Literary Hub

In Kintu, a Look at What it Means to be Ugandan Now

Ugandans have waited a long time for Kintu to exist. Since it was first published in 2014, after winning the Kwani Manuscript Project, the enthusiasm with which Kintu has been received in Uganda has been difficult to describe but remarkable to witness. Last year, I had the pleasure of trailing behind Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi at the Writivism literary festival in Kampala, as readers and other writers caught at the hem of her garment. In such circles, it is hard to overstate what a rock star she is, and how precious her book has already become. The book sold out immediately, and even those who hadn’t read it were talking about it and about where to get it. It’s not hyperbole to call Kintu the great Ugandan novel. It is, simply and obviously, a plain fact.

Her reception in the UK, where she lives with her family, has been very different. Even after winning the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Makumbi was told that Kintu was unpublishable, that it was much too African for British readers. Perhaps a sprawling multi-character saga like this one might work if the characters were white, if the proper nouns were places like Oxford or Southampton, and if their names were solid English names (and for goodness sake, only one name each!).

In Great Britain, after all, who has even heard of Kintu, the mythical first man on earth and founder of the Buganda Kingdom? Who would know to pronounce his name with a soft ch sound, instead of a hard k? Perhaps British readers might be interested in the exoticism of the historical novel that Kintu starts off as being—the 90 pages or so that are set in the 18th century, before the rest of the novel reverts to 2004—but could the book-buying public be expected to care about the struggles of an extended family in present-day Kampala?

If you must write about Africa, then you write about dictators, ethnography, and war; these are the sorts of stories that confirm what people already “know” about Africa. And if you must write about Uganda, then you place a white character in the middle of the action. You write about Africans who have left Africa and migrated to the United States or Europe. You write about the legacies of colonialism. If you can’t make Europe the hero of the story—and these days, you can’t—then you can at least make Europe the villain. One editor rejected the manuscript because Makumbi didn’t want to change it: to publish it, they would have to change it, and the novel is too good to change.


“If you must write about Africa, then you write about dictators, ethnography, and war; these are the sorts of stories that confirm what people already ‘know’ about Africa.”


The main thing to know, simply, is that this novel was written for Ugandans. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. What, after all, is a Ugandan? For one thing, a Ugandan might be someone for whom complex and indefinite extended families are more the norm than the exception, a world in which siblings might be cousins, parents aren’t always parents, and everybody can have at least three different names, depending on who they’re standing next to. A Ugandan might be someone for whom family is a much older and more permanent institution than the nation, and in which nothing is more political than sex and children. A Ugandan might also be someone who knows the name Kintu, whether or not they know what it means. At the highest level of abstraction, perhaps, a Ugandan is someone with firm ideas about what it means to be Ugandan, and who it is that isn’t. But if Uganda is real, its borders are anything but clear and obvious: American readers might struggle to keep track of the names and relations that proliferate across the pages of this novel, but it’s not like these things are easy for Ugandans. They are not. If family is the texture of everyday life, then everyday life is as confusing and indefinite (and borderline fictional) as family history itself.

More concretely, this book is for Ugandans because it’s saturated with Ugandan words and places and names. From the hills and valleys that the urban jungle of Kampala now sprawls across—but that once looked out over the Buganda Kingdom—to the long roads and rivers that crisscross the country, Kintu is a novel about a singular and all-encompassing sense of place. And these references tell stories. You may speed past them on your way to your destination, but even a traveler who cannot understand the language—who can only look, see, and move on—will still feel the depth of the novel’s engagement with Ugandan history. This is part of Kintu’s magic: you will feel more than you know. This also applies to Ugandans, especially those for whom “history” is the story of Europe in Africa.

As Makumbi has been quick to explain, Kintu flowed out of a desire to give Ugandans a taste of their own long and complicated history, to do for Ugandans something like what Chinua Achebe novels did for Nigerians in the 1960s: to make them look at a hill, for example, and know that the Ganda have been climbing it for centuries. To remind them that Uganda’s history did not begin in 1962, when it gained independence from Great Britain, or even a few years earlier, when Europeans first “discovered” them. To place today’s cultural politics—of citizenship, sexuality, and spirituality—into the deep and long endurance of centuries. Most of all, to tell a singular tale of Uganda as an expansive family saga, in which blood ties only mean as much as the stories we tell about them.

Makumbi began to write this story in 2003, in short bursts of frenetic, intense work that were followed by long fallow periods of distraction and contemplation. She was thinking about many things. One of them was a memory from her childhood, when she read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, in which a father kills his foster son. “It cut much too close!” she told me. “I was so young. I found myself looking at my father’s hands and wondering, ‘Would he kill me? Would he kill me?’” When her father lost his faculties, years later, she found herself dwelling on mental illness and the stereotype of Africa as a “mad place.” And when she began a PhD in African literature, in England, she became frustrated at the insistence of her supervisors that “African Literature” be the story of Europe in Africa. As she began to write what she was then calling The Kintu Saga, she vowed to tell the story of Uganda with colonialism placed in perspective: not to say that the colonial encounter wasn’t important, but that it wasn’t the only thing that was.

A decade later, it’s easy to find these biographical fragments in the final product. But as haunted as she might have been by Achebe’s novels—about a father who kills his son and a father who goes mad—and as destructive as that legacy is, Kintu is a response to Things Fall Apart in which the story of a family curse is also a story of survivals. African literature is littered with patriarchal novels about how Africa’s manhood was taken by Europe: it’s one of Achebe’s great themes. But while Kintu might be another story about men dying, it’s also about families surviving (and often with women at the head). Makumbi insists that Kintu is a “masculinist” novel, and it is: focusing on the fragile edifice of paternity, she emphasizes the toll that patriarchy takes on the people who happen to be men. For that same reason, it’s also one of the most feminist books one is likely to read. But when I asked her why she didn’t call it “feminist,” she laughed, and explained that I would have to wait and read what she was writing next. When I had, she said, I wouldn’t have to ask; that would be feminist.

Makumbi is a scholar, and to write Kintu, she dug into the archives, asking questions about names and places and expressions and history. But Ugandan history is filled with stories that the archive won’t tell, places where the historical record suddenly goes silent. To tell that history, she had to become a fiction writer attuned to silences. After all, Uganda is a family, and Kintu is the story of how all families are built out of silences and fictions: sometimes an uncle is really a father, or a cousin is really a brother; even mothers are never necessarily who you think they are. And sometimes the past separates us, and is better forgotten. Kintu is about creating family ties where none existed before, about making homes and families that can reach across the gaps of time and space; it’s also about making up new truths when the old ones are lost or inadequate. It’s about journeying far away to find out where you are from.


“Ugandan history is filled with stories that the archive won’t tell, places where the historical record suddenly goes silent.”


Take, for example, the long opening journey that begins the first book, as Kintu Kidda and his men cross the o Lwera desert on their way to the capital of the Buganda Kingdom. For him, the journey takes many days of hard travel across a barren and forbidding landscape. The governor of a distant province, and of suspiciously non-Ganda ancestry, Kintu is loyal to the Ganda kabaka, however far he is from the centers of courtly power. And so he must cross o Lwera to prove his allegiance; he must re-establish the links between the center and the periphery of the great Buganda Kingdom, must reassure the Ganda that he is part of it. As he travels—as he contemplates his situation, remembering his past and planning his future—we are immersed in his world, the courtly intrigues and domestic complications that consume him.

But we also follow him into the trials and tribulations of making family and nations out of strangers. Neither one is just there—both must be made.

Kintu Kidda is fictional, but the o Lwera desert is as real as the Ganda. Even today, the phrase “Kulika o Lwera” is a common greeting for travelers on their arrival in Kampala, a “well done!” for surviving the journey across its barren wasteland. It’s not so formidable now. When she was young, Makumbi told me, she never understood why people said Kulika o Lwera to new arrivals; it was just something you said. The phrase survives as a relic of a time before planes and railroads and paved roads, when the barren stretch of land to the south of Kampala was still a fearsome barrier for travelers on foot. If you are traveling to Kampala on Masaka road today, you could be done with this journey in an afternoon. But it was not so long ago that it would make sense to congratulate someone for having managed not to die while crossing it. The world was much bigger a short century or three ago.

Today, the phrase has also taken on a new meaning: the over-burdened Masaka road is an accident trap, a graveyard for automobiles and unlucky travelers. On foot or in a car, o Lwera is o Lwera. The historical resonance doesn’t stop there: the road that a provincial governor might have taken to visit the capital in 1750 is the same road that Idi Amin’s army took in the late 1970s when they set off to invade Tanzania and conquer a province that (he claimed) historically belonged to Uganda. It’s the same road that Yoweri Museveni took, in the 1980s, when his army invaded Uganda from Tanzania, establishing himself as president until today (despite some who murmur that he is suspiciously Rwandan). It’s the road that Rwandan refugees might take to Kampala, looking to find new lives in the capital, or the road they might take to return. And on arrival, they might all say the same thing, Kulika o Lwera.

Kintu rings with this sense of deep history, grounded in place while effortlessly leaping from past to present and to the past-in-the-present. It carries us from the courtly intrigue and sexual politics of the 18th century to the trials and tribulations of an extended family today, to the many and scattered descendants of the Kintu clan, united by a curse that may or may not be real and by the ghosts, stories, and memories that link them all together. Most of all, they are united by the place they all live in, the land that makes them all Ugandans, and the home to which they all strive to arrive.

Some of Kintu’s history is invented. Buddu province was not added to the Buganda Kingdom until later in the 1700s, for example, and Makumbi admits to moving a few landmarks to where the plot needed them to be. But then, Kintu is not history, and even “history” is not necessarily true. And this is also the point of Kintu, where families are made as much by hiding the truth as by disclosing it; why tell a son, after all, that he’s really adopted? Why let it become true by saying the words? Indeed, this is the challenge of the historical novel: whether or not the stories are true might be the least important thing about them. History as it’s written down in books is one thing, but history as it’s lived is another.


“On the ground, history is the accumulated prejudices, hopes, and superstitions that we carry even if we don’t understand how we acquired them.”


Kintu belongs in the latter camp, and for good reason. When historians trained in Europe tell the story of Uganda, it’s all about endings and beginnings, how Europe came and everything fell apart, or how independence came and colonialism fell apart; it’s always the story of how the past recedes into the background as we race irrevocably forward. From that perspective, African history looks like a fast-moving train. “Tribalism” fades as modernity looms on the horizon. But on the ground, history looks nothing like this clash of nations and empires and states, however true and valid such stories may be on their terms; on the ground, history is the accumulated prejudices, hopes, and superstitions that we carry even if we don’t understand how we acquired them, everything we don’t know that makes us who we are. History is a fabric of memories and fear and forgetting, of longing and nostalgia, of invention and re-creation. History is bunk, and sometimes it’s a good thing it is.

This is Kintu: the story of how the old pasts are forgotten sonthat new pasts, new families, and new nations can be remembered into existence.

What makes a Ugandan? A Ugandan might be someone who knows the story of Kintu, the mythological first man on earth, both the Adam of the Ganda creation story—with Nnambi, his Eve—and the legendary founder of the Buganda Kingdom. But as Makumbi explained to me, even this Kintu is already an ahistorical conflation, a Ganda-centric mythology placing that kingdom at the center of the world (and at the center of Uganda). At barely six or eight centuries old, the Buganda Kingdom is not quite as old as the human race; we may safely presume that the human race is a bit older than that. More to the point, Uganda is a nation-state that includes vast stretches of terrain and populations whose ancestors never spoke Luganda, who found themselves inside the Buganda Kingdom due to the usual machinations of state-building and imperial politics. But this historical land-grab is as good as any place to start to think about what it means to be Ugandan, now. And whether it’s true is a lot less interesting (and illuminating) than why it’s false in the way it is.

Kintu was written, then, for people for whom the name Kintu means something. Now you are one of those people.


From the introduction to Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Used with permission of Transit Books. Introduction copyright © 2017 by Aaron Bady.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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