Should We Use “Kintu” as a Yardstick for Ugandan Literature?

Bwesigye asks a pertinent question about my review of Nakisanze Segawa’s book – The Triangle, why is there no mention of Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu? It’s a question that perhaps I would have asked myself too considering the similarities that exist between the two books.

They both are set in pre-independence Uganda, to be exact – in a thriving Kabakaship of Buganda. They pay homage to histories of a people.

Now, anyone who has read Kintu agrees that it is a work that can only be called masterpiece. Right from the prologue to the end, the setting, the conflict, the usage of folktales, idioms, proverbs and the like to bring to life things we could have left in the village. It jumpstarts a memory or awareness of heritage in such a spellbinding way, it is hard to put down all the while you read it.

That’s the problem with Kintu. It’s almost perfect. What is there to complain about? And this is why I no longer want to compare books, especially Ugandan books with Kintu. I read another piece of Ugandan literature after reading Kintu, it was a series of short stories and all the while I read felt I wasn’t being satisfied.

Drug effect.

Kintu has a narcotic effect. It takes you on a high. A high you demand from other drugs. A high other drugs cannot reach. Each Ugandan book you read, you want to compare to Kintu because Kintu has become a standard for a high. A standard for greatness.

Thank God the poets and playwrights do not have to be put to the same measurement but there is somewhat something similar in their genres. Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino up to today reigns first place in Ugandan poetry. If any are to compete, perhaps Henry Barlow’s Building the Nation. Kagayi’s poetry curves out a niche for itself because in addition to being read, it is performed and very often the performance makes the reading experience whole.

For the novel writers who write about what Makumbi writes, there will always be a temptation to judge. To say, Makumbi did this better. However, we must appreciate Kintu is a Doctoral project, and has been proofread by some of the best; Vimbai Shire, Kate Hampton, to mention but a few. Makumbi herself is a lecturer in creative writing at Lancaster University. This is not to say great projects should only come out of great editing and PhD process but it adds to the refinement.

So, indeed when I first heard of Nakisanze’s The Triangle and it’s similarity to Kintu, I feared about whether it would turn out as good. Thus The Triangle deserved its own review, outside the comparison to Kintu. Every book must find its own space to be judged after which comparisons can be done.

A book is first a book, not a book like another book. Even when an author writes a book like another book, the grace must be given to it to be judged as its own book then it can be arraigned for being like another book.

Kintu is a Ugandan and world masterpiece. That is for sure. However, in judging other books only in respect of Kintu will be a disservice to other authors who are exerting themselves at the altar of the story.

We must allow the celebration of the process of putting a work out. Celebrate the Sophie B Alals, the Jackie Batandas, the Doreen Baigana’s, the Monica Arac de Nyeko’s, the list is long for sure. Writing is not easy. That we must understand before we compare.

We must read our books. If not for the reason that they tell our stories (well or not), that they are our books. Our stories.

Photo: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi at Africa Writes © Yves Salmon

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