Here’s the post where I admit that while I am a big reader of books by Black authors, I have not yet read much by African authors. That’s due to many factors, including a huge To Be Read pile. Still, I didn’t want this month to go by without mentioning some African writers you should read, and so I asked for help.
Author Geoff Ryman pointed me to his series on Tor.com exploring African writers of SFF. There are only two posts so far, but they are extensive. Super sweet. One author I had heard of and have her book in my large pile is Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. I’m reposting Geoff’s entry on her book Kintu in full here, but that doesn’t mean you should not go to Tor.com and read the whole long post and the one before it about SFF writers from Nairobi.
It is dusk. Miisi is sitting on a three-legged stool near the angel’s trumpet shrub with his back against the hedge. He double-storey house is a ruin. The roof and parts of the walls on the top floor are in disrepair. A man stands above him. Miisi feels imposed upon because he cannot see past the man. The man is covered in bees. He has a single hair on his head as thick as a big rope.
“Get up and come with me,” the man says.
Miisi knows he should ask: who are you? Come with you where? But instead he whines, “You know my hip is bad” as if he and the man have known each other for a long time.”
Miisi and the man are standing on a hillside. They are surrounded by trees. The place is familiar even though Miisi is sure he has never been there. The bee man touches a tree and looks it up and down. “This tree will be at the centre,” he says as he walks around it still looking it up and down. “It will make the central pole.” Miisi is puzzled but the man adds, “Find a tall man, ask him to take ten strides,’ the bee man takes a stride. “in every direction around this tree and build a dwelling.”
Now they are standing at on the other end of the hill Miisi and the bee man have been taken together on the hillside for years now.
‘This is Nnakato,” the bee man points to the ground. “You must retrieve her and lay her properly.” He looks at Miisi. Even his eyes are bees….
—From Kintu, (Book V, Misirayima (Miisi) Kintu)
Kintu is a huge book. Huge as in big—big time span, many characters. Its first hundred pages recreate the politics, family structures, conversations, and beliefs of the Buganda kingdom in the 1750s. It is one of the surprisingly rare attempts in fiction to imagine an African culture undamaged by invasion. It tells the story of how a curse is directed at all the descendants of Kintu Kidda.
Kintu then leapfrogs over the colonial era, to show how the curse has affected four modern Ugandan families. It saves up Idi Amin until you have read many other things you don’t know about Uganda, but then really gives you the devastation of his downfall and the war in two major stories. It saves up any discussion of neo-colonialism until it is sure you’ve absorbed a lot of less familiar information. It bounces back and forth in time from the 1970s to the 2000s, showing you the same cities and towns in different eras. Four branches of the Kintu clan are each given a book each around a major character. Scores of secondary characters also have key roles in the plot, detailed in roughly 450 pages of succinct, powerful writing.
The hinge between the historical novel and the contemporary one is a grandmother relating the legend of the Kintu Kidda curse—and that version differs from the historical reality. We hear different versions of the story and are shown the flexibility and practicality of oral literature. In one tradition, Kintu has disappeared completely and only his wife Nnakato is revered. Tradition survives alongside modernity, but continually overwritten (or rather over-spoken?), useful, alive.
Kintu is huge in impact. Richard Oduor Oduku who we met in Part One, Nairobi said this about Kintu, unprompted during his own interview:
“That book is so big here. It presents a world that has its own integrity and social relations. There is no recourse to external explanation for the curse or for undoing it.
“Sometimes we—you—get surprised by how much you don’t know about who you are. For me Jennifer’s book is a link to an on-going world that has not been intruded upon and does not have to pay homage to a disruptive force. Something we have longed for a long time.”
There is not a white character in the book. The colonial era is not described (one of the oldest characters, an obsessive Christian, remembers colonialism with fondness; another character’s grandparents are mentioned as living through it). For the most part, except towards the end, Western education and the diaspora are irrelevant.
Its author is well aware that the book, in its own world, has gone mega.
“Jacob Ross one of its first readers said that Kintu is the kind of novel that would become a national book. There was a genuine excitement about it in Uganda that I’d never seen before, a buzz about it. People had been saying that Uganda was a literary desert. There were so many misrepresentations that Ugandans didn’t read. Instead it kept selling out editions in East Africa. I got a letter from the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Buganda (a cultural entity inside the political one of Uganda.) It tells a Ugandan story in an Ugandan way.”
Until very recently the usual way for an African author to succeed was to win an award, or to publish in the West and be validated there. The success of Kintu came with African publication. Just before this interview, Kintu finally found a publisher in the USA (Transit Books). No UK publisher has as yet been found—for a book that is already regarded as a masterpiece. Most UK publishers said something like “It’s too African.”
Too African? The highest possible praise.
Kintu was submitted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize and won first place, meaning that Kwani published it in Kenya for distribution in East Africa by the Kwani Trust. Since then it’s been accepted for publication in West Africa by Farafina Press. Within Africa, on African terms, it became a bestseller.
The same year as first publication (2014), Jennifer won first the African region, then the overall Commonwealth Fiction Prize for “Let’s Tell This Story Properly.” Kintu went on to be long listed for the Etisalat Prize in Nigeria. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi became a name to be reckoned with.
Book One: Kintu Kidda establishes the importance of twins in the Ganda culture. Kintu marries two twins, one for love, one for reproduction—his beloved wife, Nnakato, seems infertile. The second wife’s children are treated as if they belonged to the first.
Book Two: Suubi Nnakintu is set in 2004 tells the story of Suubi and Ssanyu, two twins. They therefore have the same actual names —Babirye and Nnakato—as Kintu Kidda’s wives. But the name Nnakato would give that away, so Suubi gives herself the name Nnakintu. It’s a lie. Any Ugandan would know someone called Nnakato is a twin. That’s something that Suubi wants to overwrite. This is only one of many subtleties of plot and culture that this Western reader did not get.
Her twin Ssanyu Babirye died as a child and haunts Suubi, enraged at being denied.
The first (attack) happened eight years ago on the morning after Suubi’s graduation. She had lain half-awake in bed when a sensation of being “locked” —she could not open her eyes or move or scream—came over her. Yet she could see a young woman standing above her bed looking down on her. The woman looked exactly like Suubi only she was so emaciated that it was surprising she could stand at all. Her skin was dry, taut and scratched. Her hair was in thick tufts. She even wore Suubi’s floral blue dress with an elasticated waist-band, yet Suubi had discarded that dress ten years earlier.
‘Who are you?’ Suubi had tried to ask.
‘Who am I, who am I ?’ The woman was very angry. ‘I am Ssanyu, Ssanyu Babirye, you chameleon! Stop telling lies.’
Says Jennifer: “The story of Suubi and Ssanyu is of the duality in the novel. The duality that is Uganda. We are both Europeanized and Ugandan. We speak both traditional language(s) and English. Someone goes to church, but then will go to the traditional healer. Someone is a scientist but will have an intense spiritual life. We have this saying in Uganda: God help me, but I’m going to run as well. We think two ways at once.”
This duality of holding traditional and modern together is fundamental to Makumbi’s own life story. In the critical element of her PhD, which also consisted of a draft of Kintu, Makumbi talked about her own biography.
One of my earliest memories is of story time in the evening in a village with my grandfather. Another is in the city foraging through my father’s bookshelves of adult books looking for something readable. The most vivid memory however is of my grandfather, who was traditional, and my father, who was thoroughly colonised, arguing about where I should live. My father insisted that I should be brought up in the city where I would get a ‘proper’ education while my grandfather argued that I should remain in the village to get grounding in tradition first, that schools there were just fine. A compromise was reached when I was four years old: I would study in the city with my father and spend term breaks with my grandfather. From then, the conflict between my father and grandfather took on the multiple facets of urban vs. rural, modern vs. traditional, Western vs. African, written vs. oral. Little did I know that this nomadic existence would be replicated at an international level: shuttling between Uganda and Britain as an adult.
In the village, the Luganda language was protected from outside influences. In the city, Jennifer was forbidden to speak Luganda, which was called “vernacular.” BBC English was the standard, and her father force-fed her Western literature. Her first experience of storytelling was in the village, retelling Goldilocks or Cinderella as new tales in Luganda. This novel Kintu could be seen as reversing that process—retelling traditional material for modern audiences.
The same PhD thesis describes Kintu as being a hybrid of forms—the Ganda myth Kintu ne Nnambi hybridized with the Christian myth of Ham.
Kintu is divided into Books to mirror the form of the Bible, especially the four gospels, and the story is crossed with the Biblical story of the curse of Ham—the most poisonous of all Biblical stories for Africans. Ham was reinvented as the cursed progenitor of all black people, assigned by God to slavery. The story of Ham is laced through the book. However this intrusion only appears in parts set in modern Uganda. Kintu of the 1700s has his origins in the first man on earth according to the Ganda, Kintu. It is important to note that you also see Christianity evolve from the stiff English version followed by the characters Kanani and Faisi to an Africanised version in 2004, where forms of traditional African worship are firmly entrenched in the Christian worship.
Really? Biblical? I didn’t get that at first reading at all. My first impression was of being lowered into the Ganda culture as it exists independent of Western intrusion.
OK, like Ham, there is a curse—a Tutsi man’s son is adopted by Kintu who slaps the boy once in reprimand—and the young man dies. His biological father Ntwire lays the curse—and all the subsequent history of the clan can be read as a struggle between Kintu’s protective spirit and Ntwire, who is determined to blight their lives.
How does that echo the story of Ham? Ham was cursed by his own father, Noah, for mocking his drunken nakedness. No adoption, no accidental homicide, no curse of one family by another. The sanest interpretation of the Biblical story is that Ham was made a servant of his brothers for his lifetime only. But colonialisation drove itself and its religion crazy. Apologists for slavery made the curse inherited, so that Ham’s children were slaves, and as a mark of the curse, their skins were darkened.
Makumbi’s thesis says:
Kintu Kidda is a trident character, a kind of an unholy trinity figure. A fusion of three characters, he is a nameless and timeless ancestor of the author whispered about in family circles who brought the curse of mental health problems in the family. He is Biblical Ham, son of Noah, from whom Africans supposedly descend. But most of all, he is Kintu the first man on earth in the Ganda creationist myth, Kintu ne Nambi.
The first surprise is how close personal and close the story is to the author herself—essentially the family is Makumbi’s own. She herself is a daughter of Kintu.
The second unexpected element is how this actual family story is ANOTHER kind of hybrid—of tradition and science, or at least a psychiatry-based diagnosis.
But how does it resemble the Biblical myth of Ham? Again, from the thesis:
Biblical Ham brings to Kintu’s character in the novel the idea of the potency of a person’s curse to another and the disproportionate severity of the retribution in relation to the offence committed. Biblical Ham also cements the notion of perpetuity through inheritance.
In other words, Noah’s curse was unfair. Though Ntwire’s only son was taken from him, the ruin of so many lives over hundreds of years is disproportionate.
Is there a recognition of God’s unfairness, implicit in each Book’s tale of suffering? One of the key characters is called Yobu/Job. There is something of Job in each of the Books of Kintu, including an undertow, like the Biblical book, regarding the inexplicable unfairness of God.
Each of the books focus on one terrible life after another—Suubi, starved by an aunt, and nearly kidnapped to be sold as a human sacrifice only to be haunted by the ghost of her dead twin. Kanani, made one-dimensional by a dour colonial form of Christianity and the betrayal of his children, who bear a child between them. Isaac Newton, unable to walk or speak until six because of child abuse, living through the post-Idi Amin war, and who is convinced his beloved only child is infected with HIV. Miisi, who not only loses his sanity but 11 of his 12 children to war, violence, and AIDS.
Humanity is made to suffer. Kintu is also the name of the first human in Ganda mythology. “Kintu” is a variant of the term “obuntu” or “Ubuntu” which means humanity and leads to the term Bantu which means humans in Luganda.
So the third prong of Kintu Kiddu’s origins, being the first human in traditional Ganda belief, universalizes these Books of suffering to include us all, European and African, American and Asian. In this sense, we are all of us children of Kintu, cursed to suffer disproportionately for history laid down centuries ago. I find this reading touching; since, I suppose, it includes me.
It’s not just Job or his twin sister Ruth who have Biblical names. You might need to speak Luganda to see that many of the characters have names from the story of Ham. Most significantly, the first son of Kintu named in the opening, and who is unfairly lynched for theft is called Kamu—Ham. Other characters are named for the sons of Ham—Puti (Phut, Ham’s son), Misirayimu, the long form of Miisi is a form of Mezraim, Ham’s son and Kanani is the Luganda form of Canaan, also Ham’s son. The name of the major character, Isaac Newton, manages to reference not only the Bible, but also the intrusion of European history and science.
This use of hybridized Christian/traditional names is not unique in works of what can be called African traditional belief realism. In her PhD dissertation, Makumbi points out that in The Famished Road, the figure of the abiku child, a birth from the spirit world is called Azaro, a form of Lazarus. Her thesis also examines Ng?g? wa Thiong’o’s transposition of the Jesus story to Africa, The River Between.
Though I noticed some sacrificial lambs in the ending, Makumbi’s dissertation points out other resemblances to Christianity at the end—there is a father, a mother goddess, and a son.
However, Kintu has as its epigraph an 1863 quote from John Hannington Speke, the first European explorer to encounter the Ganda. In the quote, Speke sees Africa with its sons of Ham condemned to slavery as “a striking existing proof of the Holy Scriptures.” And of course that meant their position as servants was ordained by God.
The real curse of Ham is colonization. The stories of Kintu also embody the deformities of culture and character inflicted by the curse of colonialization.
“In school as a child I was taught that we Africans are Hamites. I hope this version of ‘History’ is no longer taught in Uganda. This idea that I am a descendant of Ham was deeply engrained in me until somewhere in secondary school we were taught that we are Bantu—which means human, really.”
The last two Books of Kintu confront Europe through the character of Miisi. Miisi is a more familiar figure from African fiction than most of the characters. Miisi is the Western educated man who returns. Miisi, in fact, was educated in both the Soviet Union and Oxford, so he combines many strands of Western thinking—imperialism but also a strand of European resistance to it.
As a controversial writer, Miisi pens an African fantasy that retells Frankenstein in Africa (much as the child Jennifer Nansubuga retold the story of Cinderella). It reads like a new myth called Africanstein. Makumbi, alert to issues of language, tells us Miisi writes it first in English and then translates it into Luganda.
Buganda unlike the rest of Africa was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under the chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house.
Africastein is unlike any other passage in the Books of Kintu. Stories get re-told but only orally. This one is a highly symbolic, single-author fixed piece of written mythology. It stands out, though quite short. It strikes the most piercing note of anti-colonialism in the novel.
As I said, please go check out the other African authors Ryman talks about at Tor.com.