Of Kintu, the witty, sensual and provocative page turner - Daily Nation

Of Kintu, the witty, sensual and provocative page turner

Friday June 27 2014

Prof Ali Mazrui’s commentaries in our daily newspapers are different from the self-praise and self-centred articles we read from literary critics such as Prof Chris Wanjala, Prof Peter Amuka and Prof Egara Kabaji, who say and reveal nothing new, except lamenting that Taban Liyong is wrong to claim that East Africa is a literary desert. PHOTO/FILE

Prof Ali Mazrui’s commentaries in our daily newspapers are different from the self-praise and self-centred articles we read from literary critics such as Prof Chris Wanjala, Prof Peter Amuka and Prof Egara Kabaji, who say and reveal nothing new, except lamenting that Taban Liyong is wrong to claim that East Africa is a literary desert. PHOTO/FILE 

By TOM ODHIAMBO
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I would be lying if I said I know exactly why you should read this book, Kintu (Kwani?, 2014) by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

But I can certainly tell you that this is a book worth your money and time. Although a very Bugandan/Ugandan book, Kintu is witty, humorous, deliberately provocative and sensual in many places; it carries the certainty of an aunt, the caution of a grandmother, the daring spirit of the young but remains very faithful to history. It was a page turner for me for two days. Give it a try.

I could be wrong but this book will make some Baganda nationalists or traditionalists cheer.

They will find back-up reasons for the myths of the tribe. These legends will give them reason to continue demanding for their land — or taxes — and recognition of their long-suffering kingdom.

They will rejoice at the tales of their conquests of neighbouring tribes in those pre-colonial days. Glory and goriness of that past, which defined Muganda manhood, as retold in Kintu, will be relished by the nostalgic men (and women) who yearn for the days of their empire there is enough retelling of the history of the Buganda Kingdom to make the royalists smile, knowingly.

The “Africanists” will find the tale of Kintu and his lineage very satisfying.

The contrast of the Western/Christian worldview – presented through Kanani Kintu and Faisi’s illogical obsession with Christianity, especially of the “saved” (they called themselves the Awakened) type – and the (pseudo)-neo-traditionalist views propagated by Miisi, is quite appealing.

LAST WOMAN STANDING

The seeming triumph of the neo-traditionalists, all with the revival of the tribe/clan’s shrine under the supervision of a Cambridge-educated modern seer — the restorer of order is conveniently called Muganda — would make an impressive case for many among Africans today who believe that the only salvation for Africa’s madness is to go back to its ‘traditions’ — whatever those are.

However, the poetic uncertainty about the competing worldviews in Kintu is the perfect provocation for further debate on what values Africa needs to retrieve from its past to save itself from self-destruction.

The feminists will find a story to re-tell and celebrate in Kintu. Although the madness and haunting that runs in the families in Kintu seem to be carried by the women – it is the jealousy between Baabirye and Nnakato, twin sisters, that partly leads to the curse of madness in the family — it is women who end up as redeemers of the clan.

In fact, the patriarch, Miisi, enthrones his daughter as the heir to the family name and one would assume the caretaker of the clan’s interests. Miisi has no option but to make his daughter inherit him because all his sons die before him, leaving the daughter, Kusi, an army general, the only survivor in the family.

At the end of Kintu, there are three women left standing, sane and likely to carry the name of the clan: Kusi, Bweeza and Suubi. So, despite the suffering of the Kintu women in the story throughout the historical period of its telling, the narrator offers them to the reader as the future of the lineage. I bet some men won’t like this kind of ending at all. They will ask: why present so many men as violent, mad and killers; and why kill many of the men in the story? They will wonder if this is another story laden with a feminist agenda to sort out the supposed longstanding gender inequality.

Health experts and anti-Aids activists will be happy that there are enough pages in Kintu dedicated to HIV/AIDs. Indeed one of the characters in the story tries to commit suicide because he fears that he is HIV-positive. He survives to “discover” that he is “negative”. It all reads a bit preachy when one knows the history of HIV/AIDS in Uganda – it is as if the author couldn’t resist the old stereotype of Uganda and its history. On the flipside, one imagines that if she didn’t tell the story of ‘slim’ in Uganda, she would have been accused of sanitising Ugandan history. Well, reader, choose your side.

Stylistically, the opening of this story is a masterstroke. The senseless killing of Kamu Kintu through the ‘justice’ meted out by a mob that overwhelms the “local councillors” (LCs as they are called in Uganda) in the prologue sets off a chain reaction that makes the rest of the story read like a murder mystery.

The reader will be looking for signs that Kamu’s death will be solved. Indeed it is when later the sister, Kusi, pursues the case and probably kills the men who had killed his brother.

RELEVANCE IN HISTORY

But the shifting of the story from the ‘past’ past of Buganda/Uganda to a recent past – it begins in 2004 then goes back to 1750, back and forth, also powerfully restates the relevance of history in the re-making of Buganda/Uganda/Eastern Africa/Africa.

However, it appears that Makumbi is not celebrating African history for the sake of it. She seems to be suggesting that, especially when she presents the internecine bloodletting in the Buganda kingdoms, Africans should pick their lessons from the past carefully.

Indeed, the myth of the Kintu’s curse is presented here partly as a metaphor for both Afro-pessimists and Afro-optimists.

I will read and re-read Kintu just because of its insistence on the need to understand history as the only way for Africa to process its crises and search for answers to its sad past. I know that This is probably a generalisation but Africa’s problems are so banal that it’s incomprehensible why we don’t learn from history. 

Kintu is being launched in Nairobi today by Kwani?, with the author available to sign copies. 

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