It`s rare for me to read many books in a month and rate each book highly. But all my May reads have a rating between 3-5/5. I have been anticipating reading The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi since its release last year. I am a HUGE fan of Aunty Jenny😍. I have read two of her previous works Kintu and Manchester Happened. They are engrossing, entertaining and overwhelmingly impressive. The First Woman is even better.

Here is my (mini)review of The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (One World Publication 2020):

The First Woman is a coming-of-age story about Kirabo an inquisitive child growing up in the village of Nattetta in the 1970s. She has a bank of questions unlike her peers and the most vital one is, `Who is my mother? where is she?’

Kirabo is raised by doting grandparents whom she can`t ask where is my mother? because her asking would insinuate that their love isn`t enough. But how does she explain to them that it is enough but she also wants to know the whereabouts of her mother and experience her love? Her father Tom lives in Kampala and visits Kirabo often but even his visits don`t assuage her throbbing desire to know her mother.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi through Kirabo explores womanhood, the original state of the woman, and social structures. It is at this point that we see Kirabo seeking to expel her stubborn self, the one that flies out of her body. She secretly seeks the help of Nsuuta, the village witch and her grandmother`s rival who reveals that the stubborn self is a woman`s original state. Nsuuta encourages Kirabo not to expel her original state but Kirabo wants it done and dealt with so she can be a `normal woman who bends and breaks.’ During this time, Kirabo learns from Nsuuta about the original state of women and how over time, men built walls to stifle and imprison that state.

“You fly out of your body because our original state is in you.’

`Our original state?’

`Yes, the way women were in the beginning.’

`We were not like this?’

`Of course not. We changed when the original state was bred out of us.’

`Was it bad what we were? Is that what makes me do bad things?’

`No, it was not bad at all. In fact, it was wonderful for us. 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.’

In the novel, Jennifer interrogates the role of patriarchy, religion, culture and tradition in oppressing the woman. She argues that patriarchy isn’t perpetrated by men alone but also women. Kirabo says to Nsuuta, I told you Grandfather is easy. Tom, I mean my father, is the same: they don`t put barriers against me. It is Grandmother, it is always other women, apart from you, who put barriers against girls and on themselves. I know men can be tyrants, but a lot of women are nasty to women…

I found this perspective refreshing especially with the rise of feminism, the metoo movement and cancel culture. One of the ladies in our book club said, `Women are the gatekeepers of the patriarchy sometimes. We tend to participate in perpetuating exclusion against fellow women.’ I resonated with this statement; it exposed my role in this show. I was not without guilt.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi brilliantly weaves her story with the use of folklore which sweetens it up like sugar in coffee. And as always she uses uglish which if your Ugandan, this book will have you laughing until you roll on the floor simply because it`s our book. It carries our humour. I enjoyed the use of Luganda words, expressions, the rhymes sung at school. They filled my senses and gave me a rich reading experience.

The characters were well crafted and felt like next-door neighbours. However, the characters were/are quite many that at some point, I kept going back and forth to remind myself who was who-especially for the minor characters.

The novel is well researched and offers invaluable insight into Ugandan history and Ganda culture. In Kintu and The First Woman, there is an underlying hatred between the Ganda and Nyoro. Being part Ganda and part Nyoro, both books have forced me to question the genesis of this hatred.

The book is a loaded gun. It explores a wide range of themes from religion vs African tradition, traditional feminism, modern vs traditional culture, patriarchy. Themes that are relevant to us moving forward as a people.

 I highly recommend it.

The First Woman is available at African Writers Trust at only 85,000/= (Paperback). Call Mark on +256 753 033086/ +256 775 685909 for a copy.

Have you read The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi? What did you or didn`t you like about the novel?


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