Book Review: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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Book Title: Kintu

Author: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Publisher: Transit Books, 2017

Reviewer: Joseph Omotayo

A lot of people may not understand this book, and that is fine. Kintu will certainly find its readers. It takes a different kind of attention to read this book. When you give it that attention, Kintu becomes a daring creative piece that does so much as a single book. Kintu touches a lot. This book offers interesting trajectories on African traditions, their grace and limitations. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi gives us something more than a book, she gives us a deep reflective history of many things. This book sets the reader on a road of discoveries. Kintu is a compelling genealogy of the Kintu clans and Ganda people. Kintu’s appeal is not only in its wealth of history, but in the larger-than-life and relatable characters it gives us.

Spanning almost three centuries, this book is soused in the history of Buganda. Buganda is a region in the present day Uganda and the kingdom of the Ganda people, a powerful ethnic group in Uganda. Kintu traces the story of that region through its politics, gender tension, sexual, and ethnic fallouts. The eponymous character Kintu Kidda is the founder of the Buganda kingdom. Kintu is the story of many things, but above all it is the story of a power constituent unit of Uganda. Jennifer Makumbi uses literature to profile people and their traditions in a manner that captivates. The writer has such rare gift that unifies various complex parts of the book to make a strong single connection. This book is rich.

The book opens with a prologue in 2004 with Kamu, a character from a cursed generation. And while one is still salivating over the serene pastoral setting of 2004 Kampala, the book plunges one into an unexpected ancient setting of the Buganda kingdom in 1750. Makumbi strategically uses the in media res plot structure not only to shock but to inform and create links between the many stories in the book. With a prologue and five divisions, this book packs more pages than an average book. A book with 200+ pages is average, but at over 400 pages, Kintu is not a tepid longueur, but a book that takes its time to deliver a narrative that provokes reflection. Kintu runs from Book One to Six with sub-divisional chapters. Book One is titled Kintu Kidda, Book Two – Subbi Nnakinto, Book Three -Kanani Kintu, Book Four -Issac Newton Kintu, Book Five -Misirayimu (Miisi) Kintu, and Book Six titled Homecoming resolves the many conflicts in the book.

Book One tells the story of Kintu Kidda, and follows Kintu Kidda and his family in way that is reminiscent of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Book One stirs up the conflicts for the narrative. In centuries to come, generations after Kintu Kidda will contend miserably with this same conflict. Kintu Kidda is a clan leader and a warrior in Buganda kingdom, and his troubles begin with his childless marriage to Nnakato. Their childlessness and the desperation to get an heir force his hands into marriage with Babiriye, Nnakato’s twin. In a strange polygamy arrangement that sees Babiriye’s children as Nnakato’s, the relationship between both sisters is strained with a façade of peace in Kintu’s home. Almost all Babiriye’s children are twins. A move to make Nnakato’s only son, Baale, a twin with Kalema, a foreigner’s child, spells the ultimate doom that Kintu and his lineage will bear. Other sections in the book examine the lives of Kintu’s subsequent progenies.

In Kintu, different generations strive against the single mistake of one man. The curse they bear is patriarchal. In fact, debilitating mistakes with generational consequences in the book are made by men. Kintu’s stupid attempt at maintaining a long held patriarchal tradition plagues his lineage; Kanani’s misplaced religiosity blights his home; Job’s relationship with his sister hatches a mistake that should never have been. However, amidst this patriarchal stronghold are fiery female assertive encounters. In Kintu, women are as assertive as they are submissive, in a way that hints at African feminism. This book parades patriarchy, decorates it, yet mocks it. As men in this book make mistakes, their women redeem them in a way that shows the former’s inherent limitations. Here, Kintu laments his patriarchy:

“…But to Kintu, the women were a duty. At the thought of his wives Kintu gnashed his teeth. He felt bound. He was a prize bull thrown into a herd of heifers. He was Ppookin: Why did he have to mount every woman thrown at him? On the other hand, how could he not? He was a man, a seed dispenser. It was natural: he should enjoy it… Society heaped such expectations on manhood that in a bid to live to them some men snapped.”

In examining the Kintu lineage, this book puts other things in perspective. It looks at the gory politics in post-independence Uganda, the dictatorship of Amin and the effect of Obote’s government in ways that smoothen the central narrative. Also, the tension between Christianity and African traditional religion is creatively woven around the story and the characters as they struggle to break free from the curse. The Kanni’s hypocritical profession of Christianity is a perfect example.

How long can a curse last? How does one uphold nationality in the face of strong ethnicity? How strong is Africa without Westernisation? Is colonialism a failure, a cursed redemption or a confusion in itself? These are some of the many questions Kintu elicits in the reader.

Kintu is a patient and interesting read.

Joseph Omotayo

Joseph Omotayo is a book critic, event planner and webmaster.

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