Uganda is a third-world country, which means it has lots of third-world problems: hunger, poverty, AIDS, and a president who refuses to give up power. Why should he when “Nfunira waa” (where is my benefit) is the prevailing attitude? Also, he has Bugandan support.
Buganda is the largest Bantu tribal kingdom in Uganda. When the country was first founded tensions between Buganda and the central government, and also within Buganda itself, resulted in the temporary abolishment of the constitution and the rise of Idi Amin. To overthrow him, the resistance movement offered to restore the tribal monarchies in exchange for support. Buganda was reestablished, the country got a new president with no term limits, and everyone was “happy”.
It’s almost as if Uganda were cursed. If you read Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, you’ll learn more about this curse, or at least a curse, and this curse managed to depress me, fascinate me, but it also offered a ray of hope.
A Cursed Tribe
“‘Who would name his child first Kamu and then Kintu?’
‘Someone seeking to double the curse.’”
Kintu tells the story of the cursed Bugandan Kintu tribe through the eyes of five of its members: the ancestor who accidentally inflicted the curse, and several of his modern day descendants who suffered its effects. The ancestor is Kintu Kidda, Ppookinu (governor) of Buddu province, and his scattered descendants come from all parts of modern Ugandan society. They all suffer in different ways.
Tribal Buganda is the land in which Kintu Kidda was raised, and as Ppookinu, he was bound by its laws and customs. Customs that were established for reasons of which he was very much aware. It didn’t make observing them any more easier for him, and he wasn’t that good at it. For example, twins are considered a single entity divided into two bodies, and when marrying one you were also supposed to marry the other. Kintu Kidda though only loved and married one twin, Nnakato (despite her parents objections). When Nnakato failed to bear him any children, he proceeded to also marry her sister, Babirye, and then used her for breeding purposes, which as a man, husband, and Ppookinu he was well within his rights to do. Kintu Kidda wasn’t happy though.
At some point during his tenure, a new Kabaka came into power, and Kintu Kidda was required to go visit him and demonstrate his loyalty. He took with him Kalema, an adoptive son, as part of his entourage. While journeying across the desert, Kintu Kidda, cuffs him on the neck a bit too hard, and accidentally kills him. Kalema was an only child, and his biological Tutsi father, Ntwire, is overcome with rage and grief. He then proceeds to curse Kintu Kidda, and his family, and thus the premise is laid.
Throughout the rest of the book, we get to see the various Kintu descendants, and the sufferings they face. Kamu Kintu was murdered by a mob who suspected him of being a thief. Suubi Nnakintu is an abandoned orphan. Kanani Kintu is a born again missionary disconnected from his roots. Isaac Newton Kintu is the cursed prodigal son whose success must come at a price, and Misirrayimu (Miisi) Kintu is a disillusioned returning exile who can’t see a curse even if it is staring him in the face. They all represent different swaths of Ugandan society, and combined they manage to paint a good picture of the country that even an outsider like me was able to experience, but I wasn’t the target audience.
The Past Must be Part of The Solution
“‘So he was sacrificed at the altar of knowledge?’
‘For knowing and refusing to know.’”
This book drives home some very strong points. It illustrates in many different ways the various curses that modern Uganda struggles with while also laying the origin of these curses in the distant past. Tribal Buganda was a fairly advanced African society, but its customs were harsh. However, there is no judgment in the book towards these customs. Just actions and natural consequences, which in this case resulted in a very literal curse – involving some very real spirits.
If the curses of modern Africa can be laid in the past. There lies also the hope and part of the solution. Tribal ties are what bind the people together. In a country of orphans, no one is truly an orphan because everyone is part of a larger family, and this family will look out for you when you need them most. Tribal ties though are primitive, and not everybody is willing to fully accept their need. It’s a discussion Ugandans need to have amongst themselves though.
Reading this book I felt as though I was very much not the target audience. This book was intended for a people who already knew the history of Uganda, as well as its language, culture and customs. Namely, Ugandans. Reading the story, I was exposed to the very real social ills plaguing the country, as only an insider would know, while also reminded, of all the good things the country and the people have to offer. It was mostly about the curse, but there were also blessings. I am only a bystander to all of this, but for me it was a very powerful experience.
Not Magical Realism
In many ways, this book reminded me of the Indonesian Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, which also told the story of a family and a country. However, that book is also very much a satirical piece of work, and there is nothing to laugh about in Kintu. It’s a family saga historical piece of fiction (with a strong biblical element) that seems to belong in the magical realism category, except it doesn’t.
In magical realism, the magical element is supposed to be mundane, while the “real” element invokes an emotional reaction. In Kintu both the supernatural and the natural took my breath away. Spirits are also a very strong part of the tribal Ugandan outlook, and life does not necessarily end after death, and this was fascinating. At the end of the day, this was a very powerful reading experience, and I strongly recommend this book.
The Omer today is foundation in splendor. Uganda can be a beautiful country. However, the foundations for a functioning society need to be established first. To establish that foundation, the people shouldn’t ignore their past. There are too many open wounds that need to be laid to rest before the country can heal and move on, at least that’s what it seems to me from my outsider’s perspective. Ugandans need to work things out for themselves though. I really want to see what becomes of the country in the next 10-20 years because the future by its very nature carries with it the promise of hope.
About the Author
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, a Ugandan novelist and short story writer, has a PhD from Lancaster University. Her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013 and was long listed for the Etisalat prize in 2014. Her first collection of stories, Let’s Tell This Story Properly, was published by Oneworld in 2019. The eponymous story won the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. In 2018, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was awarded the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction to support her writing. She lives in Manchester with her husband, Damian, and her son, Jordan.