Book Review : The Honking by Mulumba Ivan Matthias

Simple. Enjoyable. Interwoven.

Mulumba’s first novel is a tidy execution of a story that doesn’t try to bite off more than it can chew. It’s a welcome novel because it is centred around the great Ivory Tower of Makerere University. I think it is a story every one who has been to this institution or been around can identify with.

The Honking is a title I am yet to wrap my head around but I think it has to do with warning signs and noise. There’s no warning as the book opens, that we’re going to witness a ghastly event, however this event while not the major factor influencing events in the story, is one of the factors.

Mulumba draws us into a story of the people of Makerere and their personal intrigues. By people, I mean students, their parents, friends and neighbours; professors/lecturers, their families, friends and neighbours. It’s a web with events closely tied together, and it is important that the author manages to keep each story distinct.

When we think of Makerere in Ugandan literature, it usually features as an academic headline. It is mostly if not all the time alluded to in a non-fiction and academic form. What Mulumba does is give that studying centre on a hill, a personality. Makerere is indeed much more than research papers and graduation. A lot happens in and around Makerere which makes Makerere, Makerere.

Forget the sensationalisation of tabloids about how campus girls do this, or campus boys do that. The author does pick his characters in a thought-provoking way. Maybe some of the characters are stereotypes of the people we believe to make up Makerere but maybe when you read or if you have interacted with the people of Makerere, it won’t seem far-fetched at all. There are the well-to-do. The gave-up-studying-and-are-on-a-perpetual holiday types, the I-need-to-not-embarrass-my-parents types, the play-men-to-get-what-I-want types, the got-it-all-together-lecturer types, the Kikoni food seller types, the Kikoni landlord types and many more… Basically, there is a picture the writer is drawing about what Makerere is about, outside academia.

Indeed, if you’ve been to Makerere, perhaps you will be hit with nostalgia when you read the words “Weeeeeee Weeeeeee” (although for a moment I read that as wee wee, 🙂 my bad); the red gown, the feeling of the danger or daring of being pulled into a strike. (I want to say the underbelly of) Makerere is written into literature with what I think is a fair picture. (It’s not the one side of well built chapels or Faculty buildings or well dressed students, it reveals more than that pretty picture.)

 “It is not black and white Paulo, Maama Banji said. We are discussing the other colours.”

When it comes to the individual lives of the characters, you may know one of these people or you may not.

Maybe it’s Muzamiru, the rolex maker who Kaggwa prefers, the one who “…was hygienic unlike other chapatti sellers near him. Some blew their noses in dirty hankies and touched chapattis without washing their hands.”

Perhaps it is Aliker’s father whose dreams are in his son “…big plans. I want him to go for a master’s degree abroad.”

Or it is those pesky neighbours kids that don’t respect you or your silence.

Or the neighbour on the muzigo with her unconventional wisdom “It is not black and white Paulo, Maama Banji said. We are discussing the other colours.”

And all I am talking about are what you’d call the “supporting cast”, not really the main characters.

The intrigue of the other characters allows us to enjoy a story that is new because of its premise. A “honking” at Makerere that sets the lives of the people involved in this drama into a tumble!

The main characters, Brenda, Kaggwa, Richard, Diana, Mukalazi, Sylvia, Priscilla, Richard, Israel, Aliker, Daphne are all connected in the series of events that involve murder, loose behaviour, adultery and fornication, academic malpractice and poverty. Yes, the characters are quite many but luckily none of them gets lost in translation. Each is distinct.

Mulumba paid tribute to his city, his locales which must be celebrated. Ugandan readers who know the places he mentions in the book will not have trouble visualising the scenes. Nkrumah Road, Uganda House, Nakulabye, Kasubi, Bugolobi etc… This is one of the things that make this a Ugandan book. Not to mention tributes to certain radio stations and musicians like the late Paul Kafeero.

You may (again), know some of these people, perhaps even are or have been one of these people. You may know a Mukalazi being tempted by a Diana who knows how to play her men; a Sylvia who is tired of the beatings of her Kalebu so finds solace in the strong arms of Kaggwa whose situation is not exactly well off. Or Israel who gave up on school but not its social perks. There are certainly people you know in these characters.

Some characters feel underused, like the guy with a powerful name – Opolot Deus Dedit. He had the makings of a rabble-rouser but his main antagonist went coy against him.

At many points, it feels like Makerere is under the microscope. Its people are being examined, its lifestyle, its buildings etc. Personally, this was a story about the campus and its intrigues. And for what it is worth. This is a neccessary piece of literature. The 70’s, 80’s and 90’s had their versions of school presented and we can all remember the writings of Barbara Kimenye in the Moses series. This book attempts to shine light on an icon in Ugandan life even though it is not a golden light!

With all its good points, I needed a resolution to the storymaking scene at the beginning. An answer to the why this happened, who made this happen. I sailed throughout the entire story hoping this would be revealed however, different storytellers have different styles, maybe this makes for a part two.

More so, I hoped to have head on conflict/action between the players in the novel. I wanted it badly. (Perhaps I am to blame for wanting some violence…haha, but Mulumba avoided any such vivid violence, and even when it was there was told in retrospect). Not that absence of violence makes a bad novel, just saying with a generation that has grown up on the stories of J R Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Neil Gaiman etc, you want some slaps, some fists into some chests, some knives cutting off ears…. okay I better stop. This paragraph should have been rated PG-13.

Mulumba handles the sexual respectfully, with occasional indications of kinkiness appearing here and there. There’s nothing overly graphic about his depictions and while some may say this is a bad thing, I say this is a good thing. There are books I have read with every chapter turning out to be an episode of 50 Shades of Gray, or The Kamasutra, which sometimes takes away from a story because of the over focus on the sex. I think a writer like Mulumba is comfortable with the way he talks about sex and it is a good thing.

One thing I would have wished to see in this novel is the use of our home languages especially with the dialogue. I felt the ooomph of the meaning when using English wasn’t there. I think it would have had greater effect for example,  if the taxi touts said things like “Maaso awo”, or “Ssebo ogenda?” or “Tula tugende” or “Ziwereze”. Their Anglicised versions felt a little impotent.

Mulumba paid tribute to his city, his locales which must be celebrated. Ugandan readers who know the places he mentions in the book will not have trouble visualising the scenes. Nkrumah Road, Uganda House, Nakulabye, Kasubi, Bugolobi etc… This is one of the things that make this a Ugandan book. Not to mention tributes to certain radio stations and musicians like the late Paul Kafeero.

Mulumba’s first novel will surely feature in Literary conversations and needs to be owned by Ugandan literature lovers.

P.S Mulumba’s book is one of the first books to have the Uganda Reproduction Rights Organisation-URRO golden seal of authenticity. The seal is meant to guard against copyright infringement. Buy only copies with that seal to support the author.

The Honking is available on Turn The Page along with Mulumba Ivan Matthias’s other titles Poetry in Motion, and Rumblings of a Tree.

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