By Fred Mbogo
Published December 18, 2015
We think, act, get fortunate or face calamity because some ancestor along our line behaved well or erred in some way somewhere. That small error could have taken place 300 or 400 years ago, way before the coming of the colonialists to Uganda.
This is the main idea that drives the plot of Kintu, a new novel by Uganda’s Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi that serves life to the reader through a paintbrush that applies the colour of death to its story. It revolves around Kamu Kintu, a citizen of the Kingdom of Buganda in the country known today as Uganda.
Winner of Nairobi’s Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013, Kintu, Nansubuga Makumbi’s doctoral novel project, was published by Kwani Trust in 2014. It had originally been titled The Kintu Saga by Makumbi, a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.
The prologue of the novel, which reads like a beautiful sad song, seduces you into reading the more than 400-page story through a narrative that pulls at your heartstrings. Kintu, the main character, gets life snuffed out of him by a mob in urban Uganda’s system of injustice.
Yes, Kamu Kintu is an ordinary Ugandan who wears a T-Shirt with ‘Chicago Bulls’ curved on his back and who owns a small Made-in-Taiwan Panasonic TV set in a Kampala informal settlement where he grapples with everyday issues the best way he knows how.
Why should such an ordinary character have to die so brutally? “Kamu’s woman,” as the other main character is referred to, simply disappears after his death. The attitude seems to be that life must go on. The twist given to us by the writer leads us on: those involved in the lynching of Kintu are found murdered in the same unforgiving streets. Who or what has killed them? Is it a curse, or a group or persons seeking revenge? The rest of the novel appears to be a big answer to the question, ‘Why?’
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, whose work is said to be influenced by Ganda myths, legends, folktales and sayings, succeeds in showing that everything in life is connected. What happened on a particular day in 1754 affects what happens in January 2004 in specific ways; death must come. In a once-upon-a-time fashion the novel’s storytelling yokes aspects of history that are known with suspense-filled fictionalised moments to produce interesting and complicated phenomena; like a house with many rooms where smoke, shades of light, noise, colour, music, and all manner of mysteries float about. You can get confused but there is a spine that links everything together. It is this backbone that makes Kintu almost un-put-downable novel.
The freshness with Kintu is that it takes us through four centuries of history without coercion. It teaches us the history of the Kingdom of the Baganda without making us suffer long boring lectures. That respect that the novel gives to history is rewarding to readers who are then propelled to uncover the mysterious lives of the behaviour of characters. Uganda’s “magic” is brought to us. Its pre-colonial setting in terms of governance is not glossed over as one would find in a ‘proper’ anthropological study. Instead, the nuances that make up a complex society are narrated to us. Human beings are presented as human beings with the capacity for both good and evil. Ugandans are human again. This is the power of the novel. And yet, it comes to us in an easy and enjoyable manner.
This novel is more than a celebration of life, death, madness or myth. It moves with the need to construct or invoke images or characters that are irresistible. Miisi is the one character in this novel, for example, that epitomises the complex Ganda-speaking man. Idi Amin’s reign makes Miisi stay in England where he takes up doctoral degree scholarship at University of Cambridge. After the murderous dictatorship of the militant Amin, Miisi is employed at Makerere University to teach sociology but falls out with the system which encourages the mere acquisition of certificates at the expense of serious scholarship.
From the previously hallowed or somewhat over-glorified university halls, Miisi goes back to his village from where he writes a column which he calls ‘Obufilosofi bwa Mzei Kintu’ for Bukedde, a Luganda tabloid. The tabloid’s sister English paper, called New Vision, translates the column’s name to ‘Local Worldview.’ Miisi is able to create an audience for his articles that might far outnumber the students he would have reached from his lectures at Makerere.
Yet, perhaps through such a presentation of a character like Miisi, the writer is possibly asking us to consider the idea that it is possible to achieve some semblance of self-actualisation in a small village somewhere in rural Uganda. It is a legitimate attempt, because it makes one to start wondering whether rural life is worth a try in Africa or, in fact, whether there can be any hope for a semblance of order, peace or absence of conflict or violence on the continent.
It is possible to claim that this novel is the greatest work of fiction that has come out of Uganda, and indeed East Africa, in the last two years (2014 and 2015). It has been published by Kwani? Trust of Nairobi and should make Moses Isegawa, the other Ugandan writer of note, to want to write something that should make us think again. This can only give greater value to East African writing. There must be a way, in fact, that perhaps a reading of Kintu can be made alongside one on Yvonne Owuor’s Dust; if only to compare the telling of histories.
Fred Mbogo, PhD, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.