In one short story in Jennifer Makumbi’s new collection Manchester Happened, she writes, “In Uganda, God was hands on… That’s why grownups back home behaved — no messing about. But here in Manchester, where God gave up a long time ago, grown-ups are out of control.”
Ms Makumbi, who won the Windham Campbell prize last year for her novel Kintu, has continued to showcase the breadth of her writing talent in this new book which chronicles the experiences of Ugandans living in Britain.
The book which she herself joked would make the British embassy thankful to her because it would incentivise Ugandans to stop desiring Britain, tells the stories of the struggles of leaving home, being away.
Compared to Kintu, whose themes felt intense from start to finish, Manchester Happened has an admirable levity that sort of cloaks the seriousness of some of the more difficult themes.
For instance, one story is told through the voice of a proud stray dog from Kampala who finds himself in Britain.
Other themes explored in the book include addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, classism, animal rights and trauma from family obligations.
One of my favourite things about Ms Makumbi’s characters is the way she writes what I think of as the “African aunty” into her stories.
In a story about how a Ugandan woman living in Britain discovered that her husband had another wife in Kampala during his burial, one character says, “Death came like a thief… It did not knock to alert Kayita. The curtain blew away and what filth!”
Another adds, “If this woman had not fought hard to bring Kayita home, the British would have burnt him. They don’t joke. They have no space to waste on unclaimed bodies. But has anyone had the grace to thank her? No. Instead, Kayita’s father tells her to shut up. What a peasant!”
Apart from humour, Ms Makumbi once again gifts us with rich characters and beautiful sentences.
“She enjoys the smell of paint because her husband Kayita died a year ago, but his scent lingered, his image stayed on objects and his voice was absorbed in the bedroom walls: every time Nnam lay down to sleep, the walls played back his voice like a record,” she writes.
“This past week, the paint has drowned Kayita’s odour and the bedroom walls have been quiet. Today, Nnam plans to wipe his image off the objects,” she continues.
Manchester Happened is an easy read and because it is in the form of short stories, it is the perfect book to get into if you can only read in short spurts due to a busy schedule.