Dubbed ‘the great Ugandan novel’
‘Kintu’ has been receiving much praise among the literary establishment with its author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi receiving comparisons to Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. This debut novel has already won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and the Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction 2018.
Beginning with a version or, subversion, of the Kintu creation myth, Kintu is an epic tale of a familial curse that is passed down through generations of the Kintu clan. Kintu Kidda, Ppookino of Buddu Province in Buganda sets out on a journey to pledge allegiance to the new king or ‘kabaka, of Buganda. Ov n route, he strikes his adopted son, Kalema, in anger which results in the boy’s death and subsequently unleashes a terrible curse upon Kintu and his family. As the nation of Buganda becomes what we now know as Uganda, the Kintu curse also endures, manifesting itself in tragedies, misfortune and more often than not mental illness. In an attempt to reconcile their past and ancestry, the remnants of Kintu’s family line reunite together to try and break the curse.
Kintu is a very ambitious book which uses myth and folklore to chronicle different periods of Uganda’s history through a wide and eclectic cast of characters. It’s hard not to admire the sheer amount of research and labour that must have gone into writing the novel. Apparently, it took Makumbi 10 years to write. I thought the most interesting aspects of the novel was its exploration of mental illness – usually explained away as spirit possession or haunting by ancestral spirits, the fear and misconceptions surrounding the spread of HIV, and the tension between traditional beliefs and religion and Christianity and of course the role of patriarchy in Ugandan culture. At times I wondered if Makumbi was actually commenting on Africa as a whole, as the issues explored could easily be transplanted to another African country and still have the same resonance.
That said for all its strengths and beauty, I found Kintu to be a challenging read. There’s only so much relentless trauma one can handle from page to page. At times I had to put the book down to read something else that was a little lighter in subject matter. Despite this, there were moments of humour and the individual stories, which were mini books in themselves, were very engaging, thus it was hard not to continue on to finish the novel.
For anyone with an interest in African history and mythology, as well as a love for epics this is definitely a good book, to begin with.
Kintu is published by Oneworld. Find out more and purchase your copy here.