits a witch, Nsuuta, to get help finding her mom. But Nsuuta is not a witch—she is called one by Kirabo’s grandmother for having a relationship with her grandfather. But Nsuuta loves the child and starts to tell her folktales.” Jennifer read sections of the novel at Eastercon in Manchester earlier this year which sound wonderfully fantastical.
Weeks after this interview we were sitting drinking tea at KroBar and were discussing again the role of the diasporan African. I repeated what some young Kenyans were saying—that diasporans lose touch with Africa.
“I worry about that too. I visit Uganda often and I am always writing for Ugandans, addressing myself to them. That changes what I write and how I say it. Thinking about how they will read it. That’s what I think will keep my books current.
“The idea that you can’t write your home away from home goes against the whole idea of imagination and creativity. I wrote about 1700s Buganda Kingdom. I believe that distance has fine-tuned my perception of Uganda. When I look at the version of my novel I brought with me and the final copy, it is clear to me that in Uganda I was too close to the action. I took things for granted. But looking back, through distance, my idea of Uganda is so focused. Besides, there are so many different Ugandas it is incredible. I have discussed ‘home’ with other Ugandans who left at the same time as I did and they have said, ‘but I don’t know that; I have never seen that in Uganda.’ That is because we all occupy different spaces within Uganda.”
The success of Kintu without having been a success first in the West is one more sign that the publishing industry in Africa for Africans is developing. As Makumbi said, as we ended this exchange, “Africa is the future.”