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Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: Kintu

The Kintu line is cursed. The story starts off in 2004. Kamu Kintu lives with his woman (she never seems to have a name) in an area in Kampala that is somewhat swampy. Despite this, he has a hi-fi and television. It is not clear what he does or where he gets the money to buy the TV and hi-fi. One day, four councillors turn up at the door. They ask him to accompany him. He is annoyed but not particularly worried. However, as soon as they get him out of the house, they seize him and tie his arms. As he is being escorted through the market, others see him and assume he is a thief. They start abusing him and then attacking him. Finally, one man gets an axe and brings it down on his head, killing him instantly. The councillors flee. They are found dead a few days later.

We then jump back to 1750. Kintu Kidda is the ppookino (i.e. governor) of Buddo province. He has been in love with Nnakato for some time and finally married her. Unfortunately, she was unable to give him any children. He is persuaded that he must marry other women, including by Nnakato, which he does, though he is not happy in doing so. Nnakato even persuades him to marry her identical twin, Babirye . Initially, he takes Babirye as his concubine and she eventually bears him four sets of twins but she has to defer to her twin sister as the senior wife. Kintu, meanwhile, is clearly not happy with the situation, though he does marry Babirye. Then, eventually, Nnakato produces a son, Baale. Babirye is now jealous as she fears, correctly, that Baale will be given preference over her sons. Baale is brought up with his own”twin”, Kalema. Kalema is the biological son of Ntwire. Ntwire is a Tutsi whose wife had died in childbirth while they were travelling to the capital. Kintu had helped and then adopted the boy. Some years later, when the boys are grown up, Ntwire asks if Kalema can accompany Kintu when next he goes to the capital, in order to get a post there. Kintu has to go to the capital to pay homage to Kyabaggu, who had murdered his brother and stolen the throne. (We get a description of the violent nature of the rulers in Uganda at that time.) Kalema (but not Baale) is to accompany Kintu and his men. On the way, Kalema is sent to fetch water for Kintu but Kintu sees him drinking water from his (Kintu’s) gourd, which is completely taboo. He hits the boy but the boy falls and is killed. He is hurriedly buried. When he returns, Kintu tells no-one. Eventually, Ntwire is suspicious and sets out for the capital to find his son, after having challenged Kintu about what happened to Kalema and getting no answer. He guesses that he boy is dead and places a curse on Kintu. The curse takes effect.

Back in the (more or less) present time, we follow the stories of a range of Kintu’s descendants who have, one way or the other, been affected by the curse. Kamu Kintu, as we saw at the beginning, ends up brutally murdered. While other are luckier, they all have had problems in their lives. We meet Suubi in 2004. She knows about the curse and also about the role of Babirye. She is assailed by Ssanyu, a ghost who channels Babirye , calling Suubi her Nnakato. However, we also learn about her unhappy beginnings, dumped, aged five on her aunt’s doorstep and having to survive in difficult conditions, including working for a well-off family, getting malaria and nearly being abducted for sexual purposes when a teenager. Later, when she is an adult, her boyfriend tries to help her find her family and, indeed, we learn of other efforts to reunite the descendants.

We meet Kinani Kintu and his wife Faisal. They are part of the Awakened, a Christian religious group, whose influence is waning because of the influx of US evangelists. They spend their time sowing, which involves travelling on public transport, telling (fictitious) tales of their wicked past lives to the other passengers and trying to save other sinners. They have had two twins, a boy and a girl, who are, in their view, taken by the devil, when they join another church and the girl, Ruth, becomes pregnant when she is fourteen. Ruth, her brother and her son, have various names, depending on who they are speaking to. It is Kinani’s sister (who also has various names) who makes an effort to reunite the family.

Isaac Newton Kintu is the son of Nnamata. Nnamata is by far the brightest of her family. When she is doing well at school but needs extra maths tuition, the teacher agrees to specially coach her. His special coaching results in Isaac. Isaac has a very difficult childhood. As an adult, he marries but his wife dies of AIDS and he might be HIV-positive. The AIDS pandemic is just one of the negative aspects of Uganda Makumbi introduces us to. The other main one is the rule of the Amin regime, with its incumbent horrors, though the hangover from colonisation is not ignored.

Our final main Kintu is Miisi, who left Uganda during the Amin regime,went to the Soviet Union where he learned Russian and studied and then went to the UK, where he prepared a thesis on The Centrality of Bloodletting to Religious Practice. After the fall of Amin, he returned to Uganda and took up teaching but became horrified at the standard of teaching and retired to the country. He too had had a difficult childhood, not least of which was his mother’s suicide. Several of his children died but one, Kusi, a woman, ended up as a general. He dreams a lot about the family history, much of which seems to be borne out by the facts.

Makumbi tells a superb and complex story about a family that been separated over the years but, through the efforts of some family members, tries to come together again. They have to deal with a family curse and a series of disasters, some of which were experienced by many other Ugandans, others which were unique to them. Makumbi makes full use of traditional story-telling methods, particularly oral story-telling traditions, as well as the use of myth. Above all, she gives us a superb survey of Uganda through the Kintu family, both back in the late 18th/early 19th centuries and, more particularly in the present day.

Publishing history

First published in 2014 by Kwani Trust