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30Oct

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi review – coming of age in Uganda

A girl longs for her absent mother in this frank, witty tale about power and gender roles from the author of Kintu

Kirabo is an inquisitive child. She has even more unanswered questions than other girls in the run-up to puberty, the greatest and most mysterious of which is: “Who is my mother?” In the small Ugandan village of Nattetta, nobody seems to want to tell her, least of all the grandparents who have loved and protected her throughout her life; fleeting visits from her father, Tom, who is busy making his mark in Kampala, yield no further insight. So Kirabo, already unsettled by her ability to depart her body and soar above her neighbourhood, decides to consult the village witch, Nsuuta.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s first novel, Kintu, explored the complex effects of masculinity and its limitations on the relationship between fathers and sons; its canvas took in both the pre-colonial period and its long-lasting legacy. Vivid and ambitious, it suggested a writer unafraid to juxtapose past and present, the mythological and the modern - a scope that Makumbi reprises in her second novel. Here, she focuses on the origin myths of motherhood, the contested ground of women’s sexuality and the intersection between personal, public and political power, in a style that is frank, funny and direct. Beginning in 1975, in the middle of Idi Amin’s dictatorship, the story captures the surrealism of living in unpredictable and violent times, folding awareness of vast events into the minutiae of daily life.

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