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Feminism was African first

By Rose Kwamboka | May 9th 2021
The First Woman by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

Book: The First Woman

Published: 2020

With a deep African name like mwenkanonkano, it is unlikely that the idea of feminism was introduced by the Western world, or as Kirabo, the headstrong, stubborn main character puts it to her first love – Sio; “feminism is for women in developed countries with first-world problems”.

“It was a major intention on my part to introduce readers to indigenous feminism that predates western feminism,” said author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi of The First Woman, otherwise known as A Girl is A Body of Water, in an interview with The Guardian on this concept that she points out is “all recorded in our folk tales, our oral traditions.”

It is only failing to take hold in Uganda – where the book is based – because of the discrepancy between middle-class and working-class women. And you see all the instances of women’s suppression from the school she goes to, all the way back to Kirabo grandmother’s oppressive times.

Makumbi is no stranger to deeply engrossing, well-woven tales. A gifted storyteller, the Ugandan author announced her arrival on the literary stage with aplomb with Kintu (2014), which was hailed as an epic tale, and question on whether this was the greatest Ugandan novel (The Guardian).

Kintu is also a sprawling tale, tying together clan and nation. In the book “Makumbi weaves together the stories of Kintu’s descendants as they seek to break from the burden of their shared past and reconcile the inheritance of tradition and the modern world that is their future.”

The First Woman is Makumbi’s third book, the other is Manchester Happened (2019), a short story collection.

Of note is the difference in how the different generations – Kirabo’s grandparents and Kirabo – used mwenkanonkano to preserve and cultivate their power. Kirabo opting for the more direct approach, that just like power, the idea of equal opportunities which constitutes feminism, is to be grabbed not given. The former preferring a tender almost poetic approach.

How during her grandparents’ time, mwenkanonkano was used by women to make other women suffer, while Kirabo views it as a source of gender equality.

Who is my mother?

Also a tender approach, is in the way her grandparents and everyone in the home tiptoes around her when she questions who and the whereabouts of her mother.

She longs for the mother she doesn’t know but is guilted into silence by the excess love and care that her grandparents generously pour on her and her grandmother’s questioning if the love that everyone gives is not enough, after all, is it not a village that brings up a child? With or without the mother?

In her quest to find her mother, Kirabo must visit the village witch Nsuuta secretly as her grandmother has forbidden her from seeing the witch, with whom they have a long standing feud dating back to their teen years – the 1930s and 1940s.

Feud or no feud, Nsuuta is determined to lead her to her mother and help her understand the reasons for her out-of-body experiences (evidence that she retained some of the “original state” that has been bred out of women through the use of myths to make them more amenable to a male-ordered society). “Was it bad what we were? Is it what makes me do bad things?” are some of the questions that plague Kirabo.

And so the many damaging Ugandan myths perpetrated to ‘tame’ women come forth through Kirabo’s journey in search of her mother which shapes the narrative of this book. The struggles of Kirabo and the women around her to achieve mwenkanonkano, feels like love, feels like learning, and best of all it often feels, as she puts it, ‘like mischief!’

The story is engaging – neither preachy nor patronising –, a skill the author admits to learning from Toni Morrison’s writing; “she reminded me all the time that you just can’t throw a sentence on the page, it must earn its place.”

The boldness of telling the African story the only way she knows how has origins in Yvonne Vera who was inspiring in terms of being bold and writing about the unsayable.

The book was received with acclaim. It is in the running for this years Jhalak Prize, and is also on the 2021 shortlists of James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the UK’s Royal Society of Literature Encore Award.

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