Ethnic identity, racial discrimination and the economic and social experiences of the Ugandan diaspora in Britain is the focus of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s new book Manchester Happened. A collection of short stories in two parts, the book is great follow-up to her internationally acclaimed novel Kintu.
Manchester Happened, which was launched in Nairobi a fortnight ago at the Goethe Institut, is an explosion of emotions, from marital betrayal to filial clashes, as Dr Makumbi explores everyday relationships at the individual level.
Her writing is candid, not very different from her real self, as seen during the launch where she did a reading of excerpts of some of the stories. Dr Makumbi came across as a natural storyteller, and although she later confessed that she would not attempt another collection of short stories, this genre expresses her persona — witty, expressive, fast and quite engrossing.
Manchester Happened is an anthology of 12 short stories in two parts: Departing and Returning. The stories in the first half are appropriately introduced by the story Our Allies the Colonies, which features two African sailors, one from Tanganyika and his newfound mate, a Ugandan. The two sailors introduce Manchester, the city port, to the readers.
This story sets the background to the racial, economic and social divide of the city and its residents, such that by the time the reader gets to the rest of the stories in this section, they already understand why some things happen the way they do. For example, why black people end up living in one quarter of the city and do certain jobs while the Irish, Scottish and Jews live elsewhere and do different jobs.
The second half of the book, titled Returning, is about Ugandans in the diaspora returning home for all sorts of reasons; to be buried or to bury, to be married, to be circumcised and some even coming back home for good.
Dr Makumbi explained that Manchester Happened is about Ugandans being Ugandan in Britain. But after reading the collection, any African could swear the book is about their own country and their people.
The experience of colonial Africa under the British left almost an identical legacy in all colonies. The reason why Ugandans and other Africans travel to Britain is because of the lies that life there is better, easier and all the people there are considered Her Majesty’s subjects and therefore equal. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
This collection therefore, although providing the reader a Ugandan perspective, speaks of experiences that every African who has lived or lives abroad can relate to.
The story Manchester Happened, which lends the book its title, tackles the struggles of a young adult who has to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and also send money back home to the family, who have been made to believe Britain is some kind of utopia.
Dr Makumbi describes the unrealistic image that “people back home” and new immigrants have of white people and the shattering of dreams when black immigrants wrestle with their Africanness and the pain and confusion they feel upon realising that Britain is not what they had been told it was.
Set in both Kampala and Manchester, the short stories bring to light the desperate lives of black immigrants, the lies they tell for survival, the daily humiliation as they go through an emotional rollercoaster.
Manchester Happened contributes to the list of literary works that address the issue of immigration the world over. The author uses some recurring themes of the colonial past — work, love, education, clash of cultures and even accents — to create characters and structure narratives that tell different but linked stories all based on immigration. Some stories are sad, but she uses humour to build empathy and compassion for her characters.
All the stories are written in the first person. In Memoirs of Namaaso, she takes on the persona of a pet dog that travelled to Uganda with its owner — a wildlife trafficker — and met a stray dog and both of them ended up in Britain in a series of hilarious events. Dr Makumbi pokes fun at the extent to which the British go to take care of their pet dogs compared with Ugandans.
Manchester Happened is both a heart-warming collection about families and a political statement of the impact of the British colonial legacy on its ‘’subjects.’’ The stories also bring in West Indians, the Irish and the Chinese, and ultimately pose the question: Does anyone feel they truly belong anywhere in the world?
This collection will be known as Let’s Tell this Story Properly in the US and will be published by Transit this July.
Dr Makumbi won the 2018 Windham-Campbell Literature Prize with her book Kintu, and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2014. She has a PhD in creative creating from Lancaster University.