book review

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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Rating: 5 out of 5.

My grandmothers called it kweluma. 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.

The First Woman is a feminist coming-of-age novel set in Uganda during the 1970s. It follows Kirabo, a child who was brought up in rural Uganda by her grandparents. We meet her first as a 12 year old, but follow her as she grows up in a world shaped by patriarchy, colonialism and Idi Amin’s regime.

I loved that this novel fully transports you to Uganda and immerses you in the history, language, culture and mythology. It’s a beautifully written novel which very vividly depicts the place its set – Natteta, the village Kirabo grows up in, is so strongly realised, even though she actually only spends the first part of the novel living there. You learn so much about the village and the people that live there and how they intersect with Kirabo’s life.

As well as being a coming-of-age novel, this is in parts a family saga, focusing specifically on the women in Kirabo’s life (her two grandmothers and her obsession with finding her mother). Kirabo’s family is filled with secrets, and part of her growing up is discovering the answers to these secrets, and how they change her perceptions of people. Kweluma – defined in the quote above – and mwekanonkano (a concept similar to feminism) are driving forces and themes in the novel, and as Kirabo gets older she starts to see kweluma at play in her relationships and the relationships of others.

This is a lively, engaging read, that sometimes feels like it’s heading in a purposeful direction and sometimes feels like it’s snippets of Kirabo’s life connected by the themes of mwekanonkano and kweluma. Despite this, Kirabo’s character pulls the novel together and drives you through. I found it charming and engrossing, and I will be definitely be looking into the author’s first novel, Kintu.

The First Woman won The Jhalak Prize 2021 the day before I was planning on posting this. Congratulations to Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – I think this is a much deserved win for such a beautiful, engaging, human novel.

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