‘Blood speaks,’ the matriarch Bweeza tells her brother Kanani Kintu, reflecting on his futile attempts to break away from family bonds and the past. As each of the characters in Makumbi’s novel seek out or run away from their past, they become fortified in their (hi)stories. In doing so, Kintu examines the importance of story telling; its relevance to community and on the whole, in society.
Kintu is a colourful portrait of the lineage of Kintu Kidda, a Ppookino or governor of Buddu Province in 16th Century Buganda. When he sets out for the capital to pledge allegiance to the new kabaka, he commits an act in a moment of anger that comes to plague his family and succeeding generation, up to the current century.
The narrative follows the lives of several characters, mainly: Suubi Nnakintu, who is abandoned by her family and creates stories about gaps in her life while also weaning on stories from her grandmother; an equally abandoned Isaac Newton Kintu who ‘had no excuse to come into the world’; Kanani Kintu who seeks through his Awakened Anglican faith to sever family and traditional ties and the ageing academic Misiyarimi Kintu (Miisi). Each of their stories is imbibed in myth and folklore, adding ‘magic to [their] ancestry.’
In each, we find a yearning to belong, a yearning that can only be achieved by reconciling the past with their present lives in order to move on. Isaac and Kanani’s grandson Paulo echo sentiments about knowing ‘their roots’ as they wish to start their own families; Miisi like Bweeza does not ‘want [their] blood wandering rootless’ so he ‘brings all his grandchildren under one roof to grow up as a family’.
Even as Suubi declares ‘what difference does a good or bad past make? Everyone wants a bright future regardless of their past’, she realises that any future with her lover, Opolot, is dependent on her confrontation with the past.
‘All you need is to know,’ he tells her. ‘It will give you peace in your heart.’
Makumbi instils a strong sense of community and the significance of shared experience.
For Isaac, reuniting with his people evokes a sense of belonging as ‘finally his presence on earth was accounted for and his life justified.’ Suubi feels ‘the hair on the back of [her] neck’ rise upon hearing the traditional homecoming song.’ The elderly Miisi, views meeting his clan as an anthropological experience ‘to observe and study traditional spirituality’ as he did in Cambridge in the 1960s, while Idi Amin terrorised Uganda and its neighbours. However, even as each of them recognises their collective identity, there is the familiar crisis of a strained national identity:
‘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 of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them. Meanwhile the other fifty or so tribes looked on. Their histories, cultures and identities overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them.’
Kanani like other Gandas is ‘pessimistic’ when Uganda gains independence, believing, like the British, that ‘these buffoons are going to destroy [the] country’. But unlike the Ganda who would rather go back to their kingdoms and kabakas, Kanani is nostalgic for colonial Uganda:
‘The neat, paved walkways, manicured hedges, blooming plants and dustless streets… [as a child he] had seen Kampala City take shape in the magical hands of the British. When it came to caving out landscape the white man was wizard.’
However, this ‘carving out’ has led to the common plight in many African countries of a fractured post-colonial identity and a retreat into ethnic enclaves resulting in hostility between different groups. In Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, this idea is expressed by the ‘revolutionary’ academic Odenigbo who argues that ‘the only authentic identity for the African is tribe.’
‘I am a Nigerian because the white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.’
Language and identity are closely linked as how characters use language has its set of socio-political implications. Kanani believes that the ‘British people pronounced [his] name properly’ as ‘Canaan.’ By contrast, Suubi’s boyfriend, Opolot, chooses to speak in English ‘on principle. Otherwise, Luganda would be [his] first language.’
Still, Makumbi’s portrayal of the legacy, heritage and traditions of the Ganda people which gives Kintu its rich cultural fabric is not limited by the English language. The clarity of writing is resonant of the oral tradition, which the author admits greatly influences her work. The simple, sublime prose of the narrative makes it easy to follow, especially given the large cast of characters, and the amount of exposition through which the main characters are layered.
Kintu,which won the inaugural Kwani? Manuscript prize in 2013, was launched to much excitement during the Writivism Festival in Kampala in June this year. It took place shortly after Makumbi won both the regional and overall prize in the Commonwealth Short Story competition for her short story ‘Let’s Tell this Story Properly’, in a ceremony that was held in her home country. These feats, succeeding each other, have cemented her literary integrity. It is only apt for her debut to have been compared with that of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which continues to be relevant more than half a century later.
It is interesting that Makumbi chooses for the novel’s epigram a quote attributed to 19th Century African explorer, John Hanning Speke, in which he proposes (professes, actually) to ‘accurately describe naked Africa.’ In a way, Kintu works in conversation with Speke’s declaration. However, Kintu grasps the idea of telling our own story and evoking our own experiences, not as an answer to the Empire, but within our own constructs, just as Achebe and the succeeding generation of writers are doing so, for various reasons of expression.
On her reason for writing, Makumbi responds: ‘I tell stories to entertain – to laugh, to cry, to gasp, to wonder’ and in her novel, we find ‘an ancient story kept alive by the breath of belief.’
© Akoyo Beverly Ochieng’