First thing the award-winning Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi told us after arriving at Nairobi’s Goethe Institute last Thursday night was that it was right here in Kenya that her literary career had been launched.
This is where her stunning multi-generational opus, ‘Kintu’, made its official entry into the African and global world of letters.
But she quickly went into a whisper saying her Ugandan audience need not hear such words coming from her mouth. “Don’t tell Ugandans!,” she says. “They are already sensitive about ‘Kintu’ having been launched here. They didn’t like it,” she adds.
Nonetheless, she returned to the centre where it all began, Goethe Institute, to launch her just-published second book. This time, however, ‘Manchester Happened’ is not a novel but a set of eleven delicious short stories, “… plus the Prologue which is a short story in itself,” adds the evening’s Moderator, Zukiswa Wanner who has already read the book and is clearly delighted to talk about her favourite stories with their author.
Zuki sets the evening off by inviting Jennifer to read a portion of one of her short stories. It’s about two sisters, one who follows the other to London and the two eventually have a falling out. The story is vividly told with the older, established diasporan Ugandan already being a lawyer while her 14-year-old sister is a complicated adolescent whose expectations are not met in the life she finds in the West.
Jennifer reads dramatically with the rich dialogues spoken with various voices. But just as the story is about to reach a climax, she stops at Zuki’s signal. We have been captivated by the story and hunger for more. But no, Jennifer’s improvised story telling is just as hypnotic as the reading of her own writing.
A keen observer of especially fellow Ugandans’ behaviour, she’s been living abroad for many years and so is very familiar with those living in the Diaspora.
Another story that she reads in part is about a couple of Ugandans who were living in Manchester, but he dies and she is left to bring his body home.
She receives no expression of gratitude for acting according to tradition. Instead, she is treated like an outsider, even as she finds the dead man had another family back home and they are living in the house she helped the man to build.
Before she can even consider claiming her territory and her legal status as the dead man’s wife, his father tells her to keep a low profile and not upset the apple cart.
She is not to let her identity be known he says. And she obeys. Yet a ‘gang’ of older woman come to her rescue and defend her publicly at the funeral. But what happens next is left a mystery by the writer who again stops just as the plot thickens. Once again, we see the need to get our own copy of the book to find out the story’s end.
Jennifer’s stories mix a large portion of humour with a heavy dose of realism and detailed insight into the quirks of human--particularly Ugandan--character.
Zuki notes, however, that the way Jennifer describes the conduct of Ugandans living in the Diaspora can apply to the conduct of Zimbabweans, Nigerians and most other Africans she has met abroad.
Jennifer shares a snippet of one last story which has more than whet our appetite to get our hands on ‘Manchester Happened’. Surprisingly, it’s a dog story and it’s written from the dogs’ point of view. It’s about two dogs, one a ‘pariah’ who takes pride in living in the street and being self-sufficient, not reliant on any man. The other is a ‘pet’, a tiny, fluffy short thing that the pariah equates with a rat.
The Pariah somehow gets into a conversation with the pet who he looks down on, but who is very satisfied living under a master, having a roof over her head and regular meals. It’s a hilarious story of discrimination and class consciousness. But again, Jennifer stops before she gets into the really juicy part. Apparently, the pet’s owner is a human trafficker. But as to the details, Jennifer only says that she does address some political issues in her writing, but never in a ledge-hammer style.
Before Zuki opens the discussion to the audience, she notes that Jennifer is a professor, something the writer hesitates to claim. She notes that when people put you in the category of Professor or Doctor, they tend to bracket you off as somehow separate. But she inadvertently admits that she lectures at the university level.
“I don’t discuss it much, only when a student gets out of hand, I will then remind him, ‘I am a PhD, you know!’
Her modesty is impressive, but no more so than her exquisite writing. Nairobi was indeed privileged to have Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi come to launch her second hard-cover book here.
But before the evening ends, Zuki reminds us that it is thanks to Prestige Bookshop which teamed up with Goethe Institute to bring Jennifer to Nairobi for the book launch. Also, the following day, May 10, she is doing another book signing at Prestige for everyone who didn’t get a copy of her books at Goethe.