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Storytelling as an act of resistance in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s ‘The First Woman.’

When I read Kintu I said to myself, ‘I like this,’ and after reading this book I can safely say that ‘I love this!’ I could not put this book down and I finished it in one sitting . I love an embracing first line and this story is important to me as an African feminist. There are so many gems layered in this book, I want everyone I know to experience the power of Makumbi’s pen.


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My thoughts

This is a story about Kirabo who when the novel starts is a young girl living in Nattetta, Bugerere, Uganda. She struggles with the question of her mother’s identity and location, ‘where is my mother?’ becomes her constant pain. She also battles against a supernatural power that she is convinced she does not want. She is brought up by her paternal grandparents and a father who is barely there. Kirabo holds on to the times when her father is available making him a saint. As she grows and goes through the seasons of life she finds out a lot about her family, the secrets, tradition, love, patriarchy, friendship, betrayal, class and the truth about being a woman. As the book ends, Kirabo is a young adult woman who has to make decisions on her own and for her good but that is difficult because the systems still have not changed. At the background of this story are the effects of Idi Amin’s rule. It disrupts the characters’ normal way of life forcing them to also face some truths about this kind of rule. The book is divided into five parts; The Witch, The Bitch, Utopia, When The Villages Were Young and Why Hens Peck Each Other.

I related to this story because for me it is a deconstruction of the several false narratives about Africa, culture and stories that have been peddled over so many years. I see feminism in this book before it came to me in shapes of the West and colours of theories which at the core may seem to be divergent from the African experience. I felt seen. I do not want to hear anyone telling me that my feminism is ‘UnAfrican.’ Makumbi doesn’t shy away from the harsh and unlikeable bits of those truths and lies either. Those that demand that we do justice for ourselves. Is the power that we hold enough? This is a book that tells it like it is, acting as a mirror for the reader to see what needs to be changed in our ways as a people and what stands between us and our goal in this struggle. It is such a raw and moving story that will leave you asking for more.

I love the way Makumbi uses oral tradition. From the use of Nsuuta’s eyewitness, hearsay and dream accounts encompassing historical traditions, tales, sayings, to the proverbs and gossip too! Folklore is an integral part of the foundation of the plot. This book had me asking myself what the value of oral tradition is as a source of history. There is a message in all these mediums (both seeming and intended) about the first woman. Her power, flaws and how the subjugation of women is what it is now. Tradition is also information remembered. At times Nsuuta twitches her story of the first woman, showing the limitations of her story. However, this is what she tells, Kirabo, that she has to tell it as she remembers it and give it a meaning that she wants it to carry. How many stories link women to water?

This is an English novel but Makumbi ensures that Luganda (one of the languages used in a Uganda) is visible, it takes up its rightful space and demands its power to be felt. I value this because there is power in our African languages. There are some meanings and lessons that can be lost in translation and when a writer respects their language that warms my heart because it does not need to be hidden. This is not a new way of writing but it is done beautifully and in a seamless manner. It makes the book relatable. Language is a tool which Makumbi uses through her pen to communicate our reality and dreams. She also has jokes! I could not help but laugh at the comic moments, ironic humour is what it is.

The book is long ( about 400 pages) and I know that may deter some readers from getting this book. Once you get into the story you get lost in it and you don’t worry about the length. Giibwa and Kirabo broke my heart and I want to go after Makumbi to ask her ‘Why, why why?’ I know I will read this book again.

These are my top five quotes from the book:

1. ‘What I meant, child, is that we are our circumstances. And until we have experienced all the circumstances the world can throw at us, seen all the versions we can be, we cannot claim to know ourselves. How then do we start to know someone else?’ (page 31)

2. ‘Water has no shape, it can be this, it can be that, depending on where it flows. The sea is inconsistent, it cannot be tamed, it does not yield to human cultivation, it cannot be owned; you cannot draw borders on the ocean. To the ancients, women belonged with the sea like in marriage.’ (page 55)

3. ‘My grandmothers called it kweluma. That is when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite. It is a form of relief. If you cannot bite your oppressor, you bite yourself.’ (page 66)

4. ‘Promise me that you will pass on the story of the first woma- in whatever form you wish. It was given to me by women in captivity. They lived in an awful state of migration, my grandmothers. Telling origin stories was their act of resistance. I only added on a bit here and a bit there. Stories are critical critical’ (page 431)

5. ‘Kirabo ignored it because humans were like that; they turn their shame into anger’ (page 420)

Without knowing it, I needed to read this book. Candid, multi-dimensional, affirming and relevant. I don’t regret pulling an all nighter it was totally worth it! I see Kirabo, I feel her and I know her. A brilliant book without a doubt. This is an essential read.


Book Details

Title: The First Woman

Author: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 448

Publisher: One World Publications (2020)

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