“Stories are critical, Kirabo,” she added thoughtfully. “The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.”
In 2017, I read and loved Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kintu, a wonderful piece of historical fiction spanning the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial history of Uganda. Makumbi’s seamless ability to move between great political events and deeply personal stories, and her ability to contextualise each in terms of the other, made Kintu a uniquely beautiful read. The First Woman is Makumbi’s second novel, and for me, it surpasses even Kintu.
The First Woman is the story of Kirabo, who grows up in her grandparents’ home in the village of Nattetta in the 1970s. She has never known a mother, and her father – Tom – is absent from her childhood, working in Kampala. As a child, Kirabo feels herself splitting up into two selves: her own body, and another self that occasionally leaves her to fly around the village, looking down upon herself and upon others. Searching for a solution, she makes a secret visit to Nsuuta, a blind, old woman whom everyone calls a witch, and who has an old, nameless feud with Kirabo’s grandmother. Nsuuta tells Kirabo that her other self is “the first woman”, who lived at a time before women had been subjugated by men (“the original state”) – and it is this “first woman”, who occasionally continues to make a home in a few bodies, that is now struggling for liberation and expression. Kirabo asks Nsuuta to get rid of her second self – but unknown to her, her clandestine visits will trigger the release of an ancient family conflict that will envelop all its members, and dog Kirabo’s own footsteps as she begins to make her way into the world.
The First Woman is divided into five sections: “The Witch”, “The Bitch”, “Utopia”, “When the Villages Were Young”, and “Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other.” “The Witch” section introduces us to Kirabo, and the cast of characters around her: her grandfather Miiro, her grandmother Alikisa (although only Nsuuta calls her that), Nsuuta herself, assorted family members, Kirabo’s childhood crush Sio, and her close friend Giibwa – and of course, Kirabo’s second self as well as her absent mother, both of whom are characters in their own right. “The Bitch” takes up the story with Kirabo’s father, Tom, taking her to Kampala to live with him, the hostile reception that Kirabo is accorded by Tom’s second wife, Nnambi, and the intervention of her aunt, Abi. “Utopia” – the name is at least partially ironic – takes us to St Theresa’s Girls’ School, a prestigious boarding school originally established by missionaries (of course), and now a highly sought-after private school. In the backdrop of heightened political conflict, and the violent ouster of Idi Amin, Kirabo grows up quickly, coming to terms with feeling out of place because of her childhood upbringing, finding her own place, and meeting Sio again, but now as a teenager. “When the Villages Were Young” takes us back forty years and two generations, to colonial 1930s Uganda, when Alikisa and Nsuuta were growing up best friends in the village, and tells the story of their origins, from their eyes. “Why Penned Hens Peck Each Other” finally brings us back to the present, and to Nattetta, where the choices that Alikisa and Nsuuta made ring down the decades, and entwine with the choices before Kirabo and the decisions she makes about her own life.
As I read The First Woman – I finished it in three feverish sittings – I was reminded of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. This is not merely because The First Woman, too, is framed around the theme of female friendship – and how that friendship evolves within the context of both patriarchy and class – but also because of how deftly and how hauntingly it lays bare an important insight: that however much we may struggle against them, the web of institutions within which we live our lives will always place limits upon our horizons. Kirabo’s “two selves” is the starkest illustration of this, the web of constraints made flesh – and Kirabo’s desire to get rid of her second self, which is what triggers her first visit to Nsuuta – indicates that often, the struggle itself is exhausting. A conversation between Nsuuta and an older Kirabo, in the middle of the book, reveals this conflict at the heart of their relationship: “Being rebellious is not something I can afford“, Kirabo tells an angered Nsuuta, and that “there are ways of playing with fire without getting burnt.” Nsuuta’s own fate – a consequence of too much rebelling, according to the village – perhaps exerts its own pull upon Kirabo, whose own resistance – as she articulates it herself – is of a more contained kind (enabled, no doubt, by the fact that the 1970s are very different from the 1930s).
But the web of constraints is also visible in the behaviour of the men in The First Woman. There are three prominent male characters in the book – Kirabo’s grandfather Miiro, her father Tom, and Sio. None of these three men are crude patriarchs, of the kind who seek to use their social power to actively subordinate and suppress women. Miiro, in fact, goes out of his way to ensure that Kirabo has as much freedom as he can give her; Tom’s patriarchal impulses are at their worst in his treatment of his second wife, but even there, it is he who gives way in their conflict, and it is he who ensures Kirabo’s own further education; Sio belongs to the generation where ideas of equality are no longer entirely alien, and his treatment of Kirabo – at least in the beginning – reflects the struggles of a man coming to terms with that changed world. Nonetheless, while Miiro, Tom, and Sio are not actively bad persons, throughout the book, and to varying degrees, they do actively bad things to the women with whom they share social and private space. Sometimes, this is followed by (partially sincere) apologies, which everyone sees through (“How Zungu. You go and hurt someone and then when it comes to apologizing you help yourself to crying as well.”), and sometimes – as in the case of Miiro, who is perhaps the most sympathetic male character in the novel – a wry acknowledgment that within the web of constraints, this is as far as he can go and all that he can do, limited and insufficient though it is.
Tellingly, however, Makumbi does not turn The First Woman into a story only about patriarchy. Like Ferrante, she is keenly conscious about class, and how it intersects and feeds off patriarchy. In The First Woman, class creeps in not only through Kirabo’s experiences at St. Theresa’s, but also in one of the central female friendships of the novel, between Kirabo and Giibwa. Kirabo – who finds herself sidelined at St. Theresa’s – is nonetheless in a position of power in Nattetta, and as she and Giibwa grow up, their class differences colour and taint their friendship in unpredictable – and ultimately – tragic ways. As Giibwa says, in one of the most memorable dialogues of the novel:
‘Kiraboo, Kirabo,” Giibwa sighed exhaustion. “Fellow woman? Me and you? How? Look, not all women are women. Some women, like you, are men. You go to school, get degrees, then get jobs and employ women like me to be women for you at home. Some women, like me, are children.
The conflict between Kirabo and Giibwa thus complicates a central insight that Nsuuta communicates to Kirabo at the beginning of the story. “My grandmothers called it kweluma,” she says, “that is when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite. It is as a form of relief. If you cannot bite your oppressor you bite yourself.” Nsuuta – who has seen this in her own life – communicates this as a form of warning, and then is forced to watch helplessly as the tale repeats itself, generations on – because not all oppressions are equal.
Here again, thus, The First Woman tells us how, so often, the best will and the strongest heart in the world is not always able to transcend the crushing weight of institutions, and that if anything needs to be dismantled and rebuilt, it is those institutions – and not human nature.
So at one level, The First Woman is a story of rebellion, of its limits, and how oppressive institutions ultimately cage and constrain both those whom they subordinate and those whom they empower, although in very different ways. But at the same time, The First Woman is not simply reducible to structures. Like the best fiction, it creates a character who is truly memorable. Kirabo is human, very human, and her travails immediately capture readers: throughout the novel, I found myself following her journey with an almost terrifying sense of involvement: I cheered internally every time she overcame a barrier, I felt a sense of dread every time she was (I knew!) on the cusp of making a bad decision, and by the end, her fate – and the fate of those around her – felt deeply personal. Perhaps the reason why this is so is because, with Kirabo, Makumbi has achieved a character who does have a series of choices before her, constrained though they might be, and each choice – readers can see – is going to open up a path, or close it, in a world that is no longer actively hostile, but nonetheless continues to lay down a whole set of snares and traps. It is this that makes Kirabo’s journey so very compelling: in some way – to use a fraught term – if feels universal, or as universal as something can feel in our riven world.