Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1967 and now lives in Manchester. Her first novel, Kintu, was longlisted for the Etisalat prize in 2014, and she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in the same year. Her first short story collection, Manchester Happened, was published in 2019. She was awarded the prestigious Windham-Campbell prize for fiction in 2018. Her latest novel, The First Woman – is a powerful feminist rendition of Ugandan origin tales, charting the young girl Kirabo’s journey to find her place in the world.
Reasons why I like Jennifer Makumbi and why you should too:
- She writes her language on any day and time. She reminds us that it is okay to be proud of our culture and to carry it along with us even when we travel. She reminds us that our language is something we should pride in and that nothing should stop us from using it whenever we wish to. Jennifer does not write with the white gaze in mind; it is clear she writes for Africans.
- She reminds us to speak up for ourselves and to ensure our voice is heard. Her storytelling is very compelling and unique, and it is easy to see stories unfold. She shows us that Africans too can write for the entire world based on our real-time experiences and not worry that our languages are different from the western world. Unlike most African writers, Jennifer does not focus on colonisation – whether its impact or emphasis on how it was before. She simply tells Ugandan/African as they are.
- She does not shy away from taboo topics such as mental health, LGBTQ community, single households, feminist thinking etc., all in the African context. In Kintu and Manchester Happened, she depicts how such issues existed even before the white man and how we dealt with them.
- Her way of marrying tradition and modern society is mind-blowing. Jennifer honours the Ugandan, specifically Baganda tradition, whether she is telling of the lives of Ugandans in the United Kingdom, the ancient kingdom of Buganda or the current setting in Kampala. You can see the love for her people in her storytelling without idolising them.
- I found Manchester Happened amazing as the writings reflect a rich oral storytelling tradition. Each of the stories in this book is powerfully exciting and wonderful and portrays beautiful people. This is the first collection of stories I’ve read whose endings left me unsettled because I want more of them. All stories written in this book ended perfectly, and I found myself smiling to myself and laughing out loud while reading.
- Kintu was the first book I read of African Mythology, and it is what introduced me to Jennifer. From the book’s setting, the rich characters, the descriptions of the places in Uganda that were all too familiar, to the honouring of all myths, traditions and culture, Jennifer did not fall short. I could smell the odours she described. I am sure I can paint some of the people in the stories. This book left me with so much pride, understanding and respect for the Ugandan people, especially the Buganda Kingdom and Traditions.
There are so many things to rave about Jennifer that I could write, but I could not do her justice; I can only advise you to pick up her book. Below are excerpts from her two books.
From Manchester Happened:
This is a family story where a mother and her two daughters leave for Manchester, a decision made after she found out her husband cheated on her with another woman. The time comes, and her elder daughter is to get married, rituals to be carried out in Uganda. On their return, the younger daughter is shocked because the house was swept and nothing left. Later, when everything is explained, the rituals take place. On the d-day, this young boy Bwemage is brought, he’s the muko and has no idea of who the people are when asked. However, the spokesperson acted smart and gave him an envelope without anyone noticing.
Bribery is traditionally Ganda, I swear! Bwemage grabbed the envelope and hid it behind his back, and flashed a toothy smile at Mulumba’s spokesman. ‘Oh, it’s you, tsk. For a moment there, I didn’t recognise you. Finally, you’ve come. You’re lucky you’re in time. I was about to give my sister away.”
Kintu’s mind lingered on the first conflict that led to a soul splitting into twins. No matter how he looked at it, life was tragic. If the soul is at conflict even at this remotest level of existence, what chance do communities have? This made the Ganda custom of marrying female identical twins to the same man preposterous. It goes against their very nature, Kintu thought. Twins split because they cannot be one; why keep them as such in life? Besides, identical men did not marry the same woman.
But even as he raged against custom, Kintu knew that in the world of twins, things could be worse. There were people born as single souls only to bear twin personalities. More tragic were twins who changed their minds too late and arrived conjoined.
Jeniffer is an amazing author who is proud of being African and I am glad that a friend from Uganda introduced me to her work. My favourite story from Manchester happened was Let’s tell this story properly.