Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

When you read the prologue to Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s masterpiece, Kintu, you instantly recognise that you are in the hands of a master storyteller. Kintu opens with a scene of mob justice in Kampala.

Kamu has just been arrested by the local authorities: they just want to question him, they tell him. When he protests and asks why he is being tied up like a thief, “a boy — it could have been a girl — shouted, ‘Eh, eh, a thief. They’ve caught a thief!’” What follows is a scene that resembles what happens when the word “vimba” is shouted in downtown Johannesburg.

Kamu is caught and killed and Makumbi spares no details in describing his gruesome death.

The genius of Makumbi is that she also does the very difficult work of taking care of us as readers through this, and many other traumatic scenes, by skilfully balancing the violence with humour and compassion. Makumbi’s writing is clear and deliberate and she has the ability to make even the slowest parts of the novel compelling.

Kintu is divided into six books, each told from the perspective of one main character. Book One is set primarily in Buddu Province in Buganda in the 1700s and is told mainly from the perspective of Kintu Kidda, the governor of the province. Kintu travels to the capital of the kingdom to pledge allegiance to the new king, who has ascended the throne after years of rivalry and violence that saw multitudes of male relatives kill each other for power. Along the way, Kintu unintentionally unleashes a curse that has lasting effects on the lives of his descendants for generations.

The other books in the novel are told from the perspectives of four of Kintu’s descendants in the year 2004. The curse manifests itself in different ways in each of their lives. Suubi is an orphan who is raised by a cruel aunt who sees her as punishment from her family for choosing not to have children of her own.

Kanani is an elderly evangelist who goes around Kampala looking for converts with his wife. Isaac spends many years trying to get himself out of the poverty his father left him in. And Miisi is an educated elder who spends his days thinking and writing about the influences of colonialism on Ugandan society. The final book of the novel sees all these characters coming together to a family reunion where they try and break the centuries-old curse.

Makumbi uses these characters to walk us through the history of Uganda in the second half of the twentieth century: from the declining years of colonial rule in the 1950s, to the early independence years in the 1960s, to Idi Amin’s military regime in the 1970s, right up to Museveni’s more than three-decade rule in the twenty-first century. Makumbi breathes life into this history by showing it to us through the experiences of ordinary people. She uses oral traditions, myths, traditional beliefs and folktales to centralise Ugandan experiences.

Kintu finds itself in conversation with another landmark novel of African literature: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. There are numerous parallels between the two books: each does a reconstruction of pre-colonial African societies (Igboland in Achebe’s novel and the Kingdom of Buganda in Makumbi’s); there is an attempt to celebrate a cultural national identity in both novels; and both books are concerned with issues of gender identity.

In his novel, Achebe shows us how Europeans took advantage of the gendered disparities of power in many African societies. In his Igboland, men who do not perform an aggressive and violent masculinity that shows no emotion are seen as feminine. These men, along with women, are unable to tap into the privilege or power that come with the preferred performance of masculinity. It is no surprise then, that when the British missionaries and their colonial authority brought with them an alternative system of rule, the first to break rank were those people who were seen as less than in Igbo society.

Makumbi’s novel, on the other hand, explores different expressions of gender and sexuality in pre-colonial Buganda and how these performances from the past influence gender and sexual identity in the present.

Through Kintu, a man who has numerous wives across Buddu Province as a way of cementing his power across his domain, Makumbi asks serious questions about modern-day performances of gender. What do fragile masculine identities do for the emotional and psychological well-being of men? What does it mean to be a ‘real and authentic’ Ugandan man or woman (and by extension a ‘real and authentic’ African man or woman)? And in what ways do these ideas of ‘realness and authenticity’ inform the violence we inflict on others? Makumbi asks these questions in ways that make us examine the intersections between what is seen as tradition and what is perceived as foreign and modern.

Makumbi also chooses to represent transgressive masculine and feminine identities that do not fit into the binaries of gender and sexuality. We are shown homosexual practices that were accepted and normalised in Buganda society for generations. The men who have sex with other men and the women who have no interest in marriage and raising children are not demonised or punished.

On a visit to SA in August, Makumbi spoke about how she wanted to write against the homophobia in Uganda.

Our current dispensation shows us that Makumbi’s representation of gender and sexuality is an important one for all Africans. Homosexuality is illegal in 34 African countries and this is in part because many people are unaware that this homophobia is a remnant of colonial rule. Scholars like Sylvia Tamale, Marc Epprecht and Hakima Abbas have done work that proves definitively that homosexual practices were widely accepted in pre-colonial Africa for generations.

This ignorance is perhaps why we recently saw a widespread crackdown on queer people in the Dar es Salaam region in Tanzania; it is why in Tunisia, 124 people have been prosecuted for engaging in gay or lesbian sex since 2017; and it is why in SA we continue to see lesbian women and transgender people raped and killed.

Makumbi’s novel is appealing to Africans to learn valuable lessons from their pre-colonial pasts. This is something that countries like India have done and as a result, they decriminalised homosexuality in September 2018.

Makumbi’s novel has been hailed as the great Ugandan novel. The novel was first published in 2014 in East Africa as the winner of the Kwani? Manuscript Project. A British edition that was released earlier in 2018 is now more widely available in SA.

It is a work that demonstrates what happens when clear talent comes together with years of immense skill. Kintu is a triumph and will surely leave a mark on the African literature landscape that will be felt for generations to come.