Oral tradition pays off for Jennifer Makumbi

Friday June 20 2014

Jennifer Makumbi receives her Commonwealth 2014 Short Story Prize cheque from Romesh Gunesekera at Kabira Country Club, Bukoto, Uganda. PHOTO | MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, whose story Let’s Tell This Story Properly won her the Commonwealth 2014 Short Story Prize, would not be writing or telling stories were it not for the Buganda oral tradition and her father’s bookshelves.

Born in Kampala to Anthony Kizito Makumbi and Evelyn Nnakalembe, Makumbi recalls with relish evenings of stories with her grandfather Elieza Makumbi in Kande village in Luwero district while away from the city, where she would go through her father’s bookshelves for something to read.

“My father insisted that I should be brought up in the city where I would get a ‘proper’ education while my grandfather thought that I should remain in the village to get a grounding in tradition first, that schools there were fine. A compromise was reached when I was about four years old: I would study in the city with my father and spend term breaks with grandfather,” she writes on her web site.

In between, Makumbi developed a liking for stories that would later lead her to writing and to the winning short story.

Let’s Tell This Story Properly is about Nnam (Nnameya), a grieving widow who arrives at Entebbe International Airport from Manchester with her dead husband (Kayita) only to learn that he had another wife; now she must relinquish her widowhood and fight.

READ: Uganda’s Makumbi wins Club prize


Kayita’s kinsmen speed off with the body from the airport in the belief that they can deny her ownership of the house her husband had built in Uganda. Kayita had told his relatives that he was the one who built “his house” in Nsangi. Unknown to them, most of the money came from Nnam and the title deed was in her name.

Nnam is in for another rude shock: Kayita’s wife has been the tenant all along.

Makumbi said that she was influenced to write Let’s Tell This Story Properly by the stories one hears from the Ugandans in the diaspora. “It is the usual story of human beings. When people are cut off from their familiar environment, all sorts of relationships start to form.”

Makumbi wrote the story “the way we speak, the same rhythm and some Luganda words. Sometimes you can’t find the equivalent word in English.”

A lot of that she picked up from Kande. “In Kande, there was an abundance of orature, especially folktales, legends, riddles, rhymes and proverbs. I was exposed to traditional rituals and beliefs. Family histories were framed by key moments in the Buganda Kingdom’s history. Buganda’s history is imbedded in sayings and proverbs. Because naming of events, places, rivers, lakes, mountains, time, people and natural phenomena is sometimes used to record history in my culture, Ganda history is normally only a fingertip away,” Makumbi observed.

READ: Oral traditions are dynamic and part of our lives, says Kwani? winner

In the city, her father was fanatical about the English language and literature. He encouraged her to speak English “properly” (like they did on the BBC) even at home. He quickly put her on a reading diet, starting with the Lady Bird Key Word readers, the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. When Makumbi was about eight years old, her father introduced her to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Makumbi noticed that most of her writing relies heavily on oral tradition after she started writing prose. “…I also noticed that using oral forms, which are normally perceived as trite and ‘tired’ brought, ironically, a certain depth to a piece that I could not explain.”

The judges praised Let’s Tell This Story Properly, which had also won the regional prize for Africa, for its risk-taking, grace and breadth. Chair of the judging panel Ellah Wakatama Allfrey described Makumbi’s story as “a bold, compact story about betrayal and the pull of tradition.”

The award was presented in Kampala on June 13, at Kabira Country Club by the novelist and short story writer Romesh Gunesekera.

“This is a dream. For Uganda, once described as a literary desert, it shows how the country’s literary landscape is changing ... The Commonwealth Short Story Prize will help bring attention to Ugandan writing at a global level,” Makumbi said.

“The winning stories from each region boasted craft, intelligence and ambition. Choosing one overall winner felt an impossible task. In the end, we felt that the characterisation in Jennifer Makumbi’s Let’s Tell This Story Properly, with its bereaved widow living in London and gaggle of feisty ‘women of a certain age’ disrupting a funeral, and its narrative style that draws on a powerful national heritage of dramatic story telling, significantly expanded our understanding of the possibilities of the short story form,” Allfrey said.

The panel of judges comprised Doreen Baingana (Africa), Michelle de Kretser (Pacific), Marlon James (Caribbean), Courttia Newland (Canada and Europe) and Jeet Thayil (Asia).

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize aims to identify talented writers who will go on to inspire their local communities. The competition, which is its second year and open to short story writers from all over the Commonwealth, attracted 4,000 entries this year.

“This year, the entries to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize almost doubled. The popularity of the short form is growing and Commonwealth Writers is proud to promote the strongest new voices from across the Commonwealth, such as Jennifer Makumbi,” Commonwealth Writers programme manager, Lucy Hannah said.

As the overall winner, Makumbi walked away with a cash prize of £5,000. Four regional winners —Sara Adam Ang (Singapore) with A Day in the Death, Lucy Caldwell (United Kingdom) with Killing Time, Maggie Harris (Guyana) with Sending for Chantal and Lucy Treloar (Australia) with The Dog and the Sea – will each receive £2,500.

The regional winners’ stories will be published by Granta magazine online, while London-based agents Blake Friedmann will work with selected writers identified through the prize.


Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is an associate lecturer at Lancaster University, where she completed a PhD in Creative Writing.

In September 2001, she joined Manchester Metropolitan University for an MA in creative writing. She holds a B.A. degree with education majoring in teaching English and literature in English at the Islamic University in Uganda.

She taught at Nakasero High and for seven years Hillside High School, an international school in Uganda. During this time she wrote her play Sitaani Teyebase in Luganda for an inter-zone competition. This play won the competition and toured many of the Seventh Day Adventist churches in Kampala.

While in Senior 3 at Trinity College Nabbingo, she wrote her first play for an inter-house competition which came third. She again wrote her second play for an inter-house competition during her A levels at Kings College Buddo that also came third.

Makumbi’s work has been published by African Writing Online and Commonword. She also runs the African Reading Group in Manchester, which focuses on obscure African writers.

Makumbi won the 2013 Kenyan literary journal Kwani? Manuscript Project — a new literary prize for unpublished fiction by African writers —with her novel The Kintu Saga. She launched it under the title Kintu in Kampala on June 18.

READ: Short Story: The Kintu saga

She is working on her second novel, Nnambi, and a collection of her short stories. 

She lives in Manchester with her husband Damian and son Jordan.