Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu is a novel, which traces the origin and impact of a curse on the patriarch Kintu Kidda and his family down generations.
The author flaunts two traits that any reader would enjoy and any writer would envy. She writes vivid description in a way that does not slow down the plot and keeps a reader engaged. For instance, after Tendo cleans a child who had soiled himself using wrinkled paper, she “ran out as if she was carrying a spreading fire.”
Reading her work makes it look like vivid description comes easily to her. However, it is impossible to fail to appreciate the in depth research required to, for instance, detail the path Kintu would take from his residence in Buddu province through o Lwera to Lubya hill in 1750.
Additionally, the book is steeped in rich references to Buganda folklore which likely required considerable background research even for someone within the community.
Makumbi’s second gift is that she has a knack for believable and lively dialogue. For instance, one character speaking at a meeting where people were practising their traditional religion says, “Preaching the word of God in this place is like ordering porridge in a bar.”
Both the descriptions and the dialogue in the book are hilarious and remind me of relatives who have become too familiar. In fact, do not put this book down until you read the chapter in which elders are instructing Baale, Kintu’s son, on the way a married man should conduct himself.
I was a fan of the inclusion of proverbial expressions in the dialogue, especially in the section of the book set in the 1700s. Kintu gets children relatively late, but finally gets sets of twins.
The people of Buddu tell him, “A strong man may wake up late and still get to do as much as we who woke up with the birds.”
When contemporary characters used proverbs, they often attributed them to their parents and grandparents. This was another way that Makumbi’s work acts as a form of documentation of a past history.
In the section of the book set in contemporary times, there are many major characters whose lives are not intertwined except for the fact that they share an ancestor. However, Makumbi manages to make us care about each of them and thus be invested in their fate and in whether they can disengage from the curse.
One reason she achieves this is that as an author she has no favourites. If she does, she does not show it. No major character is absolutely good or absolutely bad.
Additionally, all of them are mostly ordinary people whose experience Makumbi breathes life into through her description and her plotting. Kintu is the kind of book you will read and in the end feel like you miss a character.
It is evident when reading the novel why it won the author the prestigious Windham Campbell Prize.