The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
1970s Uganda: halfway through Idi Amin’s terrible reign. The First Woman details the coming of age of Kirabo, a headstrong young woman from a small Ugandan village who begins to feel the terrible absence of her unknown mother as she enters her teenage years. A stunning epic and breathtaking tour de force that spans generations, the novel explores the very concept of Ugandan womanhood while tracking Kirabo’s first move, first love and first betrayals in a rapidly changing world.
The novel is a particularly successful example of the coming-of-age story due to its careful blend of universality and specificity. What does it mean to be on the brink of womanhood? As a feminist – or rather, mwenkanonkano (a Ugandan movement that predates Western feminism)? In a country in turmoil? As a girl without a mother? Author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi draws upon mythology, folklore and biblical tales to build a story that transcends the expectations of a bildungsroman or a feminist take on a classic trope. The characters and situations are too present, too real, to act merely as allegory. Kirabo refuses to act as a stand in for all young women – her voice is too loud, her perspective too unique. And don’t even get me started on her grandmothers.
Published overseas last year, Makumbi’s novel made it on to most of the ‘Best of ’ lists of 2020 and I would be shocked if it didn’t find its way onto Readings’ Best of 2021. The book has earned well-deserved comparisons to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. It has the same mastery of language and ability to transport the reader to another time and place. And as we pass our first COVID-19 anniversary, who wouldn’t want to be in another time and place? Read immediately.