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The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi review – coming of age in Uganda

Alex Clark
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Kirabo is an inquisitive child. She has even more unanswered questions than other girls in the run-up to puberty, the greatest and most mysterious of which is: “Who is my mother?” In the small Ugandan village of Nattetta, nobody seems to want to tell her, least of all the grandparents who have loved and protected her throughout her life; fleeting visits from her father, Tom, who is busy making his mark in Kampala, yield no further insight. So Kirabo, already unsettled by her ability to depart her body and soar above her neighbourhood, decides to consult the village witch, Nsuuta.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s first novel, Kintu, explored the complex effects of masculinity and its limitations on the relationship between fathers and sons; its canvas took in both the pre-colonial period and its long-lasting legacy. Vivid and ambitious, it suggested a writer unafraid to juxtapose past and present, the mythological and the modern - a scope that Makumbi reprises in her second novel. Here, she focuses on the origin myths of motherhood, the contested ground of women’s sexuality and the intersection between personal, public and political power, in a style that is frank, funny and direct. Beginning in 1975, in the middle of Idi Amin’s dictatorship, the story captures the surrealism of living in unpredictable and violent times, folding awareness of vast events into the minutiae of daily life.

Related: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi review – is this 'the great Ugandan novel'?

For Kirabo, it makes as much sense to make secret visits to Nsuuta, whose blindness adds to the local belief that she can see beyond surface reality, as it does to continue interrogating the adults around her. But she must navigate not only the threat of her grandmother finding out – the pair have a feud so great it is likened to Mount Kilimanjaro, the beginnings of which are explored in a later section set in the 1930s and 40s – but Nsuuta’s determination to instruct her in the reasons for her feelings of difference, symbolised by her out-of-body experiences. They are, according to Nsuuta, evidence that she retains some of the “original state” that has been bred out of women to make them more amenable to men, and to a male-ordered society.

“Was it bad what we were? Is it what makes me do bad things?” Kirabo asks. “No, it was not bad at all,” replies Nsuuta. “In fact, it was wonderful for us. We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it. However, occasionally that state is reborn in a girl like you. But in all cases it is suppressed. In your case the first woman flies out of your body because it does not relate to the way this society is.”

Kirabo’s search – one she doesn’t always know she is undertaking – for the remnants of that “first woman” shapes Makumbi’s narrative, which sees Kirabo gradually uncovering her identity as those around her plan her life. First her father, part of an emerging class of political and entrepreneurial wheeler dealers, takes her to live with him in Kampala. There she gazes wistfully at advertising billboards in which happy families advertise washing powder; such tableaux are at odds with the scene at her father’s house, where she is confronted by a stepmother and half-siblings she didn’t know about, and where her comically monstrous stepmother is revealed to have been equally in the dark.

Later, she is dispatched to an elite boarding school where girls jostle over regional rivalries, academic streaming sets, the relative darkness or lightness of their skins and, naturally, boys. When soldiers arrive at the school as Amin’s regime crumbles, pupils adopt their own strategies: “Affande, thank you for liberating us. Yii, but you are very brave. Now, we were thinking, can we look at your military ration pack?”

Running through The First Woman, from the schisms that divide Kirabo’s grandparents’ generation to the ambitions of its younger cast, is an exploration of how women preserve and cultivate their power. When Kirabo’s first love, Sio, tells her that he believes in “mwenkanonkano”, he uses the English word, feminism, and she dismisses it “because as far as she knew, feminism was for women in developed countries with first-world problems”. When he uses the Luganda word, she pays more attention, but is also aware that Sio’s understanding of it is limited to directing her behaviour; as the story develops, Sio’s apparent egalitarianism reveals him to be something of an equal opportunities seducer.

The First Woman is a lively, engaging read, and Makumbi cleverly braids the immensely personal – Kirabo’s yearning for a mother who appears to want nothing to do with her – with far larger scale social and political shifts. It is a novel that deliberately meanders, and veers between delivering condensed gouts of information with more leisurely set pieces; but its energy derives from its considerable wit and the charm of its central character.

• The First Woman is published by Oneworld (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.