THE WASHINGTON POST – Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi sets her blazing new novel, A Girl Is a Body of Water, in the conflicted nation of her adolescence: 1970s Uganda, under the brutal rule of dictator Idi Amin. Protagonist and heroine Kirabo is 12, growing up safely and happily in the village of Nattetta, raised by her paternal grandparents. She doesn’t know who her mother is, and her father, Tom, flits in and out, busy with his position on the country’s Coffee Marketing Board.
We meet Kirabo as she decided she must learn more about her mother. She asked the “village witch”, Nsuuta, to help her. As we’ll learn, Nsuuta is not only wise, she’s also closely tied to Kirabo’s family. Their first conversation reveals both Nsuuta’s high hopes for her young friend and a running theme in the novel: a woman’s hard-won wisdom.
Kirabo, spirited and smart, has desires and ambitions that she defined as a second self ready to fly out of her and misbehave; these feelings terrify her. Nsuuta explained that this “flying out” is a special ability, stemming from woman’s “original state”. Women, Nsuuta said, terrify men, which is why men keep them under such rigid control.
In another time, “we were not squeezed inside, we were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent”, Nsuuta explained. “But it was too much for the world and they got rid of it. However, occasionally that state is reborn in a girl like you.”
The author brooks no sentimentality, especially once Kirabo goes to live with her father, his wife and their children in the city. There, her Aunt Abi instructed her to a traditional body surgery, but Kirabo’s first great love, Sio, refers to the practice as mutilation. Kirabo protests that this traditional practice is not mutilation – “On the contrary, we enhance” – the hypocrisy is evident – Women cannot win. In fact, the system seems to be continuously working against the female characters. The older wives Kirabo knows, like Nsuuta and her grandmother Alikisa, are forced into marriages. Tom’s wife Nnambi, despite her upscale city privileges, still fears the idea of Kirabo’s mother, even Kirabo herself.
One of the book’s starkest scenes involves Nnambi telling Kirabo is his real wife. This cruelty, born of envy, is a reminder of the huge rifts that can develop between factions in unjust societies – including our own. But sometimes that inequality can also spark bonds.
In one affecting scene, Alikisa, who knows Nsuuta has been carrying on with her husband Miiro for decades, visits her old friend in the hospital.
Kirabo marvels at this event, believing the two women are mortal enemies. What she won’t understand for several years is that the relationships between women can have wide gaps and tight ties at the same time. In Makumbi’s glorious telling, their connections are as complex as they are.