Monday, July 27, 2015

Re-imagining the Kabaka Kingdom

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Kíntu – A History of Uganda
Kwani? has been instrumental in the publishing of innovative stories that reveal a diversity of the wealth of creativity in East Africa and Africa at large. Makumbi’s Kíntu is one such novel that attests to the depth of imagination and creativity from the region. In this text, the reader encounters a fusion of modernity and history as the writer narrates a modern epic characterised by historic fetes, myths, fears and unfathomable cultural transformations as a family tree is reconstructed. This is the story of Kintu Kidda – the Ppookino of Buddu Province in the kingdom of Buganda – retraced from the 16th Century.
The novel opens with a prologue whose setting is in the 21st century. In this prologue, Kamu Kintu is picked from his home by Local Councillors (LCs) only to be murdered a short distance away from his house by an irate mob that accuses him of being a thief. On one hand, it is a precursor to a historic legend – an epic of the Kintu family – that unfolds thereafter as the novel plunges us into the past connecting Kamu Kintu’s death with a legendary curse that has plagued the descendants of Kintu Kidda’s family over the years. On the other hand, it rekindles memories of political disappearances in most African countries; hence, Kamu’s death symbolises both political assassinations and intolerance.
Kintu Kidda’s epic story is entwined with that of his twin wives Nnakato and Babirye. It is a revelation of traditional myths and specific cultural practices entrenched in many African communities. The history of the Kintu family endures the passage of time but so does the curse unleashed on this family by a Rwandese man – munnarwanda, Ntwire, for the loss of his only son Kalema in the hands of Kintu Kidda. The reference to Nwire, a Tutsi man who arrives to take abode in Kintu’s homeland evokes emotions about the rivalry between the Hutu and the Tutsis of Rwanda thereby symbolising the ethnic conflicts in the region. Inevitably, Ntwire accords Kintu’s Nnakato the custody of his only son Kalemanzira to be brought up as a twin brother to their son Baale.
On a fateful journey to pay homage to a new Kabaka – Kyabaggu – as a result of the dethroning of the other Kabaka – Namugala, Kalema is chastised by Kintu through a slap but unfortunately he dies in the desert of o Lwera. The punishment is occasioned by Kalema’s attempt to drink from the gourd of Kintu, an act that is forbidden according to the customs of the Baganda at the time. When Ntwire finally learns of Kalema’s death, he leaves Kintu’s Mayirika – principal residence – distraught and heartbroken. Nevertheless, he utters an unforgettable curse that the descendants of Kintu Kidda have to reckon with for hundreds of years before they can finally regroup in an effort to not only re-establish their roots, but also to appease the spirit of the munnarwanda for the crime committed against him by their ancestor – Kintu:
‘You see these feet,’ then he pointed at his feet. ‘I am going to look for my child. If he’s alive, I’ll bring him home and apologise. But if I don’t find him – to you, to your house and to those that will be born out of it – to live will be to suffer. You will endure so much that you’ll wish that you were never born.’ Ntwire’s voice shook as he added, ‘And for you Kintu, even death will not bring relief.’
Indeed, Ntwire’s words live true to their utterer’s spirit. Through the passage of time, the family of Kintu Kidda metamorphoses and so does the nation of Uganda. Ironically, even though Uganda as a nation strives to weather the storms of colonisation, attains independence and grapples with political upheavals in the form of coup d'états– Iddi Amin, Milton Obote etc. the descendants of Kintu Kidda have never known what to live peacefully means either. The relative calm in the political, economic and social environment of Uganda does little to soothe the curse of Ntwire over the lives of Kintu’s lineage. It is as though their lives are an endless crossing of the o Lwera desert described in the text thus: “However o Lwera was o Lwera. Even at this distance, a dirge, the hum of its heat, was audible. Waves of radiation danced in the air warning: You traverse these grounds at your own peril.”
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi - The Writer
Although some of the descendants traverse the world in search of better education and economic prospects, the curse clings onto them as a rude reminder of their roots. Besides, some family members try to escape into Christian religion in the deepest hope that the curse would leave them alone. One of these is Faisi (Faith) and Kanani (Canaan) who adamantly refuse to be drawn into the cultural beliefs of their ancestors. However, they too realise that they cannot wish the curse away as it finds abode in their children – Job (Yobu) and Ruth (Luusi). Consequently, they have to sacrifice their personal interests, like many others of their larger family, to regroup nay to reconcile with their past and to seek peace in their present and future lives.
In this novel, the writer is ambitious enough to weave contemporary events together with those from the past in a seamless manner. It is as if the reader never experiences instances of flashbacks but is always in the ever present moment of the narrative. Amassing many characters over the time, navigating a wide geographical locale and spanning centuries of time, the text ably fuses history and modernity together. New diseases, modern technology and contemporary cultural practices are presented as an inevitable evolution of global trends that have shaped the world over and not just Uganda
Therefore, Kíntu is an epic story that reveals the deeply embedded traditions of the Buganda Kingdom and the birth of the Ugandan nation at large. Through a multiplicity of different family stories, Makumbi seeks to reconstruct the family tree of the Kintu family and thereby the history of Uganda as a nation. As the myths unfold, the unexpected come to live, and the unimaginable happens, the reader is able to reconnect with a past that makes the acts of the present palpable. This is a story that acts as a good reminder that we can never wish the past away since the past inevitably contributes in shaping the future.

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