50.50: Opinion

‘The First Woman’: an excerpt

Mixing modern feminism and ancient folklore, ‘The First Woman’, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, tells the story of a young girl in rural Uganda.

Jennifer Makumbi_credit Danny Moran (1).jpg
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
11 November 2020
Ugandan novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi lives in Manchester, UK and teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. This, her third book, is published in autumn 2020 as ‘The First Woman’ in the UK/Commonwealth.
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Danny Moran

That was when Kirabo began to see her grandmother’s body. A woman’s body, like hers in every way except age. Her skin, from the shoulders down to the legs, was younger and lighter and smoother than her arms, neck and face. A rectangular patch, the neckline of the busuuti, had formed on her chest and back. Her breasts looked twenty years younger. Her stomach, though small, shook jelly-like when she stamped. Two thin folds of skin had formed in the ribs. Funny, her pubis was not grey like her hair; it was brown, as if dyed with henna. Her legs were skinny but no longer tight.

Now, her arms spread out, she twirled round, round and Kirabo feared she would trip. That is Alikisa, Kirabo told herself. She was once a girl. The Alikisa who Grandmother had stifled under the layers of grandmotherhood and motherhood and Muka Miirohood. For a moment Kirabo was tempted to strip and join Nsuuta and this Alikisa, but it did not feel right. She was not part of their past. Besides, she was on her period. She stepped away from the door and into the living room.

The belief at St Theresa’s was that every girl needs that girlfriend, nfanfe, for whom she would prise open the crack of her buttocks to check the pain up there without worrying about the ugliness.

Because only a woman knows how to love a woman properly. Nsuuta brought Alikisa out of Grandmother. Kirabo was thankful for Atim. They understood each other without language, without complication. Even Nnakku had trusted her ugliest secret to Leeya. She hoped that Giibwa had found someone else.

The rain began to thin. When she heard Grandmother calling, she went to the bedroom and grabbed the towel on the bed. Grandmother led Nsuuta to the verandah and Kirabo wrapped the towel around her. ‘Check in the cupboard for another towel.’

Kirabo found it and gave it to Grandmother. Then she led Nsuuta, who was now shaking from the cold, into the bedroom and rubbed her until she stopped trembling. She oiled her skin, dressed her in a nightie and sat her on the bed, wrapped in a blanket. Then she got the stool from the back yard, wiped it and took it to the kitchen. She stoked the fire and came back to the house. She helped Nsuuta to the kitchen, sat her on the stool, the cancerous breast facing the door. Kirabo asked, ‘How do you feel now?’

‘Life has returned.’ Kirabo poked the fire. The embers sparked. The flames were a deep yellow, smokeless. Then she sat down on the ramp to watch Nsuuta. Nsuuta opened her palms and brought them closer to the fire.

Book The First Woman
The First Woman | One World Publications

‘Go get out of those damp clothes, Kirabo, or you will be buried instead of me.’

‘I did not bring any. I will have to borrow from someone.’

Nsuuta smiled but did not pursue it. When Nsuuta was warm, she sat back and said, ‘You have surprised me, Kirabo.’

‘Me? How?’

‘I thought you would fly. I thought you would break rules, upset things, laying waste to everything right and moral. I guess you really clipped your wings and buried them.’

‘Nsuuta, this is the second time you are saying that.’

‘Because I think you are going to marry Kabuye’s son as soon as you finish your degree.’

‘He believes in mwenkanonkano.’

‘Clever boy.’

‘And he is not afraid of the vagina.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I showed him.’

‘So that is how he took the sting out of you.’

‘No sting was taken. If we acquiesce, hiding our bodies, we allow the myths to stay.’

‘But taking away the myths takes the little power some women have.’

‘Nsuuta, it is dangerous keeping feminine power down there. Whether it is myths or in mystery, we put a target on our bodies. Sooner or later, they come to raid. Unless you did not hear about the women raped during the war.’

For a long time, Nsuuta kept quiet. Then she sighed, ‘I guess you are growing up.’

‘Now you are worried?’

‘Nothing takes the sting out of a woman like marriage. And when children arrive, the window closes. Wife, mother, age, and role model – the “respect” that comes with these roles is the water they pour on your fire.’

‘Nsuuta, every woman resists. Often it is private. Most of our resistance is so everyday that women don’t think twice about it. It is life. Even the worst of us like Aunt YA, who massage the male ego with “Allow men to be men”, are not really shrinking but managing their men.’

Nsuuta was silent as if digesting Kirabo’s words. Then she sighed. ‘I wish I could see you, Kirabo.’

‘I think you do, Nsuuta.’

One World Publications, The First Woman

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