The title of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s magisterial first novel, Kintu—first published in Kenya in 2014, then in the US this year by the Oakland-based press Transit Books—is a Luganda word. Luganda is a Bantu language spoken in Uganda; Bantu is a proto-language that just means people; there are languages derived from it all across the African continent. In Zambia, where I’m from, we spell this word chinthu. In both countries, it is pronounced chin-two and it means “thing.” In ancient Buganda mythology, however, Kintu is also the name of the first man, the equivalent to the Judeo-Christian Adam. The implications of this titular oxymoron—a word that means both “thing” and “man”—begin to unfold in the opening pages of Makumbi’s book.
There’s a knock at the door. A woman opens it to four local officials, who rouse her man, Kamu, from sleep and lead him outside for questioning. He assumes they’re there on behalf of a creditor but when they reach a marketplace, they bind his hands. Kamu protests: “Why are you tying me like a thief?” A mob swirls into being like a weather formation, the word thief flying “from here to there, first as a question then as a fact.” Kicks and blows begin to rain down on him, from both the elderly and the young. Arrivals to the scene ask, “‘Is it a thief?’ because Kamu had ceased to be human.” He tries to hold on to his humanity: “Kamu decided he was dreaming. He was Kamu Kintu, human. It was them, bantu. Humans. He would wake up any minute.” He does not.
The account of Kamu’s abrupt, arbitrary death on Monday, January 5, 2004, and the subsequent fate of his corpse in the bureaucratic torpor of Kampala’s morgue, recurs in short fragments at the start of each of the novel’s five sections, which tell the stories of other members of the scattered Kintu clan. First, we jump back three centuries to its first generation, headed by Kintu Kidda, a ppookino, or governor, of the Buddu province in the eighteenth-century Buganda Kingdom. In a moment of irritation, Kintu slaps his adopted son, a Rwandan, and the boy falls down dead. His men bury the body improperly: “the grave was narrow and shallow. They used a stick to measure Kalema’s length, but while the stick fit into the grave, Kalema did not. They crammed him in.” In their haste, the men do not even realize that they have buried the boy beside a burial shrub for dogs. The tragic repercussions of this desecration—“the curse was specific: mental illness, sudden death, and suicide”—ripple across the centuries through the lives of Kintu’s descendants.
Like Charles Dickens or Gabriel García Márquez, Makumbi ranges widely across time and social strata; her knowledge of Ugandan culture seems as precise as a historian’s. We meet Suubi Kintu, a young woman who grows up in a compound, perpetually on the brink of starvation, but is eventually integrated into a middle-class family. Kanani Kintu and his wife, Faisi, members of an evangelical group, the Awakened, bear a twin son and daughter with an uncomfortably close relationship. Isaac Newton Kintu, the product of rape and named for the last lesson his mother learned in school before she dropped out, gets trapped into marriage; when his wife dies, seemingly of AIDS, he anguishes over whether to learn his own HIV status. Miisi Kintu, a writer raised by colonial priests (the “white fathers”) and educated abroad, returns to a postcolonial Kampala still feeling the aftershocks of dictatorship and the bush war of the early Eighties, which killed some of his children. With its progression through generations and its cyclical returns to genetic inheritance—hay fever, twins, madness—Kintu’s structure feels epic.
Kintu continually diverts us from this straightforward path of a curse and its aftermath, however, as well as from our preconceptions about Africa. The polygamous eighteenth-century governor wants nothing more than to be with the woman he loves; the Awakened couple experience their enviably passionate sex life as a torment; the spiritual leader of a ritual cleansing is so “anglicized” that the assembled family members doubt his efficacy. Social class is defined neither by strict stratification nor by upward mobility, but by extreme volatility—economic fates rise and fall almost at random. Servant girls become educated women, sons of professors come to live in slums.
Makumbi’s depiction of local culture also bears little resemblance to standard notions of African “authenticity.” Her Uganda is an unabashed amalgam of Europe and Africa, in everything from cooking to spiritual possession to mental health to sexual mores. As Makumbi said in an interview:
We are both Europeanized and Ugandan. We speak both traditional languages and English. Someone goes to church, but then will go to the traditional healer. Someone is a scientist but will have an intense spiritual life. We have this saying in Uganda: “God help me, but I’m going to run as well.” We think two ways at once.
In the novel, Miisi conjures an image of African postcolonialism that captures this sensibility. He pictures the black torso of the continent but stripped of its limbs, which have been replaced with European ones. “We cannot go back to the operating table and ask for the African limbs,” he writes. “Africa must learn to walk on European legs and work with European arms. As time goes by, children will be born with evolved bodies.” Makumbi’s portmanteau for this Gothic image enacts the very grafting it describes: Africanstein.
Kintu cannot but be in some sense the story of a people, the Ganda, and a nation, Uganda. But its politics are personal. Idi Amin and the bush wars emerge in conversation, in acts of mourning. The ins and outs of the ancient Buganda Kingdom’s secessions and coups seem incidental to the personal tragedy of Kintu Kidda, his wives, and their children. Makumbi has said that she intentionally skipped the nation’s colonial history: “The almost complete lack of colonization was deliberate…. To me colonization was my grandfather’s quarrel.” So, without the usual lenses of class, culture, and colonialism—without “Queen and Country,” so to speak—how are we to read this “African” novel?
Africa contains more countries, languages, ethnic groups, and genetic variation than any other continent. We are united solely by our history of division. Yet African novelists are inevitably stuffed next to each other on panels and bookshelves. We are asked bafflingly broad questions about “African literature,” “African history,” and “African politics,” or lazy and predictable ones about poverty, disease, and war. It’s a gift, in some ways. Who wouldn’t want to be compared to greats like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, rather than the latest batch of contemporaries? Who wouldn’t want to feel relevant to real world issues? But it gets old. “Africa is not a country,” we’ve become accustomed to saying. Our fictions are neither about the continent as a whole, nor do they address only this limited set of Western stereotypes about it.
Oddly enough, despite all this generalizing and pigeonholing, African writers are rarely thought to speak to the universal—in the philosophical sense rather than the platitudinous one. But if, as Makumbi noted at an event in Brooklyn last June, the origin of the human species is probably East Africa, then why can’t Kampala be the center of a profoundly universal inquiry? As its two-faced title—man/thing—suggests, Kintu does in fact have a grand philosophical question in mind. The novel forces us to reckon over and again with what it means to be kintu, to be man, or human. This question plays out across certain boundaries: between men and women, between twins, between life and death, between “mankind” and “animalkind,” between good and evil, between human and supernatural worlds, between foreigners and family, and, of course, between humans and objects.
In the part of the novel set in the Buganda Kingdom, gender is the most significant boundary. Kintu Kidda struggles with the demands placed on him as “seed dispenser” to dozens of wives across his province: “He knew the snare of being a man. Society heaped such expectations on manhood that in a bid to live up to them some men snapped.” In a hilarious scene, elders gather to offer advice to a groom about how to be a man in bed: how to recognize “false noises,” how to interpret your wife’s restlessness, how many times a night you’re to satisfy her. This eighteenth-century section of the novel is the frankest about sex, including non-heterosexual sexuality—a cannily oblique critique of the recent spate of laws against homosexuality across Africa, justified by the erroneous notion that colonialism brought it here. In Kintu, when a king murders a bisexual warrior, it’s due to envy of his prowess: “The fact that he was a warrior who made both men and women groan beneath him had propped Ssentalo’s manliness to unprecedented heights.” Another gender-bending character, Gitta, is described as a “pugilistic bride… whose feet grasped the earth like a man’s.”
These questions of identity are set alongside other questions of what constitutes a man in the broader sense of a person: “Tradition claimed that identical twins were one soul who, failing to resolve the primal conflict in the self, split—and two people were born.” The older twin is seen as the original, the younger as a copy, but they’re perceived as a single entity. This model of personhood has social repercussions when Kintu prefers a younger twin and initially refuses to marry her sister. “They’re one person,” their parents protest in perplexity. He marries both but when one wife commits suicide, Kintu is so distraught that he asks her sister if they switched places:
“I mean, who, which one of you twins was buried?”
“I know, but which one?”
Centuries later, Kintu’s descendant, Suubi, faces a similar confusion about herself. She keeps seeing a woman who looks exactly like her, and who even wears an old dress Suubi discarded. She eventually learns that her twin sister died at birth and is haunting her, preparing to “collect” her. This threatens to disintegrate not only Suubi’s sense of herself, but her sense of being alive at all, especially after she has a near-fatal brush with malaria.
Death is always around the corner in this novel. Isaac Newton lives in an HIV-status limbo—“We’re all dead,” his friend tells him. “It’s a question of who goes first.” A boy grows so used to seeing corpses during the war that he sees them as ants: “You swept away the ones that were killed the day before and still others came out the following day.” A life in poverty can also bring humans close to the condition of beasts. Suubi compares herself to a stray cat and develops such thick calluses from walking barefoot that rats nibble the dead skin off her feet at night. This animality lurks within, as in the case of the Awakened couple trying to keep their lust at bay: “Sex was the one act during which the human in humanity was erased and man became beast.”
What makes a man is an ethical question, too. The opening scene of Kamu’s death as an “it, a thief” is in effect a moral meditation: “Is a human slayable just like that?… People are not human anymore and all the buntu is gone.” When Kintu Kidda visits the seat of the Buganda empire, the king, Kyabaggu, has just killed his brother to steal the crown; in contrast to that brutal act, Kintu notes, “on this occasion, Kyabaggu was human.” Humanity is also a question of what philosophers call the problem of “moral luck”: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why are bad people sometimes rewarded? This is a version of the old spiritual crux of original sin.
Makumbi’s one revision to the originary myth of the Ganda is that the curse comes from the first man, not the first woman. But the novel’s Adamic figure, Kintu Kidda, is not a bad man, nor even a fatally flawed one—he is neither overreactive nor prone to striking the weak. No woman or creature tempts him to evil. While Kintu’s act of violence is foreshadowed and consequential, it is essentially an accident. His friend tries to reassure him: “Journeying is like that. Some are allowed, some are not. We all slap our children. They don’t drop dead.”
But notions of causality are continually upended in this way in Kintu. A man squeezes a pimple and dies days later; a man indignantly says thief and a mob kills him in the street; a girl follows a man into the bush and later discovers an unaccountable scar scooped out of her thigh. Makumbi’s prose registers these chance and supernatural events with an uncanny matter-of-factness:
That night Kalema returned. He was much younger though. He stood shy, at a distance, his thumb in his mouth. His cloth had faded.
“You’re dead,” Kintu rebuked. “What have you come back for?”
Here we see Makumbi probing at the borders between life and death, human and supernatural worlds, but also between sanity and madness. Later, we encounter Miisi’s prophetic visions—“A man stands above him. Miisi feels imposed upon because he cannot see past the man. The man is covered with bees”—and too-lucid childhood memories before we learn that he himself is skeptical of their veracity.
Miisi, whose sons teasingly call him muzungu (the Bantu word for “white man”), continually tries to reconcile his life in Uganda with the “cerebral knowledge” he picked up from his education in Russia and England. He only feels “one with himself” when he wears his traditional floor-length tunic: “A kanzu made him feel authentic: African, Ganda, a muntu.” Muntu is another word for “person”—it is the singular of bantu, people—but the word bears a derogatory postcolonial trace. It means, more precisely, “black man.” As Makumbi has noted, the myth of Kintu resonates with the biblical story of Ham, whose skin was allegedly stained black as a punishment. It is doubly fitting that Miisi is obsessed with his own shadow, which “squat[s] beside” him or “spr[ings] up” like “a giant.”
These manifold tensions about what constitutes a human explode in the novel’s climax: the Kintu clan’s ritual cleansing held over Easter weekend, which aligns beliefs common to both Buganda spirituality and evangelical Christianity, like speaking in tongues and blood sacrifice. During the ceremony, a woman is possessed by a spirit: “she did not own her body anymore.” She spins violently on the ground, breaking fingers and wrist bones; the spiritual medium falls to the ground with no pulse, but his assistant “cannot say he’s dead.”
Miisi completely loses his grip on reality and starts wearing a Western-style waistcoat and coat over his kanzu. In his dishevelment, he comes to resemble his ancestor with that strange thing/person name, Kintu. Miisi becomes a man “floating in two worlds.” Which two worlds? Boyhood and manhood, past and present, muntu and muzungu, Europe and Africa? “I know who I am,” Miisi tells his daughter, “We are not even Hamites. We are Bantu.” But she thinks, “He is now a different person.” In the end, he is riven by his divisions, “in the middle world between sanity and insanity.”
To survive being human, Kintu suggests, is to hold all these divisions together, gently, to “just be.” This argument about personhood is radical because it rejects a long philosophical tradition of considering “humanity” as a matter of self-containment and integrity, of what the human excludes. It is also radical because Makumbi centers this argument in Uganda. But what better place, with its arbitrarily sketched borders, its pliable myths and cultures, its originary status—cradle of the first human/thing—to stage an interrogation of personhood? As Makumbi has remarked in passing about living as an immigrant in the UK: “Out here you are Ugandan. At home you are just human.”
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was recently published in the US by Transit Books.