Curse follows family through generations

Kintu. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Oneworld. 

"Epic" has become a grossly overused word when it comes to describing works of fiction.

But taking on 250 years of Ugandan history in a debut novel that reportedly took a decade to write probably makes Kintu worthy of the tag.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi tells the story of a family curse passed down through six generations.

Its origins lie with Kintu Kidda, a revered 18th-century chief of a bountiful province in the kingdom of Buganda.

On a journey to the capital to pledge allegiance to the new overlord, Kintu strikes his adopted son after witnessing him breaking protocol.

The teen dies but rather than disclose the tragedy to his twin wives and the boy's genetic father, he lies.

The curse is born.

The novel begins in 2004 when Kintu's descendant Kamu is beaten to death by an angry mob which mistakes him for a thief.

Though the family curse is referenced early, Makumbi shows it is perhaps the country that has been bedevilled.

"The word thief summed up the common enemy. Why there was no supper the previous night; why their children were not on their way to school. Thief was the president who arrived two and a half years ago waving `democracy' at them ... thief was tax-collectors taking their money to redistribute to the rich. Thief was God poised with a can of aerosol Africancide, his finger pressing hard on the button."

While the family appear to suffer an unfortunate run of luck, they are not alone.

Unlike the majority of African fiction, in which the theme of colonisation is never far from the surface, Makumbi sparingly notes it.

Authors such as Chinua Achebe use the rich culture and tradition of their homeland to juxtapose the tyranny of the homogenous Europeans.

There is a deliberate avoidance of too directly addressing that in Kintu but the echoes of the colonisers in the modern portrayal of Africa are undeniable.

In one poignant passage, Kintu's great-grandson Miisi describes it as creating "Africanstein".

"Buganda, unlike the rest of Africa, was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises ... But once under chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house."

In such a comprehensive sweep of Ugandan history, readers would be forgiven for expecting more focus on Idi Amin's reign of the 1970s.

Aside from a political debate between two old men, the dictator barely gets a mention.

It allows the reader to focus on the six major characters through whom Makumbi wraps two and a-half centuries of hardship and drama.

For me, not all of them shone and sometimes it felt as if the author was trying a little too hard to knit their collective histories together.

That said, Kintu is staggering in scale and will no doubt perpetually be held as one of the defining texts in Ugandan literature.

 - Rob Kidd is an ODT court reporter and books editor


Add a Comment