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Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

‘Nothing scared us like going back home looking like a failure. Being laughed at – Did you see her? London scotched her! Besides, the brave ones who tried to talk about it were accused of scaremongering: If Britain is as harsh as you say, why don’t you come back home?’

Communities are sometimes made intentionally and sometimes things just fall into place because of a shared passion, language, proximity and so many other reasons. There’s a lovely community of book readers and reviewers on Instagram, loosely known as ‘Bookstagram’ and ‘bookstagramers.’ I am so happy to be part of this community because one can never run out of reading recommendations from all over the world. Before I was an active participant I used to look at the reviews there in awe! I always look forward to book reviews on Instagram (you can check out my account here). One of my favourite bookstagram accounts is called Pretty Bookish (you can find their account here) and that’s where I got the inspiration to pick the book for this week. I was blown away by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s writing in ‘Kintu’ and ‘The First Woman’ (I read the latter this year and you can check out my review here). I was pretty sure that this collection of short stories would surpass the high bar already set and it kind of let me down. ‘Manchester Happened’ is a mixed bag.

This collection is made up of 12 stories which explore themes such as migration, family, love, belonging and community. I enjoyed reading the Prologue and the second part of the book. I struggled with the first part of the book and I was disappointed with the pace. While there are some brilliant stories in this book, still a part of me could not resonate with it’s first part. When I look at it now it could be due to the fact that I enjoy stories set in Africa more, in this case Uganda. Reading about migration is always an interesting experience for me because I get a glimpse of life on the other side, so I will give it that. The humor was a great bonus to the generally good storytelling. The themes in the first part are very important, without any doubts. The life of migrants in Britain, particularly Manchester. Although the title of the book is also a short story in the collection, Manchester happened means so many things to me both in ‘The Departing’ (part 1) and ‘The Return’ (part 2).

In part one it denotes the change that happens due to migrating from Uganda to Manchester; working multiple jobs, home sickness, disintegration of families (e.g when wives are the breadwinners and the husbands start feeling emasculated/ children behaving like ‘spoiled brats), living in squalid conditions, changing of names, racism, colourism, culture shock, the complexities of interracial relationships and the disuse of one’s mother tongue. The Departure colours a picture of certain realities that those left behind at home may not understand like the issue of belonging which has a great effect on the mental health of the migrants and how even when things are not going well others chose to stick with the tide until they find their breakthrough. This book shows how life is complicated, not just the big things but even in the small things that have a great impact on someone who is alone in a foreign country, ‘She was suitably intimidated by the absence of people in the streets, the orderly life, the silence of the world, the obsessive timekeeping, the hyperpoliteness and the fact that though she spoke English well enough, she did not understand one word that was said.’Perhaps, the things that appear to be so small and insignificant are not so small after all. People will change their names, talk, manners etc to make their situations bearable. What’s in a name I wondered reading this highlighted quote, ‘She had not come to Britain to showcase Uganda’s naming creativity. And if you challenged her on altering her name or questioned her loyalty to African culture she would ask What has Africa done for me?’ What is also important is community, a group of people who have a common understanding of home and who find common ground in their differences even if it’s just a dinner where Ugandan food is served to remind them of home. Although they are not related they all come from Uganda and that sort of binds them. I liked Poonah’s character, hers is a story of struggle, courage and hard work yielding positive results.

‘The Return’ shows the change that happens to an individual which they only realize upon their return to Uganda. With eyes now wide open and minds exposed to a different world, certain realizations hit them. While Manchester happened life moved on in Uganda. ‘Fifteen years away is not long enough to forget things, but it is long enough to yearn for a certain Britishness, like hyper-politeness, political correctness, queuing up and those tiny rights I’d learnt to demand’ and this makes me wonder what is easier/harder to forget or to remember? They return as new people, with some new twangs, new beliefs and priorities. But how can such an experience not change one, for better or for worse? Some return as visitors and others return to settle back home yet their returning experience is filled so many similarities, ‘We were not Ugandan in Uganda the way we were in Britain.’ In their various experiences we are introduced to the perspectives of those who return and those who remained. It was sad to read about the striking change that happens when that yearning for home turns into resentment once some returnees set their feet on African soil. Equally sad is the effect of distance on relations, some grandparents never get to meet their grandchildren and have to find comfort in photographs, ‘For a long time Mikka’s parents are in their own world, looking for themselves in Mikka’s children. When their excitement wanes, she returns the phone. I promise to print off the pictures and bring them.’ Instant favourites were ‘The Aftertaste of Success’ and ‘Let’s Tell this Story Properly.’

If you are looking for the unfiltered snapshots of life as a migrant and all that it comes with, this book is for you. Makumbi is a straightforward writer and this makes her work stand out. It is always a great read for me when I get to have an insight into other people’s cultures and this was one of those reads. Makumbi is unapologetically Ugandan and her work is evidence of that. In this text you find Ugandan food, language and traditional rites seeded in the story. I spent the whole night reading this book and I am glad that it kept me company on an otherwise dull night!


Book Details

Title: Manchester Happened

Author: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 320

Publisher: OneWorld Publications (2019)

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