How Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s great Ugandan novel shows us other ways of knowing

In Kintu, an ancestral curse is responsible for the suffering that plagues a family over several centuries. It may surprise a few to know that Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s debut, a now-established classic of African literature, was rejected by British publishers for being ‘too African’. Makumbi, and her lengthy 446-page novel which took a decade to write, eventually settled for the publishers at Kwani Trust. 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, rationality, and knowledge.

“It is not hyperbole to call Kintu the great Ugandan novel.” The name Kintu 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 and generally inaccessible to Western readers.”

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 tells us. As it can no longer get away with pretending to be the hero, Europe demands to “at least be the villain” in a story 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 comes 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 shout 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. 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 and momentarily believe in the supernatural, 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 key Ganda ancestor and eighteenth-century clan father, Kintu Kidda. Kintu is the political representative of his region and must make regular journeys across the o Lwera desert to pay his respects and attend meetings with the kabakka of the Buganda kingdom. Back home, tradition dictates that he must marry the unamicable elder twin of his one true love, Nnkato, and he commits the mistake of dishonouring the elder by marrying the Nnakato first. When the elder twin, Babiriye, proves to be a fertile wife while Nnkato fails to produce children for years, Kintu decides to foster a young boy who is son to a Tutsi immigrant and therefore naturalise him within the Ganda people.

Whilst journeying across the o Lwera to the royal city with said son, Kintu slaps, accidentally kills, and fails to oversee the proper burial of his foster son, Kalema. Narrated from the perspectives of four clan descendants, the following four books depict how the ancestral curse plagues Suubi, Kanani, Isaac, and Miisi. These family members and their children suffer mental illness, HIV, incest, colonial over-education, Christian fanaticism, and more. Titled “The Homegoing”, Kintu’s final book brings the four city dwellers back to the clan’s village seat to, once and for all, break the ancestral curse.

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

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

When Suubi—a young foster child haunted by the spirit of her older twin Ssanyu—is possessed by her sister, the event inspires awe and respect amongst both the villagers and urban dwellers. While Suubi believes “the idea of spirits and curses was backwards”, she respects it and hopes to rid herself of her twin’s spirit through clan rituals. Magical realism rules that there can be no alarm shown by the characters in the presence of the supernatural: the supernatural is habitual. We might say that the normalisation of supernatural forces attempts to make said forces legible within a certain knowledge structure, that is, the knowledge structure of the realist writing. 

Kintu however, respects a key belief in African epistemology: those who know that they don’t know are wise. Even Kanani, the devout Christian father who is allegedly there to save the village heathens, warns Miisi 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.”

Ganda people traditionally believe that nature is an epistemic force for knowledge: for example, an unusual swarm of bees is portentous. When a dark cloud of bees appears on a sunny day, Miisi refuses to accept the circumstances. “To forge a link between the coincidental events of New Year’s Day and the arrival of the bees was tenuous”, he says. Makumbi, however, mentions the bees five times, overstating their presence to force the reader to account for their significance. In Kintu, believing in the curse is a no-brainer because there is, simply, no other explanation that is reasonable.

“Whatever their personal convictions or professional pursuits, Kintu’s characters respect the idea of the great unknowable.”

With that said, the novel is vaguely reminiscent of a whodunit in its constant invitation to make sense of exactly what or who is responsible for this family’s gross misfortune. Yes, the idea that the spirit of the slighted twin wife and that of the mistreated foster son are playing out their revenge on successive generations is entirely plausible. Several of the contemporary chapters are set at the local morgue, and the proper burial of Miisi’s twelfth and final son harks back to the improper burial of Kintu’s foster son Kalema, a symmetry that points to a wrong being righted. Once Ssanyu is appeased and Kalema is exhumed for proper burial, the curse is removed, and balance restored. 

But the morgue is also a reminder of how 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, although it was triggered when he was brutalised by Idi Amin’s men.” When Miisi says that 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 abstract reality of the generational curse. 

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 reference to 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 racist John Hanning Speke who writes about how “naked Africa” and “Ham” were “cursed … condemned to be slaves.” 

In fact, Kintu explicitly nods to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a foundational text in African literature that writes back and depicts exactly how colonialism eroded African societies. 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. In Kintu, it is most likely the accidental killing of Kalema which causes the generational curse that is itself responsible for the erosion of the community. But 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.

“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.”

Whatever we choose to believe, we must 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 the agency of the ancestors.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI is a Ugandan fiction writer. Her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013. Her second book is a collection of short stories, Manchester Happened for the UK/Commonwealth publication and Let’s Tell This Story Properly (for US/Canada publication) came out in Spring 2019. It was shortlisted for The Big Book prize: Harper’s Bazaar. Her third book, The First Woman for UK/Commonwealth and A Girl is a Body of Water for USA/Canada publication came out in Autumn 2020. Jennifer 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. You can find her on her website.

How Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s great Ugandan novel shows us other ways of knowingKintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Published by Transit on 16 May 2017
Genres: African, Contemporary, Debut, Epic, Folktale, Literary fiction, Retelling, Supernatural
Pages: 446
Format: Paperback
Afrori
Goodreads
five-stars

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.

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