Book Review – The First Woman

The First Woman/A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Format: Hardback

Publisher: One World Publications

Published: October 2020

Genre: Literary/Feminist Fiction/ Coming of Age

Setting: Uganda


Rating: 5 Stars


In her twelfth year, Kirabo, a young Ugandan girl, confronts a piercing question that has haunted her childhood: who is my mother? Kirabo has been raised by women in the small village of Nattetta—her grandmother, her best friend, and her many aunts, but the absence of her mother follows her like a shadow. Complicating these feelings of abandonment, as Kirabo comes of age she feels the emergence of a mysterious second self, a headstrong and confusing force inside her at odds with her sweet and obedient nature.

Seeking answers, Kirabo begins spending afternoons with Nsuuta, a local witch, trading stories and learning not only about this force inside her, but about the woman who birthed her, who she learns is alive but not ready to meet. Nsuuta also explains that Kirabo has a streak of the “first woman”—an independent, original state that has been all but lost to women.

Kirabo’s journey to reconcile her rebellious origins, alongside her desire to reconnect with her mother and to honor her family’s expectations, is rich in the folklore of Uganda and an arresting exploration of what it means to be a modern girl in a world that seems determined to silence women. Makumbi’s unforgettable novel is a sweeping testament to the true and lasting connections between history, tradition, family, friends, and the promise of a different future. (Goodreads)

My Thoughts….

To say that I loved this book is to grossly understate it. Makumbi proves time and time again that she is in a league of her own. Unmatched and unrivalled. She writes so effortlessly and leaves you marvelling at her prowess and wishing the book was longer. She gives you a story that is easy, rich and authentic; and her humorous prose will have you giggling and keep you engaged throughout the 433 pages.

Steeped in oral story-telling, mythologies and folklore, The First Woman is a powerful Feminist rendition of a young African girl, discovering who she is and what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society, throughout the different givings of time; how being a woman can take different forms and who women are and can be for each other.

Kirabo, is a 12 year old inquisitive young girl growing up in Nattetta Village, Uganda in the 1970s. She is adored by her grandparents and her father whose ‘love was always in a hurry’, given in small doses during his brief visits to the village. She has an army of aunts and relatives who love her but for a 12 year old girl, her mother’s absence is a wound that won’t heal and it soon becomes evident through her life long search to find her and anchor her identity that ‘you cannot love a mother out of a child’, much as you may try.

Makumbi continuously, in all her works, unapologetically refuses to focus and center or make room for whiteness and it’s influences on African lives which is quite evident in The First Woman. She acknowledges that there were influences, yes, but also legitimises African cultures that evolved independently of these influences and parallel to them.

In The First Woman, Feminism is strongly claimed as an African construct and not an import of western influences. It has a name –Mwenkanonkano. It is ours and has existed for us since the beginning of time. Most times we find ourselves lacking a voices to express who we are or what we are about because we have historically been made to believe that these concepts are imports and can only be explained using the English tongue. It reminds me of 10 year old Darling in We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo who lamented on the difficulties of expressing and articulating oneself in English and how this is often misconstrued by English Speakers as lack of intelligence

“The problem with English is this: You usually can’t open your mouth and it comes out just like that–first you have to think what you want to say. Then you have to find the words. Then you have to carefully arrange those words in your head. Then you have to say the words quietly to yourself, to make sure you got them okay. And finally, the last step, which is to say the words out loud and have them sound just right.

But then because you have to do all this, when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And, because you are speaking like falling, it’s as if you are an idiot, when the truth is that it’s the language and the whole process that’s messed up. And then the problem with those who speak only English is this: they don’t know how to listen; they are busy looking at your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying.”

NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

But Makumbi is here reminding us that we don’t always have to turn to English to express ourselves. Our forebears – our mothers and their mothers and their mothers before them had words to express themselves until their voices were robbed and someone else filled the silence for them.

“Stories are critical, Kirabo, she added thoughtfully. The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.”

Also characteristic of Makumbi is her character-driven plot. She introduces us to a myriad of interesting characters, both male and female – each one significant and quite representative of African familial structures, full of aunts and cousins and great aunts and neighbours. It’s a wonderful mix and if you’ve grown up in a big extended family, you definitely know what Makumbi is on about – you hardly ever know who is whose child nor how you are related to dozens of your relative.

The First Woman is an incredibly entertaining, fast paced and moving read. I literally breezed through the 400+ pages and was ready for a few more hundred pages. Kirabo is one of the dearest, most inquisitive and headstrong heroine you’ll meet and Alikisa and Nsuuta, some of the best and most interesting older female characters you will read, right next to Dr Morayo in Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo-Manyika.

If there’s one thing I recommend you do before the end of this dreadful year, is to pick up a copy of this book!

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