A Coming-of-Age Novel that Weaves Ugandan Folklore and African Feminism

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi on her new book "A Girl is a Body of Water"

Photo by Briona Baker on Unsplash

For girls growing up in India, there are several names used for our vaginas: susu, nunoo, and perhaps most tellingly, “shame-shame.” As in, “Close your legs, your “shame-shame is showing.”

Across the ocean in Uganda, there is another set of names that carry similar echoes; for example, “ruins” or burden”—as in, “Did you wash your burden properly?” This failure to name female bodies straightforwardly is not a third-world problem (what on earth is a “hoo-ha”?), but the forms that this naming takes tells us something about the way society views girls and women: forcibly infantilizing, shameful, dangerous. 

The question of how women’s bodies are articulated in “a patriarchy that cannot make up its mind whether to fall on its knees in worship…or flee the crisis” is at the heart of A Girl is a Body of Water. In Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s expansive coming-of-age novel, we follow Kirabo as she makes her way from rural Uganda to urban Kampala—a deeply embodied experience in which the language surrounding her body plays a crucial role. For example, Kirabo’s favorite aunt calls her vagina “your flower,” while a girl at her missionary boarding school terms it “her beautiful.” But as one woman astutely reflects: “Worship, persecution, where is the difference?”

In many ways, it is this lack of difference that Kirabo and the women in her life—from her grandmother to her stepmother to her missing biological mother—must contend with at every turn. In Makumbi’s sweeping intergenerational tale, “history s[i]ts on everything, howling,” producing layers of complexity that resist the postcolonial impetus to make oneself legible to empire. Makumbi is quoted elsewhere saying: “I don’t write for a Western audience. If I can understand Shakespeare, you can understand me.”  

This, to me—to many of us—is everything. 

Richa Kaul Padte: I’d love to start by talking about stories! Kirabo, the protagonist, is an avid storyteller, and the book opens with her as a young child in rural Nattetta, desperate to narrate a tale to her family one evening. “Unfortunately, tradition was that she could not start her story until the audience granted her permission,” so she waits for the customary “Kin, you were our eyes” from her grandfather to before she begins. 

I’m curious: who, if anyone, gave their permission for you to begin A Girl is a Body of Water—and conversely, was there anyone’s silence you ignored?

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: The thing about the novel, Richa, is that unlike the oral folktale, permission is not given at the point of writing: it is given later. And Richa, this is a silencing you cannot ignore. You can write all you want but they are waiting. And that is what is so cruel about the novel. You labor for years, draft and redraft with all sorts of hopes, and then you are stopped at the gates. I suppose Kirabo would say it is similar process, though, since we saw her trying out her story on the goats, then on Grandmother, and then Giibwa her best friend, only to be stopped by the teenagers.

The thing about the novel is that its reception is not as immediate as that of the oral tale, where displeasure, shock, pleasure, or rapture are transmitted instantly. You see it and feel it and, in its absence, where necessary, edits are done on the story. With the novel, permission is given at the gates of the agent and then of the publishers. And boy, they fell silent when I arrived with this manuscript in 2003. No gate was opened. I went back and rewrote it and tried again in 2005, but gates were firmly locked. I rewrote it again and tried in 2008 but it was a resounding no. 

At that point, I put it away and focused on my second novel, Kintu, which was allowed in at the agent’s gate but declined by the publishers. It won a manuscript competition in 2013 and got published in Kenya in 2014. It came out in the USA in 2017. My third book, a collection of short stories called Let’s Tell This Story Properly, was published second. All that time, I had the manuscript for A Girl is a Body of Water. It must have looked on while newer books got published and wondered why. 20 years after I started writing this novel, the gates opened, but it was because of the other two. As you know, the reception of the novel is not only delayed, it is at a distance, through reviews, sales, and word of mouth. At the same time, reading, unlike listening to a story, is a weird activity; it [happens] in private and in isolation, it’s very individualistic. Unlike a storyteller, for the author, reaction may come long after you have moved on to another story. 

RKP: I’m really interested in the different ways of knowing you explore. There’s a moment when two girls (I don’t want to give too much away!) are learning to read and write: “[One] confessed that out of the five vowels, she liked e the most. It was quiet and unassuming. i was loud. a was haughty…[The other girl] nodded; vowels having personalities made perfect sense.” It’s the same with numbers. 2, 5 and 8 can “be trusted” because they are female. “As for 4, they are female and male at the same time, but I don’t know why.” This is the kind of story that is easily converted into a charming rural anecdote, but here it feels like a deeply contextualized way of knowing the world. What, according to you, is this context? 

JNM: This way of knowing is of childhood, the way a ten-year-old understands and interprets the world around her, where everything is seen as having a consciousness, a personality. But it is also skewed by the Ganda culture and their way of understanding humanity, and most importantly, a feminine context—the way a little girl interprets the world of numbers and the alphabet through gender. It betrays how she looks after and protects herself in that world. It is a world that has not yet been boxed into the binaries of male-female/man-woman, but it has already been biased in its way of looking at masculinities. 

In my writing, especially in my first novel, Kintu, I am keen to demonstrate that there are so many ways of knowing and ways of appreciating the world around us. But because the West has a monopoly on science, on interpreting the world to humanity and to showing how to be, we have limited ourselves to cerebral ways of knowing and have suppressed others. But I think, recently, the world is opening up to other ways of being and knowing.

RKP: You write: “only a woman knows how to love a woman properly,” and the relationships between women form the beating heart of your book. But it is not a just or equal heartbeat. Giibwa, Kirabo’s childhood best friend and the daughter of a laborer, says: “not all women are women. Some women…are men. You go to school, get degrees, then get jobs and employ women like me to be women for you at home.” Using the analogy of a human hand she goes on to say: “for me the problem is not that the male finger rules the hand; it is the fact that the four female ones are not equal.” 

Living in India, where the caste system renders women brutally unequal, Giibwa’s metaphor really struck me. And I wonder: in the face of this daily, oppressive reality, is the idea of intersectionality an academic pipe dream—one in which, as Nsuutu says, “these women will find out that the women they are trying to save are an obstacle”?

Oppressed people hurt themselves not only because they have internalized their worthlessness, but because they are so close to each other that they can reach out to harm and to heal.

JNM: Richa, you say, “But it is not a just or equal heartbeat.” And my immediate answer is: How can it be? How can oppressed beings not turn on each other? They are all they have! Turning on each can’t be helped because they need relief, to release the tension of oppression. And since they cannot turn on the oppressor, they turn on themselves to relieve this tension. Look around you, Richa, and see how much the oppressed turn on themselves. And this is not just about women. All oppressed people hurt themselves. They hurt themselves not only because they have internalized their worthlessness, but because they are so close to each other that they can reach out to harm and to heal. And yet because they suffer together, only they know how to love a fellow oppressed being. The problem is that this oppression is not operating in isolation. There is capitalism dividing them, pitting them against each other too. This exacerbates an already bad situation.

RKP: “The British took the natural clock out of the sky and chopped the day into twenty-four hour segments.” In turn, “Ganda months, which had…depended on the moods of the seasons, were being replaced by the static European calendar.” The Western construction of time—the 24-hr day, the 7-day week—has developed alongside a drive toward efficiency and productivity. But as Jenny Odell asks, “Productivity that produces what?” 

Ganda time, where “the day…started with dawn and night with dusk,” is so clearly linked to the real productivity of farming and going about life without electricity. But British time is linked to manufactured productivity, such as the implementation of a massive imperial project. Which makes me wonder: are daylight savings a reassertion of the sky’s natural clock, or a continued effort to bend nature in the service of power? 

JNM: Uganda is located on the equator. The sun rises and sets around the same time all year round. Night and day are equal all year round; that is, twelve hours each. Before I traveled to Europe, I had no real sense of long nights and shorter days or vice-versa, even though we had studied this in geography. Now that you mention it, manufactured productivity makes sense, especially when you think of it in terms of “the day” being 24 hours as opposed to the demarcations of day and night. With the 24-hour “day” working shifts have become normalized regardless where they fall, regardless when they start and stop. Then the world is in production all 24 hours. Then bodies can be moved about around the clock in productivity. Bearing in mind that moving hours back and forth was about the farmers being given that extra hour in summer, it is all about productivity. I have always wondered why they could not just have a longer working day in summer and shorter working days in winter, but I dismissed it as the limitation of an equatorial understanding of time.

RKP: Widow Diba reflects: “All my life I never, ever saw strife among our [five] mothers. Often, we did not know who was whose mother; it did not matter because they loved us equally.” But “in the city, among the educated, the family had been restructured — by Christianity, colonialism, and an emulation of the West. What I love about your text, though, is that it never presents the tension between traditional and modern ways of being as clean-cut dichotomies. For example: nuclear families lose the support of the clan system, but they also lose, or at least attempt to shed, its tight control. Was this resistance of easy categorization your intention at the outset, or did it evolve as you developed the novel’s world? 

When you live in cultures that were colonized, in a world where Western culture is on the rampage, you have no idea where tradition starts and where modernity stops.

JNM: There is nothing I hate in literature like the trope “Tradition vs. Modernity.” I don’t know how readers manage to make such distinctions. When you live this life in cultures that were colonized, in a world where Western culture is on the rampage, you have no idea where tradition starts and where modernity stops. It is life. For example, Christianity has become Africanized, as I show in Kintu, by imbibing traditional modes of worship and beliefs. Yet, Christianity should be modernity in Africa but it is now looked at as tradition, especially as the West becomes less Christian. English is our national language and indeed, in most African countries, a European language tends to be one of the official languages, to the extent that there are local Englishes in most countries unique to their localities. Again, English should be modernity but the way we speak it becomes local. Think about it, Richa, in Western writing, do you see any tension between local and foreign? Non-Western food and practices are presented as parts of a Western life. Besides, the West has tradition and modernity [as well], but somehow these distinctions are not pointed out.

Widow Diba romanticizes the old times when some women were happy to marry a man with other wives because this gave women a break from marriage and motherhood, which was hard work and there was no divorce. On top of that, women did not fall in love with their husbands—these were arranged marriages and so women were not so possessive. But there was another dimension to polygamy. Women who loved women were able to make their husbands marry women they loved and created a harem for themselves. This is why it was Diba’s mother who found wives for her husband. But men had no idea they were being used. They imagined they had “good” wives. Polygamy, in this case, was a sanctuary for women who loved women. Christianity had no business ending it. 

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