Book Review: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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Last updated on November 14th, 2018 at 10:55 am

Book: KINTU
Author: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Kintu is the debut novel of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and it tells the complicated and yet so enthralling tale of  Kintu Kidda, Ppookino (governor) of Buddu province in pre colonial Uganda known as Buganda who in an attempt to chastise his adopted son Kalema, accidentally kills him and then tries to cover it up. When Ntwire, Kalema’s biological father, a Tutsi and outsider in Buganda suspects and affirms the death of his son, he places a curse on Kintu and this sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to the end of the Kintu clan and sustains over his surviving descendants as seen in the multi-generational layers to the story being told.

The book opens with the unexpected and gruesome murder of Kintu Kamu at the hands of a mob when they mistake him for a thief and then the next chapter goes all the way back to pre-colonial Buganda where we meet Kintu Kidda, Ppookino of Buganda who is setting out on a journey to pay homage to the new kabaka at the capital. As the journey proceeds, we are let into Kintu’s marital conflicts with his twin wives, Babirye and Nnakato and their children together, the history of his adopted son Kalema as well as the politics of bloodshed and usurping in the royal family at the capital. When Kalema falls and dies after being hit on the head by Kintu in an attempt to chastise him and a hasty burial takes place unknowingly in a spot reserved for the burial of dogs, Kintu is haunted by Kalema’s ghost and memories. On his return home from the capital, he is unable to confide even in Nnakato and he carries on as usual until confronted by Ntwire who in a fit of rage places a curse of suffering on Kintu and his household. A curse seemingly unreal until Baale, Kintu’s son dies the morning he is to wed.

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And after we are let into the history of the Kintu clan and its charismatic but unfortunate progenitor, the haunting curse of Ntwire and its pattern becomes clear with Suubi, Kanaani, Isaac Newton and Miisi Kintu, all descendants of Kintu Kidda whose paths and origins are intertwined but never resolved until the final homecoming chapter. Suubi, unnaturally thin and believed to always be close to her death since childbirth, survives and grows under disturbing conditions to be eventually integrated in a middle class family she later proclaims to be hers, all the while carrying the ghost of her dead twin sister, Ssanyu in her.

Kanani, husband of Faisi, both of them ardent believers and members of the exclusive ‘Awakened’ sect who spend their days, sowing the seed i.e. terrifying passengers in public transport with imagined past terrible deeds and eventual salvation but with a feverish sex life they are ashamed of, are parents to twins Job and Ruth who have an unnatural intimacy even for twins. Isaac Newton, a remarkably unattractive man is born of a pregnancy that is the result of his mother being raped by her math tutor. After being abandoned by his mother and raised by his grandmother and sister, he finds fortune and all seems well until his wife dies of what he suspects to be HIV and he is convinced he and his son also carry the virus. And finally we have Miisi, intellectual revolutionary caught between cerebral and otherworldly knowledge. After losing his family to a fire as a child, he is raised by European missionaries in an orphanage and as an adult leaves his wives and children to study overseas only to return and be labeled a Muzungu.

It is also intriguing how Makumbi artfully examines ideas like masculinity and sex, homosexuality, the notions of social strata, spiritual versus cerebral knowledge, culture, twins and the African perception of a shared soul, interaction between the living and the dead, the presence of omens in something as ordinary as a cold and other themes that will ring very familiar to the African reader.

A persistent streak throughout the book and the accursed clan are the elements that plague them all. The Kintus are a family of twins, most of who turn out to be quite problematic, they all suffer from hay fever frequently and this sometimes is an omen. They carry the burden of mental illness; the pattern usually is that the sickness strikes first, then a murder and finally a suicide. In the final chapter, all the descendants come together and go through a cleansing ritual to bind their curses and woes and let them burn so they and their ancestors can finally rest curse free.

Kintu has been touted as the ‘great Ugandan novel’ with the potential to do for Ugandan literature what Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ did for Nigerian literature and Makumbi displays a storytelling and technical skill that is such a joy to be immersed in. For a book that almost feels like six different books crammed into one, it doesn’t fall victim of plot holes or chapters that drag on and on which are the usual issues that befall most multi-generational novels. In Kintu, there is a lot of jumping through time and this will task the reader to not only pay attention but also have a good memory as the unraveling of the fates of the descendants of Kintu seems to move in no particular order.

It is also intriguing how Makumbi artfully examines ideas like masculinity and sex, homosexuality, the notions of social strata, spiritual versus cerebral knowledge, culture, twins and the African perception of a shared soul, interaction between the living and the dead, the presence of omens in something as ordinary as a cold and other themes that will ring very familiar to the African reader.

There is as well the immersion of ideals that are not streamlined as purely Western or African but an evidence of the leftovers of colonialism and the current cognitive state of Uganda and most African countries. As Miissi Kintu so succinctly puts it in one his intellectual discuss, ‘We cannot go back to the operating table and ask for the African limbs, Africans must learn to walk on the European legs and work with European arms. As time goes by, children will be born with evolved bodies and in time, Africa will evolve according to Ekisode’s nature and come to its best form. But it will be neither African nor European. Then the pain will settle down’.

The book is set in different times and political climates of Uganda; precolonial, post colonial, Idi-Amin and the bush wars and the periods after. While Makumbi has stated that the book was not intended to be a political one, the effects of the social and political conditions of the times lived in by Kintu’s descendants and other characters and how it shapes a lot of their experiences and disposition cannot be ignored and it is a significant backdrop to the story as it unfolds.

Jennifer Nansubuga Mukumbi is a fantastic storyteller and it must also be noted a well versed historian as can be seen in the knowledge of not only the social, political and cultural history of Uganda but of also of its plains and terrains. In Kintu , there are dialogues that simply sublime to say the least, characters that in spite of the broad scope of the story being told are unmistakably memorable and it is almost overwhelming the level of skill and detail that went into the writing of this book.

 

 

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