Reading Progress:

How this great Ugandan novel shows us other ways of knowing

by Jane Link

Where most African literature must harness Western critical acclaim before being celebrated back home, Kintu marks an important first in African literary history. What makes it most remarkable, however, is how openly it demands that we permanently change our definitions of reason and rationality.

“It is not hyperbole to call Kintu the great Ugandan novel.” In fact, the name comes from the Ganda creation myth in which Kintu was the first man to walk the Earth. It may, then, surprise a few to know that Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s debut, a now-established classic of African literature, “was roundly rejected by British publishers for being ‘too African’—full of too many characters with difficult-to-pronounce names, not focused on the colonial experience.”

Makumbi has spoken at length about how she was unapologetically writing for a Ugandan audience. Not only does Kintu refuse to accommodate Western readers, but it also skips from the pre-colonial eighteenth-century right to early noughties Uganda. “Post-coloniality sells,” Makumbi reminds us. As it can no longer get away with pretending to be the hero, Europe demands to “at least be the villain” in stories about Africa’s suffering at the hands of empire, dictators, war, and disease, “stories that confirm what people already know about Africa.” If these stories are not available, it will then settle for stories about the ‘Afropolitan‘, a geographically and economically mobile globe-trotter who represents the multicultural plurality of modernity where “African young people … belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.” 

Kintu falls short on all three counts. Makumbi, and her lengthy 446-page novel which took a decade to write, eventually settled for the publishers at Kwani Trust who were wise enough to see the novel’s merits. Where most African literature must harness Western critical acclaim before being celebrated back home, Kintu marks an important first in African literary history and offers a healthier alternative for its future. After being published to great acclaim on the continent, Kintu was quickly snapped up by those same British publishers, now quick to whip out their trusty marketing solution for non-white novels with supernatural elements: magical realism. 

Where most African literature must harness Western critical acclaim before being celebrated back home, Kintu marks an important first in African literary history.

A term from Latin American literature, publishers like to misuse magical realism as a catch-all tag for stories that entertain rationally-suspect supernatural happenings. In Kintu, an ancestral curse is responsible for the suffering that plagues a family over several centuries. But whereas some may find a generational curse supernatural and call magical realism, others see nothing troublesome to notions of reality in the idea. The generational curse is, in fact, the most rational of explanations for what unfolds in Kintu, and those characters who believe otherwise pay a high price for their foolishness.

What Kintu is asserting, irrefutably, is that there are alternative ways of knowing. In fact, that is exactly where it deviates from the logic of magical realism, which is borne out of an epistemological order where what is not satisfactorily explainable in the terms of rationality is somehow apart from, or ancillary to, the real. Whereas magical realism demands we suspend our disbelief, Kintu demands that we permanently change how we define reason, rationality, and knowledge. Makumbi’s project is not magical realism: it is clearly epistemic decolonisation.

Kintu is divided into six books, the first of which is narrated from the perspective of the clan’s father, Kintu Kidda. Kintu is the political representative of his rural region and must regularly attend meetings with the kabakka of this eighteenth-century kingdom. When his one true love proves infertile, Kintu decides to foster a young boy from a Tutsi immigrant. But whilst journeying across the o Lwera to the royal city with said son, Kintu accidentally kills this frail foster son of his and then fails to oversee the proper burial of Kalema. The following four books depict how this ancestral curse plagues his descendants—Suubi, Kanani, Isaac, and Miisi—with mental illness, HIV, incest, colonial over-education, and Christian fanaticism. Titled “The Homegoing”, Kintu’s final book brings the four city dwellers back to the clan’s village seat to break the ancestral curse once and for all.

When reading Kintu“you will feel more than you know.” In an interview about the book, Makumbi ends on what is most pertinent:

There are so many ways of knowing. The West has imposed a cerebral way of knowing onto the world and will not accept other ways of knowing, things like intuition, premonition, dreams, that kind of thing has been bundled up and thrown away as old wives’ tales

Makumbi’s project is not magical realism: it is clearly epistemic decolonisation.

Kintu respects a key belief in African epistemology: those who know that they don’t know are wise. When Suubi—a foster child haunted by the spirit of her older twin, Ssanyu—is possessed by her, the event inspires awe amongst all. Even Kanani, the devout Christian father who is allegedly only there to save the village heathens, warns that “scepticism about the curse” is inadvisable. Whatever their personal convictions or professional pursuits, Kintu’s characters respect the idea of the great unknowable. It is, then, only the educated Miisi who refuses to respect that which he cannot prove. 

After completing his doctoral study at Cambridge, Miisi chooses to return to the village to take up his rightful position of clan representative being the direct line descendent of Kintu. He is teased for being a muzungu, a “listen to that, doctor of books!” who is of no use to the village. It is, paradoxically, when Miisi goes mad that he is presented at his sanest! He takes on the language of the wise elder, aptly describing his whispering and overbearing caretaker as “a man so frightened of living that he came to hide behind my back.”

The Ganda believe that nature is an epistemic force for knowledge, but when a dark cloud of bees appears on a sunny day, Miisi refuses to accept it as portentous. “To forge a link between the coincidental events of New Year’s Day and the arrival of the bees was tenuous,” he says. But the bees are mentioned several times, forcing us to account for their significance. It follows that, in Kintu, believing in the curse is a no-brainer because there is, simply, no other explanation that is reasonable. Yes, the idea that the spirit of the mistreated foster son is playing out their revenge on successive generations is entirely plausible. And once Kalema is exhumed for a proper morgue burial, the curse is removed and balance restored. 

But it must also be said that the curse often takes the form of mental health problems, a genetic illness that Miisi believes run in the clan. Kintu’s “earliest inspiration came from mental health problems in the family”: Makumbi’s father was “unwell and there were whispers that it ran in the family, though it was clearly triggered when he was brutalised by Idi Amin’s men.” When Miisi shares that five of his children were killed during the war, and another five had died of “our new thing (HIV) … how can he blame a curse,” it reminds us of the difficulty reconciling the tangible reality of unimaginable suffering with the abstractedness of the generational curse.

These tales write in an opportunity to reinstate ourselves as the masters of our own fates.

Kintu then, in tentatively whispering about the possibility of a national curse, invites us to think deeply about the state of the contemporary nation. We will always struggle to talk meaningfully about the state of the nation without talking about how colonialism has brutalised it. Makumbi has repeatedly asserted that she is not interested in writing back to colonialism. Yet Kintu‘s epigraph quotes the prolific white supremacist John Hanning Speke who writes about how “naked Africa” and “Ham” were “cursed … condemned to be slaves.” 

Kintu explicitly nods to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, in fact. In it, leader Okonkwo’s gun accidentally goes off and kills Ezeudu’s sixteen-year-old son, a crime for which the former must atone by taking his family into a seven-year exile, only to be met with the ravage of his community at the hands of the white man upon his return. Might he have stopped it, had he been there? What these tales truly have in a common is that they write in an opportunity to reinstate ourselves as the masters of our own fates, an option that restores a sense of confidence in ourselves and our beliefs.

Whatever you choose to believe, appreciate Kintu’s important reworking of what it means to know and reject the mainstream publishing industry’s attempts to minimise that feat in reducing it to magical realism. Where magical realism makes the sacred normal, Kintu recommends awe in the face of the unknown. Where the critics assume that the myth is not true and find it more “illuminating to consider why it’s false in the way that it is,” Kintu assumes no such thing and, instead, asserts our agency.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is the founder of bigblackbooks. She is also a publishing professional holding two master’s in literature from The University of Edinburgh and SOAS. Find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI is a Ugandan fiction writer. Her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013. She is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize 2018. She won the Global Commonwealth Short story prize 2014 for her short story, Let’s Tell This Story Properly. She is a Cheuse International Writing Fellow (2019) and KNAW-NAIS residency (2021). She has a PhD from Lancaster University and has been (senior) lecturer at several universities in Britain. Find her on her website.

How this great Ugandan novel shows us other ways of knowingKintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Published by Transit on 16 May 2017
Genres: Africanjujuism, Literary fiction
Pages: 446

Uganda’s history reimagined through the cursed bloodline of the Kintu clan in an award-winning debut. In 1750, Kintu Kidda unleashes a curse that will plague his family for generations. In this ambitious tale of a clan and of a nation, Makumbi weaves together the stories of Kintu’s descendants as they seek to break from the burden of their shared past and reconcile the inheritance of tradition and the modern world that is their future.

RELATED

Why I Write

Why I Write

by David Ambrose Jackson

They were all in various stages of transition, or merely emulating the illusion of womanhood to make a living, glittering eyes sizing up all the men that slowed to whisper in their ear. What happened to

MORE LIKE THIS