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Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The first woman: a review



A few months ago in this column I reviewed a novel from Zimbabwe, Petina Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light, and began my account by noting how many outstanding novels have been published in the last few years that are authored by African women. Here’s another, from Uganda, and it is truly a very special work of art, a splendid addition to the roll-call of African women’s writing.

A few preliminary comments. One of the most striking features of the work of contemporary African female novelists is its range and diversity. There are historical novels, such as the Gappah and the Makumbi I’m reviewing today and also, from Kenya, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s stunning, large-scale Dust. There are novels on the corruption of so many present-day African governments such as from Nigeria, Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos.

And also from Nigeria, but vastly different, the novels of Akwaeke Emezi, such as The Death of Vivek Oji, which spring from the Igbo traditional belief that a human body can be inhabited by more than one self.

An additional point of interest in Makumbi’s novel is that part of the action takes place during the regime of one of Africa’s most brutal tyrants, Idi Amin. At the time of my writing this column, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and with the prospect of the world going to hell in a bucket, we are faced with the insane actions of another vicious tyrant, the psychotic midget from Moscow, aka Vladimir Putin.

And here’s another comment, just to show how utterly up-to-date is your favourite columnist that’s me, folks. Some weeks ago in a piece titled “Football and me” I bewailed the fact that the beautiful game is besmirched by so many clubs being owned by Arab despots and Russian oligarchs. The latter bank their stolen billions in Western democracies such as the UK and France, where they own huge mansions and yachts and heaven knows what else.

They are massive supporters of Putin (and financial supporters of Boris Johnson’s Tory Party), but with the invasion of Ukraine there are now moves to freeze and/or confiscate their assets. Would this had been done years ago?

Now down to my core business this week, my review of The First Woman.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan writer based in Manchester, UK, the recipient of numerous awards, including, for The First Woman, the Jhalak Prize—an award given to British or British-resident BAME writers.

The novel’s central character is Kirabo, a twelve-year-old village girl living with her prosperous and forward-looking grandparents (Kirabo records: “Grandfather’s maxim was “A girl uneducated is an oppressed wife in the making”). Born illegitimate, Kirabo is tormented by the fact that she has no obvious way of locating and contacting her mother.

Her father, Tom, is affectionate when he sees her, but has married another woman and visits Kirabo only occasionally from his home in the capital, Kampala. Like the central character in Akwaeke Emezi’s first novel, Freshwater (though the reason is different) Kirabo believes she has two selves, one of which flies in and out of her.

Seeking relief from her turbulent emotions, she forms a friendship with the local sorceress, the elderly Nsuuta, despite the fact that the latter is a bitter enemy of her beloved grandmother.
A key passage, on which the novel’s feminist thesis is predicated, is the following speech by Nsuuta: “[At first women] were huge, strong, bold, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it.

However, occasionally, that state is reborn in a girl like you. In your case the first woman flies out of your body, because it does not relate to the way this society is.” Makumbi’s work is totally original, but that passage reminds me of The Last Song of Manuel Sendero by the Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman, in which babies refuse to be born because the world outside the womb is in such a mess.

What is so impressive about the artistry of the novel’s early chapters is that, through writing that lacks elaboration—indeed, it is remarkably casual and laid-back—through small hints and touches Makumbi builds up the sense of a substantial, problematic, multifaceted history now to be explored. (As an aside, Makumbi’s writing contrasts vividly with the hopelessly over-elaborated language of Soyinka’s Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, reviewed by me in this column last year).

The exploration of family history is the task of the rest of the novel, which is difficult to account for without a string of spoilers. Key elements include Kirabo’s falling in love with Sio, a London-born boy of outstanding beauty; her enrolment in an elite missionary school in Kampala; her fraught relationship with Tom’s new family; and her anguished encounter with her birth-mother.

Over all this hangs the brutality of the Amin regime, during which the bulk of the novel is set. The penultimate section is a retroversion to the 1930s and the childhood of Nsuuta and Kirabo’s grandmother: totally captivating.
At the end there is a list of the Cast of Key Characters: given the complexity of Kirabo’s lineage, such an aid to readers has never been more welcome. This is a novel bursting at the seams with wonders and revelations.

Chris Dunton

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