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It has been said African writers are acclaimed and celebrated elsewhere, but not on the continent. Although celebrated author Jennifer Makumbi has given talks around the world, her ardent readers in Uganda have longed for a chance to sit at her feet and listen to her expound on her works. Last week, at an event organised by African Writer’s Trust in collaboration with Goethe Zentrum at Kati Kiti, their wish was finally granted. Jackie Assimwe – a poet in her own right – moderated the conversation with Makumbi. The audience lapped her every word, like parched travellers gulping from a tall glass of water on a long day. The Kampala Sun brings you excerpts from the conversation.

A Girl is a Body of Water

“A girl is a body of water. She fits wherever she flows. Water gives life, but water can also bring death. A woman can make or break you. She wields the power to nurture, the power to destroy. A woman is a body of water, an ocean, a river, a well, a spring. A tornado. A tsunami.”

Makumbi’s novel The First Woman was published as A Girl is a Body of Water in the US. For those who have not read the book, it follows the life of Kirabo, a smart headstrong girl raised by doting grandparents in a Ugandan village. As she enters her teenage years, she starts to search for her mother’s love. The journey takes her on an exploration of what it means to be a woman.

Makumbi: This is a book that was meant for readers from 15 to 90 years of age, a young girl, or an old woman or man. I just wanted us to talk about being a woman. In Uganda. Occupying this body. In Uganda. So that my son, my father, my uncle, my husband, all those wonderful people could understand what it means to be a woman in Uganda and all the things we carry in this body. So let us have a fantastic discussion.

Assiimwe: Who is Jennifer Makumbi? Tell us about yourself.
Makumbi: I grew up in Kawempe. I went to Mengo Primary School, Trinity College Nabbingo, Kings’ College Buddo and Islamic University of Uganda in Mbale. One thing that was crazy about me was that I read like mad. Sometimes I missed classes to read books. Especially in Nabbingo, I was terrible. We shared books. Sometimes you would ask a girl “Can I borrow your book,” and she would say “No”. She leaves it under the pillow, I hide behind the door. The nun comes and locks me in. I get the book from under the pillow and read it.

Assiimwe: If you were to dine with an author, living or dead, who would it be?

Makumbi: I wonder what Okot p’Bitek would be like. I think him and me would have a candid conversation because he was not shy. I think it would be Okot p’Bitek and I would have a few things to say to him.

Jackie: You talk about a woman being a body of water. Tell us what that is about.
Makumbi: When I started doing my Phd at Manchester University, I wanted to look at the origins of women’s oppression. I started to tell my supervisors, “If I talk about my oral traditions, you can find a thread there that leads you to the sense that women were perceived as coming from water. For me, this could be a paradigm we could use to understand women’s oppression in Uganda, especially Buganda – because that was what I knew. Then I started to excavate those folk tales we grew up on, I started to read them with a feminist slant and I could see this thing being rampant. When I connected it to the West, I could see the Selkie of Ireland, the mermaids around the world. I felt I was on to something. I could offer this for my Phd.
I was laughed out of the university.
One lecturer found me in tears and told me, “Jennifer you are an author. Why do you worry about the western institutions taking your ideas through? Just author them.”

Jackie: When I think of woman as a body of water; water is at once containable and yet it is not and I think that is what women are. We can fool you into thinking you have put us in a bottle, but let this water spill, you will not know the shape of us or where we flow. A woman is at once fierce and calm. Water heals, and destroys. Water is life, it can also be death. And I think for me that descriptor as a feminist, as an activist, I thought to myself, “I wish we knew.” We go around assuming, “Let me empower.” And yet really we are power, we have power. It is just connecting to the stories we have been told, see them in a feminist way and be able to tell people, “You already have it, it is already in you.” Water is made up of droplets. The feminist movement is made up of individual women, but together they are a body of water. Together, women are formidable, we do things for each other.

Makumbi: Yes. And of course it is meant to be interpretive. But I often wanted people to go back to the beginning. To our oral traditions. We have the western feminism. It arrived in 1975, at least that is when we became aware, some women went to Mexico City. It appeared on television and the word mwenkanokano started floating around and there was a lot of resistance. I am not saying it was wrong feminism, has made a lot of difference in Uganda the feminism that came from the west. When he came to power in 1986, President Museveni took up the idea of western feminism and decided we need to have the bumper of 1.5 points to grow the number of girls at university, he appointed a female vice president for the first time and every step of the adminstration, they created a woman’s position, so that women can get involved. Which is wonderful. But when I talk about Ugandan women, I am talking about the vice president, but also the servant who is working in her house, or the woman in the garden. The feminism that is going to unite us. The feminism from the West came in English. It was written. It had icons who were all white women we did not relate to. And it was movement, so we all took it up and thought we could do the same. But then if you step back, you realise we are not oppressed the same around the world, we are oppressed differently. So there are things that happen in Uganda to women, that do not happen to women in the west. So western feminism may not really help fully. This is why I thought, let us go back to our traditional ideas. What did my grandmother leave behind in oral traditions?

On love
Assiimwe: There are multiple love stories in the book. Are you a hopeless romantic?
Makumbi: Oh yes. I have talked about this book in the west and nobody has brought up the love. Yet I worked so hard. I hoped when I returned home, people would talk about love because I was so desperate to express love that was not Mills and Boons. I worker hard at all the characters, I just wanted to say to people that there are many ways of being in love. If you are not the kind of person who turns around and says, “I love you,” every other second, it is also possible to just be who you are in the way you love. I wanted to show people falling in love in the 1930s and feeling it – that they are in love. And people falling in love in the 1970s, especially little children, because of course we know, we are not supposed to be doing that. So I thought it important to have a discussion on that.

Assiimwe: And the other love, which is almost love hate, is that Kirabo is forever seeking. Seeking the love of a mother. And she is rebutted when they finally meet. Yes, there is love, but there is also the element of seeking. Do you think, maybe, seeking never ends? What is that feeling? Was it just about the mother, or an embodiment of the things we seek?
Makumbi: It goes back to the idea of motherhood in Uganda. For a very long time motherhood was getting pregnant, going to the labour ward and having children – then you are a mother. And yet we know that is not the truth in our experiences. And yet every time a woman has not had children in Uganda they mention “She did not have children.” And we limited motherhood to just [the biological] pregnancy. Yet we see a lot of mothers who are not ‘mothers’. A lot of ‘mothers’ are not mothers. Yet a lot of women are mothers. Give them children and they will just mother. One of my grandmothers had the largest number of children. And yet when she died, at the graveside they said she never had children. I was so mad. First of all I did not know that. I turned to my aunt and said, “but she had so many children”. This is the grandmother who had ‘grandmothered’ the whole clan. But they dared, when she was dead and could not fight back, to say she never had children. So I felt we needed to discuss the idea of motherhood. Kirabo had mother figures. The whole village had mothered her, but most of all, her grandmother had mothered her. And when she left the village and went to the city, Aunt Abby had mothered her, but Kirabo is looking for someone else. There is a lot of love around her, but she needed to go and hit a wall and come back and see all that she had. I think this is important in our lives, to see all the mothers that we have had. Because when Mothers’ day comes, we think of the woman who went to the labour ward, but there are so many oyher women who mother. They do it, not because you are going to be appreciative, but because they love. It is important that we mention those women.

Assiimwe: And then there are stepmothers. When I read the book, I felt “here we go again, down the road of the stepmother is the ugly one, the crazy one, the book was going so well, why do we go toward that narrative?” So yeah, tell us about stepmothering.
Makumbi: When I started writing the book, I thought of the way women are perceived, I thought of the bitch, the witch, the slut and the stepmother. I had all of those. The slut was removed, but will probably be put back in later editions. I so wanted you to be uncomfortable. I wanted you to be uncomfortable around Nambi, because most of us know of a stepmother. Most of us know them as these horrible creatures, but we have never realised that our fathers made them stepmothers [thunderous applause]. And, actually, it is only recently that men have started to accept children born to women and bringing them into their homes. But im the past, women used to deny that they had children. A lot of children have grown up without knowing their mothers, because they had to hide. A lot of children have grown up with their mothers as their older sisters. So I had to work onto the stepmother paradigm. It is until Kirabo realises that she is going to become a stepmother and she notices, “Oh my. I am turning into Nambi.” And then she realises what happened to her stepmother. The whole thing is all mixed up because Tom made Naku pregnant. Naku abandons the child. He hands her over to the sister. He did not bring up the child, grandmother brings up the child. Tom looks perfect, he is a perfect Muganda man. He loves his mother, he loves his father. He has his child, he was a little young so he hands him over to his mother and father. When he makes money, he gets a wife who he feels can bring up the child, so he dumped her there without asking. In the morning he expects to go to work and leave the child with the stepmother, who knows well that if she had a child like that, she would not have brought her in that house. But I write it in such a way that I want to take the Ugandan mind along, believing that Nambi is terrible, is the horrible one and you get angry with Nambi, until Tom is taken away. And then you start to see and understand Nambi.
Culture says if you have a child, that child belongs to the father. And that child should be brought up in the home with the wife, especially if you have had that child before. But, for goodness sake, the home belongs to husband and wife. Let us talk about it. If the wife says, “I do not want the child” do not. Think about the child. She is being straightforward with you. Because many stepmothers say, “Of course, bring her,” and then she will feed her children and not the other one. If the woman has been straightforward and said, “You know what, I do not want to do that.” Then think again. Maybe then men will stop having so many children. I knew this would be controversial, there would be people who would be on Kirabo’s side and there would be people who would be on Nambi’s side. But I thought this paradigm of Cinderella, most of our oral tradition stories are about a little girl and a wicked step mother.

Assiimwe: So you reference omwenkanokano (equality). I also sense a sort of play between Beijing people and those who went on behalf of those they had been left behind and the conversation of “Who sent you there” and “where is that”, “what did you say” and “you did not tell me you were going to speak on my behalf”.
Makumbi: First of all I am really not good with answers. I am good at posing questions. And often I do not know the answer. But one of the things that idea of feminism, as I started with the stories from the west and coming to Uganda and then kind of breaking us up – middle class women who read and write and understand feminism from the west and working class women who has not read up on that feminism and which does not make sense to them. It is just that we need to have this discussion between us women. What kind of woman are you? Compared to the woman who cleans your house. The woman who is bringing up your child. Because there is that funny thing, you leave your most precious ones to them. And I did not realise this until I had my son and got a maid. One day I came home and my son said, “Mummy, ekitwe kinuma.” And I said “Ekitwe?” And the neighbour told me that the maid used to say to my son “Nja kukukuba ekitwo ekyo.” And so my son did not know that the head is omutwe. He thought omutwe is ekitwe. And that pulled me back. And I said, “You know what, you need to treat the person you leave your child with like a princess.” Most of us middle class women have left the maternal space to the maid, including bringing up our children. We have not realised that the fact that we pay them, we come across as men to them. For them, they remove us from the feminine to the masculine. Because what do we do? We come back with our high heels, the bag and start barking orders, “Did you do this, did you do that?” Sometimes we act masculine, don’t we? To somebody who is not at our level. So until I realised, “You know what, this cannot be mwenkanokano between me and the girl who thinks I am a man.” Because for her, if you are no longer in the maternal space, you are not bringing up your children, she cleans for you, she cooks for you, she washes for you, well you might as well be a man. So we have to find a bridge between us and that woman.
I realised the distance between us. And yet, we middle class women say “This is us Ugandan women, this is Ugandan feminism.” Yet we are leaving someone behind, who does not understand what we are doing there and whose reality we do not understand. For me the movement is wonderful, but feminism happens at the individual level. It happens in privacy. It is also every day. A woman wakes up in the morning, gets dressed and the minute she steps outside has to start fighting. And we learn, to fight, to push. Then you come to a point where you say, “I will not win here.”
Again, putting up a podium and lecturing on feminism, they will look at me and say “Look at that one.” But it is them that we should start with and then take it higher, from the ground level, to the national level, to the African level and then we join the global. That way, we will bridge the gap. At the moment, I do not think we are going far. At least from my experience in Uganda.

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