The Manchester-based writer’s debut novel Kintu (Oneworld, £14.99) delves into Ugandan history, starting with a man beaten to death outside Kampala in 2004. The narrative then winds back to the mid- 18th century to his distant ancestor, a tribal leader named Kintu, who provokes a curse that his latter-day descendants spend the rest of the novel trying to escape.
Tell us about the African oral traditions – were they vital in retaining cultural identities during colonialism and what role do they play now?
Oral traditions are oral forms – myths, legends, folktales, sayings, proverbs, riddles, tongue twisters, etc – and play the same role as they do in other cultures. They are part of life. The Kintu ne Nnambi (Kintu and Nnambi) myth is similar to the Adam and Eve myth. Legends are peopled with exaggerated traditional heroes just like Robin Hood. Folk tales are entertainment but also cautionary; they play the same role as fairy tales. The forms are continuously updated and discarded according to relevance. Now we have urban myths, new legends like pop and sports stars and new sayings keep cropping up on the streets to keep up with the changing times. During colonisation Ugandan cultural identities were not under threat; Ugandans could not become British the way the French used French assimilation in their colonies. What was under threat were aspects of culture, especially religion, traditional political and some social structures.
What purpose does the Kintu legend serve for Buganda people?
Kintu or Kintu ne Nnambi is a creationist myth. As I said above, it serves the same purpose as Adam and Eve in the west – that of the beginning,
of where we came from. In the novel, because the myth is deployed interpretively, the story goes back to the 1750s. Just like in Britain, Ugandans are far removed from their old myths. No one believes in them anymore because they are made up. But because of Christianity, which tried to replace Kintu ne Nnambi with Adam and Eve, there is a sense that Kintu ne Nnambi is ours while Adam and Eve belongs to Europe. There are Christians in Uganda, like in the West, who believe that Adam and Eve is true.
What conversations do you hope the novel will provoke for modern Ugandans?
Right now in Uganda, the American evangelical churches have taken such root that Christianity has become indigenous. I hope Ugandans will talk about this indigenisation of Christianity. I hope they will interrogate Christianity’s historical racism, especially its promotion of the enslavement of Africans, because of the story of Ham. I hope Ugandans will rethink the idea that homosexuality came with colonisation and rather look at how Christianity brought homophobia and consider ways in which national memory is suppressed. I hope Ugandans can start to talk about the oppressive nature of the patriarchy towards masculinities as well.
What do you hope western readers will take away from the novel?
I hope readers in the West could stop looking at Africa through colonial lenses of pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial as if Africa cannot/did not exist before or outside coloniality. By insisting on looking at Africa this way, the West continues to focus on itself really: “Look what we did to them!” Or: “Look what we did for them”. Then there is the media circus, the portrayal of Africa as a place of madness. While there are problems of war and poverty in Africa the West needs to realise that its way of being is not the only way of being.
Tell us about the role of superstition and supernaturalism in the book Kintu.
It is hard for me to tell you the role of superstition and supernaturalism in my novel. Perhaps what you call superstition and supernaturalism is spiritual realism to me, which is part of life. There have been scholars who believe that spiritual realism or indeed oral traditions are part of the African literary identity. I demur. Ugandans are spiritual in different ways and when I write I tap into that. Think about how the British do not like to open an umbrella indoors or go “touch wood”. What role does that play in society or in a novel? To me, it’s a reflection of everyday life; some believe in it some don’t.
Kintu follows a male lineage, reflecting patriarchal traditions. Tell us about your second novel – currently called The Women. Will it be the other side of the story?
My second novel, working title The Women, is feminist. Because it looks at women while Kintu looks at men, I had the tendency to look at it as the other side of the Kintu story, but it is not. Firstly, it is set between 1933 and 1982 and looks at traditional feminist thrusts. Even then, it is more focused on the blind spots of feminism in Uganda, especially women who traditionally reinforce the patriarchy and men who engender feminism. It also looks at how repressed women relate to each other to explain conformity.
You’re also writing about Ugandans in Manchester. What have you found from your own experience and from your research?
I’ve found that we humans are our environment. The level at which we Ugandans change in Britain is astounding. Sometimes, I don’t recognise myself.
Jennifer will be in conversation with Ellah Allfrey at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama, Bridgeford St, Manchester M13 9PL on Wednesday 21 February at 7.30pm. Tickets £7/£5 To book, tel 0843 208 0500
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