The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi - review by Rebecca Cook

Rebecca Cook

Village Whispers

The First Woman


Oneworld 448pp £16.99

In this feminist coming-of-age epic, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi tracks the early life of Kirabo, a young girl growing up in the Ugandan village of Nattetta in the 1970s. With a mother who abandoned her at birth and a father who works in the city, Kirabo is raised by her stern but doting grandparents.

The novel is ostensibly about Kirabo’s search for her absent mother, beginning when she solicits the help of the village witch, Nsuuta, to track her down. During these initial clandestine meetings, Nsuuta teaches both Kirabo and the reader the bygone tales of Ugandan folklore. It is here that the novel’s central question of what it means to be a woman is first brought into focus.

‘Stories are critical,’ Nsuuta tells Kirabo. ‘The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.’ The weight Makumbi gives to storytelling is apparent in both the lofty Ugandan myths Nsuuta shares with Kirabo and the village whispers that echo through the novel. In this small rural community,

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