Brilliant. I absolutely loved this novel and it will definitely feature in my Best Reads of 2021.
The First Woman might even have surpassed her debut novel Kintu which was fabulous and my outstanding read of 2018.
Firstly I am a huge fan of literature that takes us elsewhere, into the storytelling traditions of other cultures, seen from the inside, told in a way that doesn’t alienate a reader from outside that culture, but has both a particular and universal message. And secondly, when a novel has all the essential storytelling elements.
Jennifer Makumbi’s storytelling has all the elements – great, unforgettable characters, a ‘moving at pace’ plot, a little bit of mystery, a whole lot of feminism plus controversy, multiple perspectives, mini dramas and the wise counsel of women who’ve had enough of past injustices.
Rural, Urban – Past, Present
Then there is the contrast of the rural life and upbringing versus an urban existence, the striving for and effect of education on girls and the natural way that local Ugandan folklore and ancestral stories are interwoven throughout their way of living, learning and coming of age. They create a sense of belonging and help young people navigate their concerns, sorrows, strange feelings and unanswered questions in a thought provoking and entertaining way
In Kintu, Makumbi set part of her story in the pre-colonial 1700’s and other parts in modern times; colonial interlopers had left their imprint, but it was not their story nor a story of their influence and so too The First Woman belongs to and is born of its people, whose existence grows and evolves from their unique origins, belief systems and traditions. Their challenges come from within their culture and again Makumbi focuses on what is uniquely Ugandan.
Family Secrets and Lies
The narrative begins when Kirabo is a teenage living with her grandmother, she develops a curiosity to know who her mother is, she is awakening to a perceived deficit in her life and notices that those closest to her are unwilling to talk about it. So she seeks out Nsuutu, who some refer to as the witch, intuitively knowing she may have knowledge, visiting her in secret.
Though Nsuutu was practically blind, behind her blindness she could see. But Nsuutu was not just a witch – she was Grandmother’s foe. Their feud was Mount Kilimanjaro. Apparently, Nsuutu had stolen love from the family.
The First Woman, the Original State
Nsuutu tells Kirabo that she has “the original state” of the first woman inside her. This explanation and story is shared over various visits and sets up an extremely compelling narrative, as Kirabo learns from this wonderful, empowered but ageing feminist. However, she is warned her not to go looking for her mother, an instruction that feeds her obsession, making it all-consuming.
‘We changed when the original state was bred out of us.’ Kirabo looked at her hands as if to see the change. ‘Was it bad what we were? Is it what makes me do bad things?
‘No, it was not bad at all. In fact, it was wonderful for us. 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. However, occasionally that state is reborn in a girl like you. But in all cases it is suppressed. In your case the first woman flies out of your body because it does not relate to the way this society is.’
The story is divided into five sections; The Witch (Nattetta, Bugerere, Uganda 1975), The Bitch (Kampala 1977), Utopia, When The Villages Were Young (Nattetta 1934) and Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other (1983).
After Nsuutu’s wise counsel, Kirabo’s life is upended when it is announced she will go to Kampala to live with her father Tom, about whom she has never been curious. She has seen him on and off over the years as he visited the clan in the village where she lives, but now she will go and live with him in the city, where it becomes clear that much more had been hidden from her.
Nsuutu held both her hands. ‘Don’t judge the women you met too harshly.’
‘Often, what women do is a reaction. We react like powerless people. Remember kweluma?’
‘When women bite themselves because they are powerless.’
‘Tell me that whatever happens, you will not make another woman’s life worse.’
‘I won’t, Nsuuta!’ Kirabo was miffed that Nsuutu would ask.
‘Remember, be a good person, not a good girl. Good girls suffer a lot in this life.’
‘Utopia‘ is when she is sent to St Theresa’s, a girl’s boarding school. An education, a world without men, though interrupted by war and expulsions that occur elsewhere, having the effect of changing the balance of power and perception among the girls as well, many will leave and a new influx will arrive. It is also the period where her friendship with Sio develops.
St Theresa’s was a safe space for them to develop their talents without intimidation, interference or interruption. They owed it to themselves, and to all other girls who did not have their privilege, to excel and to change the world. ‘Our job is to arm the girl child with with tools so she can live a meaningful life, for herself and for the nation.’
The narrative then returns to the past, to 1934 when her grandmother Alikisa and Nsuutu were children and fills in the backstory to their friendship, a pact, their very different aspirations and the effect of the community on how their lives play out. Much of this section is told through letters they write to each other while Nsuutu is at nursing school and Alikisa is at home, having abandoned her plans to become a midwife, encouraged by her father towards teaching.
Finally, a family tragedy brings the entire clan together, and opinions are aired, grievances followed through, threads come together, some rifts are healed, others not, but there is the opportunity to break new ground, and move on from the past, without significant loss.
The First Woman is bold, empowered, authentic storytelling of the highest order, that embraces its cultural origins and exposes the reader to universal emotions, questions, conflicts, shame, friendships, love and humanity it shares.
It is both a story and an act of courage that provokes men and women to consider their roles and the effect their decisions have on others, to consider alternatives, seeking a kinder, more just way of being, rather than repeating the same patters that have existed.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Author
A Ugandan fiction writer, her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013. Her second book is a collection of short stories, titled Manchester Happened (2019) for the UK/Commonwealth publication and Let’s Tell This Story Properly (US/Canada). It was shortlisted for The Big Book prize: Harper’s Bazaar.
Her third book, titled The First Woman (2020) UK/Commonwealth and A Girl is a Body of Water (US/Canada) was the Winner of the Jhalak Prize – Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour (2021), shortlisted for The Diverse Book Awards 2021, for the Encore Prize 2021, and the James Tait Black Prize 2021 and longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize 2021.
Makumbi was a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize 2018. She won the Global Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014 for her short story, Let’s Tell This Story Properly. She is a Cheuse International Writing Fellow (2019) and KNAW-NAIS residency (2021). She has a PhD from Lancaster University and has been a senior lecturer at several universities in Britain.
My review of Kintu
Guardian Review: A girl longs for her absent mother in this frank, witty tale about power and gender roles by Alex Clark
Article, Johannesburg Review of Books : A Triumph of a Novel: The First Woman Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s answer to people who like to defend patriarchal power by claiming that feminism is ‘not African’, writes Itumeleng Molefi.