A Chapter from the Great Ugandan Novel

“Come With Us” by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

AN INTRODUCTION BY ADAM Z. LEVY AND ASHLEY NELSON LEVY

 

When Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, then a little-known Ugandan writer living in England, won the 2013 Kwani? Manuscript Project for her debut novel, Kintu, she could not have anticipated the literary sensation it would become. In East Africa, copies of Kintu sold out immediately. In 2014, it was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize for African Fiction. Makumbi won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize the same year.

Divided into six sections, Kintu begins with a murder in present-day Kampala before returning to 1750, when Kintu Kidda sets out for the capital to pledge allegiance to the new leader of the Buganda Kingdom. Along the way, he unleashes a curse that will follow his family for generations. Weaving together the stories of Kintu’s descendants, Makumbi has written a sweeping saga that’s bound to be a modern classic.

“It’s not hyperbole to call Kintu the great Ugandan novel,” Aaron Bady writes in his introduction. “It is, simply and obviously, a plain fact.” When Makumbi began writing the book in 2004, she wrote out of a desire to do for Ugandans what Chinua Achebe’s novels did for Nigeria in the 1960s: “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.”

Without there being an obvious mirror in which Western readers could see themselves reflected, major UK and US publishers shied away from a book that was considered “too African.” In fact, this is one the book’s defining features: It reimagines Uganda’s pre-colonial past and present, placing the colonial encounter outside the frame. That frame, however, remains wide enough to capture an ambitious story both deeply literary and deeply moving — no matter where it’s set.

As publishers, we came across one of the original copies from Kenya, then unavailable in the US, through Bady. We took turns reading it, and knew immediately that we were in the presence of a special book: one that both spoke to the narrative tradition from which it emerged and struck out on a path of its own. Two weeks later we acquired it. We hope readers are as taken with it as we were.

Adam Z. Levy & Ashley Nelson Levy
Publishers of Transit Books

 

A Chapter from the Great Ugandan Novel

“Come With Us”

by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Bwaise, Kampala

Monday, January 5, 2004

There was a knock. Kamu’s woman woke up and climbed over him to get the door. She picked a kanga off the floor and wrapped it around her naked body. Sucking her teeth at being disturbed so early in the morning, she walked to the door with the annoyance of a proper wife whose husband was at home.

The woman considered herself Kamu’s wife because she had moved in with him two years earlier and he had not once thrown her out. Every night after work he came home to her, brought shopping, ate her cooking. He was always ravenous. When she visited her parents, Kamu gave her money so she did not go empty-handed. That was more than many certified wives got. Besides, she had not heard rumors of another woman. Maybe Kamu banged some girl once in a while but at least he did not flaunt it in her face. The only glitch in her quest to become Kamu’s full wife was that he still wore a condom with her. With his seed locked away, she had not grown roots deep enough to secure her against future storms. A child was far more secure than waddling down the aisle with a wedding ring and piece of paper. Nonetheless, she would bide her time: condoms have been known to rip. Besides, sex with a condom is like sucking a sweet in its wrapper; Kamu would one day give it up.

The woman unbolted the door and pulled it back. She stepped outside on the veranda and stood stern, arms folded. Below her were four men, their breath steaming into the morning air. Their greetings were clipped and their eyes looked away from her as if they were fed-up lenders determined to get their money back. This thawed the woman’s irritation and she moistened her lips. The men asked for Kamu and she turned to go back to the inner room.

The woman and Kamu lived in a two-roomed house on a terraced block in Bwaise, a swamp beneath Kampala’s backside. Kampala perches, precariously, on numerous hills. Bwaise and other wetlands are nature’s floodplains below the hills. But because of urban migrants like Kamu and his woman, the swamps are slums. In colonial times, educated Ugandans had lived on the floodplains while Europeans lived up in the hills. When the Europeans left, educated Ugandans climbed out of the swamps, slaked off the mud, and took to the hills and raw Ugandans flooded the swamps. Up in the hills, educated Ugandans assumed the same contempt as Europeans had for them. In any case, suspicion from up in the hills fell down into the swamps — all swamp dwellers were thieves.

On her way to the inner room, the woman stumbled on rolled mats that had slid to the floor. She picked them up and saw, to her dismay, that the bright greens, reds, and purples had melted into messy patches, obliterating the intricate patterns her mother had weaved. In spite of the tons and tons of soil compacted to choke the swamp, Bwaise carried on as if its residents were still the fish, frogs, and yams of precolonial times. In the dry season, the floor in her house wept and the damp ate everything lying on it. In the rainy season, the woman carried everything of value on her head. Sometimes, however, it rained both from the sky and from the ground; then the house flooded. From the look of her mats, it had rained in the night.

As she laid the discolored mats on top of the skinny Johnson sofa, she felt a film of dust on her smart white chair-backs. The culprit was the gleaming 5-CD Sonny stereo (a fake Sony model, made in Taiwan), squeezed into a corner. She glanced at it and pride flooded her heart. Since its arrival just before Christmas, Kamu blared music at full volume to the torment of their neighbors. The booming shook the fragile walls and scattered dust. The wooden box on which a tiny Pansonic TV (also made in Taiwan) sat was damp too. If the moisture got into the TV, there would be sparks. She thought of shifting the TV, but there was no space for its detached screen.

The woman squeezed behind the sofa and went back into the inner room. Kamu was still asleep. She shook him gently. “Kamu, Kamu! Some men at the door want you.”

Kamu got up. He was irritated but the woman didn’t know how to apologize for the men. He pulled on a T-shirt, which hung loose and wide on him. When he turned, “Chicago Bulls” had curved on his back. He then retrieved a pair of gray trousers off a nail in the wall and put them on. The woman handed him a cup of water. He washed his face and rinsed his mouth. When Kamu stepped out of the house, each man bid him good morning but avoided looking at him.

“Come with us, Mr. Kintu. We need to ask you some questions,” one of the men said as they turned to leave.

Kamu shrugged. He had recognized them as the Local Councillors for Bwaise Central. “LCs,” he whispered to his woman and they exchanged a knowing look. LCs tended to ask pointless questions to show that they are working hard.

As he slipped on a pair of sandals, Kamu was seized by a bout of sneezing.

“Maybe you need a jacket,” his woman suggested.

“No, it’s morning hay fever. I’ll be all right.”

Still sneezing, Kamu followed the men. He suspected that a debtor had perhaps taken matters too far and reported him to the local officials. They had ambushed him at dawn before the day swallowed him. It was envy for his new stereo and TV, no doubt.

They walked down a small path, across a rubbish-choked stream, past an elevated latrine at the top of a flight of stairs. The grass was so soaked that it squished under their steps. To protect his trousers, Kamu held them up until they came to the wider murram road with a steady flow of walkers, cyclists, and cars.

Here the councillors surrounded him and his hands were swiftly tied behind his back. Taken by surprise, Kamu asked, “Why are you tying me like a thief?”

With those words Kamu sentenced himself. A boy — it could have been a girl — shouted, “Eh, eh, a thief. They’ve caught a thief!”

Bwaise, which had been half-awake up to that point, sat up. Those whose jobs could wait a bit stopped to stare. Those who had no jobs at all crossed the road to take a better look. For those whose jobs came as rarely as a yam’s flower this was a chance to feel useful.

The word thief started to bounce from here to there, first as a question then as a fact. It repeated itself over and over like an echo calling. The crowd grew: swelled by insomniacs, by men who had fled the hungry stares of their children, by homeless children who leapt out of the swamp like frogs, by women gesturing angrily, “Let him see it: thieves keep us awake all night,” and by youths who yelped, “We have him!”

The councillors, now realizing what was happening, hurried to take Kamu out of harm’s way but instead their haste attracted anger. “Where are you taking him?” the crowd, now following them, wanted to know. The councillors registered too late that they were headed toward Bwaise Market. A multitude of vendors, who hate councillors, had already seen them and were coming. Before they had even arrived, one of them pointed at the councillors and shouted, “They’re going to let him go.”

The idea of letting a thief go incensed the crowd so much that someone kicked Kamu’s legs. Kamu staggered. Youths jumped up and down, clapping and laughing. Growing bold, another kicked him in the ankles. “Amuwadde ‘ngwara!” the youths cheered. Then a loud fist landed on the back of his shoulder. Kamu turned to see who had hit him but then another fist landed on the other shoulder and he turned again and again until he could not keep up with the turning.

“Stop it, people! Stop it now,” a councillor’s voice rose up but a stone flew over his head and he ducked.

Now the crowd was in control. Everyone clamored to hit somewhere, anywhere but the head. A kid pushed through the throng, managed to land a kick on Kamu’s butt and ran back shouting feverishly to his friends, “I’ve given him a round kick like tyang!”

Angry men just arriving asked, “Is it a thief?” because Kamu had ceased to be human.

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 decades ago waving “democracy” at them, who had recently laughed, “Did I actually say democracy? I was so naive then.” Thief was tax collectors taking their money to redistribute it to the rich. Thief was God poised with a can of aerosol Africancide, his finger pressing hard on the button.

Voices in the crowd swore they were sick of the police arresting thieves only to see them walk free the following day. No one asked what this thief had stolen apart from he looks like a proper thief, this one, and we’re fed up. Only the councillors knew that Kamu had been on his way to explain where he got the money to buy a gleaming 5-CD player and TV with a detached screen.

As blows fell on his back, Kamu decided that he was dreaming. He was Kamu Kintu, human. It was them, bantu. Humans. He would wake up any minute. Then he would visit his father Misirayimu Kintu. Nightmares like this come from neglecting his old man. He did not realize that he had shrivelled, that the menacing Chicago Bull had been ripped off his back, that the gray trousers were dirty and one foot had lost its sandal, that the skin on his torso was darker and shiny in swollen parts, that his lips were puffed, that he bled through one nostril and in his mouth, that his left eye had closed and only the right eye stared. Kamu carried on dreaming.

Just then, a man with fresh fury arrived with an axe. He had the impatient wrath of: You’re just caressing the rat. He swung and struck Kamu’s head with the back of the axe, kppau. Stunned, Kamu fell. He fell next to a pile of concrete blocks. The man heaved a block above his head, staggered under the weight and released the block. Kamu’s head burst and spilled gray porridge. The mob screamed and scattered in horror. The four councillors vanished.

Kamu’s right eye stared.

Kamu’s woman only found out about his death when a neighbor’s child, who had been on his way to school, ran back home and shouted, “Muka Kamu, Muka Kamu! Your man has been killed! They said that he is a thief!”

The woman ran to the road. In the distance, she saw a body lying on the ground with a block on top of its head. She recognized the gray trousers and the sandal. She ran back to the house and locked the door. Then she trembled. Then she sat on the armchair. Then she stood up and held her arms on top of her head. She removed them from her head and beat her thighs whispering, “Maama, maama, maama,” as if her body were on fire. She sipped a long sustained breath of air to control her sobs but her lungs could not hold so much air for so long — it burst out in a sob. She shook her body as if she were lulling a crying baby on her back but in the end she gave up and tears flowed quietly. She refused to come out to the women who knocked on her door to soothe and cry with her. But solitary tears are such that they soon dry.

The woman closed her eyes and looked at herself. She could stay in Bwaise and mourn him; running would imply guilt. But beyond that, what? Kamu was not coming back. She opened her eyes and saw the 5-CD player, the TV with the detached screen, the Johnson sofa set and the double bed. She asked herself, “Do you have his child? No. Has he introduced you to his family? No. And if you had died, would Kamu slip you between earth’s sheets and walk away? Yes.”

The following morning, the two rooms Kamu and his woman had occupied were empty.

Three months later, on Good Friday, the 9th of April 2004, Bwaise woke up to find the four councillors’ and six other men’s corpses — all involved in Kamu’s death — strewn along the main street. Bwaise, a callous town, shrugged its shoulders and said, “Their time was up.”

But three people, two men and a woman, whose market stalls were held up by the slow removal of the corpses linked the massacre to Kamu’s death.

“They raided a deadly colony of bees,” the first man said. “Some blood is sticky: you don’t just spill it and walk away like that.”

But the second man was not sure; he blamed fate. “It was in the name,” he said. “Who would name his child first Kamu and then Kintu?”

“Someone seeking to double the curse,” the first man sucked his teeth.

But the woman, chewing on sugar cane, shook her head, “Uh uh.” She sucked long and noisily on the juice and then spat out the chaff. “Even then,” she pointed in the direction of the corpses with her mouth, “that is what happens to a race that fails to raise its value on the market.”

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