The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
In the beginning women were bold, independent, and strong, “but it was too much for the world”. This folklore tale about the first women who walked the Earth is told in a small Ugandan village during the regime of one of history’s cruelest dictators – Idi Amin. The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a vivid, powerful coming-of-age story, which is driven by indigenous feminism: while her characters are trying to preserve their identity in a patriarchal society, their sense of self-worth is reinforced by ancient myths passed down from generation to generation.
The reader encounters protagonist, Kirabo, when she is twelve, and follows her through her adolescence and youth: menstruation as “Armageddon” between her legs (when she becomes “unclean”), first love, studying at an elite private school for girls, discovering her sexuality, experiencing war, loss and betrayal, all while constantly thinking about the woman she has never met – her mother.
We can see how the old institutions of family and tribal tradition resist the pressure of time and changing political and economic realities. Uganda of the 20th century appears as a country tormented by power dynamics, colonialism and tribalism: the tradition of labia elongation still persists, and women who choose more than one sexual partner are doomed to social exile; daughters cannot inherit their parents’ property, and education is only a way to “raise the girl’s value on the marriage market.”
Overall, The First Woman is a wise, moving and a multi-layered novel, which not only immerses us in authentic Ugandan culture, but also allows the reader to look at the universal themes from a different angle. Comparing women to migrants in the land of men, the author exposes the primary motivation behind oppressors’ discrimination: fear. However, instead of the usual opposition between two genders, Nansubuga reveals how the patriarchal system turns women against each other, corrupting alliances and friendships into hatred and rivalry. But the novel’s conclusion puts everything in its place “because only a woman knows how to love a woman properly.”
The First Woman is published by Oneworld Publications at the hardback price of £16.99, and is available in the UK on 1st October 2020. For further information visit here.