The sub-genre term – multigenerational epic, is a bit of a huge weight to hang on any book, much less a debut book of any writer but Kintu earns that description and delivers the expectation that the term carries, to a large extent. In 5 broad sections (Books 1 to 5), Kintu explores the ancestry and story of the Ganda people in Buganda kingdom (modern Uganda).
The book goes back and forth across almost three centuries with different central characters in each of the five books. The common thread is the almost three-hundred-year-old curse that was the product of a seemingly random act of violence by their ancestor.
The book opens up with a seemingly random but gruesome murder of Kamu Kintu on January 5th 2004 but just as you are trying to decipher what is the very random events that culminate in the murder, the tale suddenly goes almost three centuries back to the deeply illuminating and evocative story of the progenitor Kintu Kidda. This section of the book is the most illuminating as the story is not only top-notch but has layers of meaning embedded within. From the male perspective, concepts of gender, sexuality, class warfare and polygamy are subtly explored. Kintu Kadda is the governor of the Buddu province and during one of his trips to the capital city to pay homage to the new king, he travels with a group of his servants and loyalists. In the travelling group is his adopted son, Kalema and the ensuing tragedy that concerns Kalema is the root of the curse that reverberates through the rest of the book and generations spanning almost three hundred years.
While we weave through generations of the Kintus, different manifestation of the curse weave along too – mental illness, poverty, rape and incest. The backstories and conflicts that reflect the effect of the generational curse are embedded in the oral history and local mythology that alerts Kindu descendants of a debt that is owed to the past. As expected in a multi-generational tale, the names are too many (and similar) to remember and it was difficult to keep track irrespective of the family tree drawn in the first few pages of the book. However, this complexity is subdued by the excellent storytelling of Jennifer Makunbi. The storytelling soars in the positively odd absence of the politics of colonialism and struggles for independence (the usual tiring staple of generational African tales) and the advent of Pentecostalism in Africa. Where these themes are present in the book they are merely used as markers to authenticate and evoke the eras of the different generations of the Kintu lineage.
The only downside of the book is the Suubi Nnakintu section which felt like a drag compared to the other illuminating sections. It lacks energy and seems to be all over the place at some points. However, this is a minor quibble as the entire story is tightly held, well told and truly illuminating subtle ways. Good read and recommended.