Thursday, 8 April 2021

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Set in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin, the Ugandan-Tanzanian War and their aftermath, The First Woman is the story of Kirabo, a young woman from a rural community walking a tightrope between tradition, Europeanisation, and Amin’s despotism.

When the story opens, in 1975, Kirabo is 12, the youngest of an extended family of young people living in the care of her grandfather while they go to school. A gifted storyteller, Kirabo uses her talent to boost her status among the older children.

Beloved as she is of her grandparents, Kirabo’s greatest frustration is that no one will tell her anything about her mother. So she sneaks off to visit her grandmother’s great rival, Nsuuta, their almost-blind neighbour who is reputed to be a witch.

Nsuutu tells her about women’s original state, when “We were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent. But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it.” But Kirabo is one of those rare children in which the original state is reborn.

At first, Kirabo rejects the First Woman within her, symbolically burying it in Nsuutu’s yard, but as the story progresses, she begins to understand more of how women are repressed, not just by men, but by other women who have absorbed the values of a patriarchal society. Trapped like hens in a cage too small, they turn and peck at one another.

The First Woman follows Kirabo as she goes to live in the city with her father and her un-welcoming stepmother, via her admission to an elite boarding school run by nuns, through love, loss and rejection to the beginnings of maturity as a young woman.

Makumbi’s masterful text manages to balance regret for the loss of what was good in traditions driven out by Christianity and Europeanisation, with a trenchant critique of the patriarchy and internalised misogyny embedded in traditional Ugandan communities.

The story ends in 1983, but one heart-breaking line seems to foreshadow some of Uganda’s more recent pains. In 1979, Kirabo is in boarding school as the war with Tanzania comes closer and closer, but “No parents had come to fetch their girls because nowhere was safer for them than boarding schools. Even Amin’s men would never attack a school.” Sadly, by 1996, the Lord’s Resistance Army had shown it had no such scruples.

Just as the oral story-telling traditions the young Kirabo aspired to wove life-lessons into spell-binding tales, Makumbi weaves commentaries on colonialism, patriarchy, colourism and internalised misogyny into this tender coming of age story.

WINNER of the 2021 Jhalak Prize.

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Avoid If you Dislike: Stories of woman reclaiming their power

Perfect Accompaniment:
Groundnut stew

Literary Fiction, Coming-of-Age story, Modern Historical Fiction

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