American feminist, theorist and writer bell hooks often says that patriarchy has no gender, and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi offers an unflinching look at this maxim in her second novel, out this month in North America with the title A Girl is a Body of Water and then available in Britain and Commonwealth countries next month with the title First Woman.
Just like her first novel Kintu, which reimagined the history of Uganda, her follow-up is just as audacious. Whereas Kintu revolved around the mythological figure Kintu (considered to be the first man to have walked the earth in the Buganda myth of creation), First Woman/A Girl is a Body of Water revisits the same myth but through a feminist perspective. Here, Makumbi is concerned with the power of stories and how stories have been used to subjugate women.
When we first meet Kirabo, she is 12 years old and living with her grandparents in the village in 1970s Uganda, and yearning for a mother she has never met. She cannot ask her grandparents who or where her mother is, as it would imply that her grandparents’ love is not enough.
She has no choice but to ask Nsuuta, “the blind witch down the road” who was once her grandmother’s best friend before they made a pact that turned them into foes.
Kirabo’s other pressing concern is her split selves. There’s the Kirabo that conforms, then there’s the Kirabo that does things a girl is not supposed to do. She refers to the latter as evil and wants her expunged.
Nsuuta advises her against it, telling her that her so-called evil self is how women were in their original state before they were programmed to make themselves small. "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,” Nsuuta tells her.
But this original state will prove too much of a burden for Kirabo, and before she leaves for Kampala to go live with her father, Tom, after her primary leaving exams, she has Nsuuta get rid of it. Before she leaves, Nsuuta makes her promise that she will not be a good girl (because good girls rarely amount to much) and that she will never treat another woman badly.
Kirabo will fail on that last promise, just like the other women in the novel. Kirabo’s step-mother Nnambi says, “I made it clear right from the start; I’m not bringing up children who are not mine, full stop,” and Kirabo bears the brunt of this attitude.
Kirabo briefly retaliates when Tom kicks Nnambi out. Her aunt Abi (a headache back in the village because her boyfriends have “failed to evolve into a husband”) describes herself as liberal, but after Tom dies in an accident, she is among the women who castigate Nnambi and call her a witch.
When Kirabo goes to an all-girls secondary school pregnant girls are expelled. “The boys who made them pregnant carry on as before, their lives uninterrupted,” Kirabo thinks.
Makumbi, however, never once judges her characters.
The novel is an indictment of patriarchy and colonialism, but also a celebration of love and friendship and the many ways women show up for other women. When, for instance, Tom kicks out Nnambi, Kirabo’s grandmother —the least likely person to intervene —comes to her defence. Nnambi’s sister and mother don’t take her side when she directs her anger towards Kirabo. Instead, they remind her that Kirabo is not the problem. Kirabo’s grandmother will look after Nsuuta in her dying days.
It is clear that Makumbi is writing for Ugandans and, by extension, other Africans — and this is partly what makes the book a delight to read.
However, the chief delight is the humour. It’s impossible to highlight just one passage as the humour shines from the first page to the last.
The novel asks and answers the question about why women treat each other badly.
“My grandmothers called it kweluma. That is when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite. It is as a form of relief. If you can't bite your oppressor, you bite yourself," Nsuuta tells Kirabo.