Uganda, Literature, 2022, in Berlin

Jennifer Nansubuga
Makumbi

Foto: Jasper Kettner

Jennifer Makumbi appeared on the literary scene at the most auspicious time for African literature. Her first book Kintu was published in 2014, when African writers were gaining global recognition and publishers were warming up to the idea that African books had market value. Publishing her first book was nonetheless a struggle. Though it won the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript Award, a prestigious Kenyan prize, it was rejected by UK publishers. To put it bluntly, they said the book was too African to be relatable to their audiences. Makumbi had to decide to either rewrite it for a Western audience or stick to her conviction that a book about Uganda written for Ugandans is relatable to the world. Thankfully, she chose the latter, and thus was born one of the greatest pieces of African historical fiction since Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Makumbi has gone on to win prestigious awards like the Windham-Campbell Prize and the Jhalak Prize, published three more books, and saw Kintu, the so-called problem book, become a global success. Without Makumbi pandering to the presumed taste of a Western audience, the book has gone on to captivate readers the world over. This unforgettable read opens in 1754 Buganda and tells the story of Kintu Kidda, a mostly upstanding man who commits a heinous act in the heat of anger. This leads to a curse that follows his descendants for 250 years. Makumbi traces the tragic lives of the Kintu clan against the background of Uganda’s evolution through colonial violence and postcolonial crisis. Placing Uganda on the center stage of history, the novel presents revelatory moments that come together to unveil an African world that is luminous and captivating.

What echoes through Makumbi’s literary achievements is the power to shift perspectives. Kintu, for instance, sparked a global conversation about the politics of storytelling. Who do African writers write for? How does their imagined audience impact their work? How do we push back against market forces designed to exploit the “single story”? Every book she has published has pushed the boundary on what counts as a universal story. Her most recent novel titled First Woman essentially reconstitutes feminism as an African concept by centering a Bugandan myth in a powerful story about a community of African women who shape the course of history. She assembles a brilliant archive of folklore, mythology, and historical records to show that African women have always had a rich language for talking about and resisting patriarchy. Readers love how Makumbi turns the light of history on worlds that have for so long been left in the shadows of the West. Historical fiction is a powerful form of storytelling. In Makumbi’s hands, it is so much more. It becomes a method for reconstructing world history, with Africa as its principal subject.

Makumbi’s literary career has been a beautiful and uplifting act of advocacy for African storytelling. She has inspired many young writers to take a stand against the Western publishing hegemony, thus making space to represent African lives and worlds in terms that enrich the reader as well as literary tradition.

Text: Ainehi Edoro-Glines

Kintu
Kwani Trust, Nairobi, 2014 / Oneworld Publications, London, 2018

Manchester Happened
Oneworld Publication,  London, 2019 

The First Woman
Oneworld Publication, London, 2020 

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