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October 21 2021 9:22 PM ˚

A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Makumbi

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(Photo: Handout from Readers)
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In her 13th year, Kirabo confronts a piercing question: who is my mother? Kirabo has been raised by women in the small Ugandan village of Nattetta — her grandmother, her best friend, and her many aunts — but the absence of her mother follows her like a shadow. اضافة اعلان

Seeking answers from Nsuuta, the local witch, Kirabo learns about the woman who birthed her, who she discovers is alive but not ready to meet. Nsuuta also helps Kirabo understand the emergence of a mysterious second self, a headstrong and confusing force inside her — this, says Nsuuta, is a streak of the “first woman”: an independent, original state that has been all but lost to women.

Kirabo’s journey to reconcile these feelings, alongside her desire to reconnect with her mother and to honor her family’s expectations, is rich in the folklore of Uganda and an arresting exploration of what it means to be a modern girl in a world that seems determined to silence women.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s “A Girl is a Body of Water” is an unforgettable, sweeping testament to the true and lasting connections between history, tradition, family, friends, and the promise of a different future.

Trading stories is foundational to Ugandan culture. In fact, it is how Makumbi introduces her young protagonist — eager to tell a story she has been practicing. And her hunger for storytelling permeates the novel through Kirabo at 12, engaging the annoyed teenagers of her village in storytelling by activating a cultural etiquette that they must abide by in the presence of adults.

Stories are the collateral Kirabo uses to bribe Nsuuta to learn about her absent mother against her grandmother’s wishes. When Kirabo’s father brings her to live with him and his family, stories keep her connected to her family in Nattetta, but stories, even when not meant for her, are also how she learns about herself.

She discovers while eavesdropping on her “new” stepmother and step-grandmother that she was “born on the edges of the family unit, and was therefore peripheral, regardless of her position as the eldest child.” And when her father died abruptly in his mid-thirties, family and friends paid their respect by telling stories.

Makumbi pays a similar respect to her characters by how she tells their stories. Kirabo and Nsuuta and even Kirabo’s grandmother Alikisa are treated with such care in the novel, you can almost hear the splashes and smell the earth when the two elders are dancing in the rain in the final pages.

Kirabo grows from a scared and resentful child when in the presence of her stepmother, to a respectful and compassionate young woman who finally allows herself to feel for her stepmother when she is all but outcast from the family after the death of her husband.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this novel is its relevance, from the ideas of mwenkanonkano (feminism) to the importance of having a voice and representation.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and her first novel, “Kintu,” won the Kwani Manuscript Project Prize in 2013 and was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize in 2014. Her story “Let’s Tell This Story Properly” was the global winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Jennifer lives in Manchester, UK with her husband and son.

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