📖 🇺🇬 #6: An epic family saga from Uganda

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's great Ugandan novel

Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.


Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu may just be the best book I’ve read for this project so far.

With its roots set firmly in Buganda mythology, this 410-page epic family saga tells the story of Kintu Kidda as he unwittingly unleashes a curse on his family that will come to haunt them for generations. It’s a dense, engrossing novel that paints a complex portrait of Kintu’s descendants, tracing the birth of modern Uganda through the stories of individuals belonging to various branches of his lineage. Nansubuga Makumbi includes a detailed family tree in the book’s first pages, which (hot tip) I copied out and used as a bookmark to save me flicking back and forth.

According to Buganda legend, Kintu is the first person on earth and the father of all people. In Nansubuga Makumbi’s novel, we meet him in 1750 as the ppookino (governor) of the Buddu Province who yearns for the freedom to be in a monogamous relationship with the woman he loves, despite being married to both her and her twin sister. On a trip that will come to plague his bloodline for generations, Kintu strikes his adopted son and, to everyone’s surprise, the boy drops dead. Thus the curse is unleashed.  

The rest of the novel deftly explores the ramifications of belonging to Kintu’s bloodline through four characters. Our first narrator is Suubi Nnakintu, a sickly girl who survives a depraved and abusive childhood before being employed by a middle class couple in Kampala. Then there’s Kanani Kintu and his wife Faisi, two members of an evangelical sect called the Awakened who have what they consider an unnaturally intense attraction towards one another, resulting in the birth of twins who enter into a sexual relationship.

Our third narrator is Isaac Newton Kintu, a child born of rape who later becomes a single father and struggles with the possibility of having passed HIV onto his son. Finally there’s Miisi Kintu, a writer who was raised by white priests and educated abroad. Their stories come together in 2004 when Miisi contacts his relatives and suggests meeting on their shared ancestral territory to break the curse unleashed on all of them by Kintu.

Nansubuga Makumbi masterfully treads the line between tradition and modernity, superstition and affliction, faith and rationalism in this astonishing novel. Ostensibly Kintu is a story about a supernatural curse. But it’s also a story about a family with a series of genetic predispositions; towards twins, hay fever, and mental instability.

Ten years in the making, Kintu was originally Nansubuga Makumbi’s doctoral thesis. It’s filled with keen observations, smart parallels, and rich historical detail. Its characters live though colonial occupation, the birth of Uganda, and its early years of independence. But though we see both pre- and post-colonial Uganda, Kintu jumps right over the country’s colonial period. This was a deliberate decision on Nansubuga Makumbi’s part: she wanted to avoid writing about the topics Westerners typically associate with Uganda—namely colonialism and Idi Amin’s rule.

“After independence, Uganda—a European artefact—was still forming as a country rather than a kingdom in the minds of ordinary Gandas… Uganda was a patchwork for fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were not Ugandans. Their histories, cultures and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them… The desecration of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.”

It’s stylistically interesting that Nansubuga Makumbi chose not to translate some Luganda words. For the most part I found it easy to glean meaning through context, though at times I turned to Google. But Kintu is a book that lends itself to being put down and picked back up again; I enjoyed stopping and starting, allowing myself to absorb every word of it.

Kintu is a sprawling, ambitious novel that makes for truly illuminating reading. If you’re even the tiniest bit tempted to read it, do.

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Oneworld, 2018)

More books by Ugandan authors

Here’s a list of the other recommendations I received this week:

  • Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana

  • Cassandra by Violet Barungi

  • The Switch by Mary Karooro Okurut

  • Secrets No More by Goretti Kyomuhendo

  • Voice of Dream by Glaydah Namukasa

  • A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

  • The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

  • Jambula Tree by Monica Arac de Nyeko

  • Zura Maids by Eunice Otuko Apio

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Hilda Twongyeirwe from Uganda Women Writers Association FEMRITE, James Murua, and Marcelle Mateki Akita from the Royal African Society’s Africa Writes festival for their recommendations for this issue. If you’ve been forwarded this email and you enjoyed it, you can subscribe below.