Book Review: A girl is a body of water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.


Review of A girl is a body of water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

In her twelfth year, Kirabo, a young Ugandan girl, confronts a piercing question that has haunted her childhood: who is my mother? Kirabo has been raised by women in the small village of Nattetta—her grandmother, her best friend, and her many aunts, but the absence of her mother follows her like a shadow. Complicating these feelings of abandonment, as Kirabo comes of age she feels the emergence of a mysterious second self, a headstrong and confusing force inside her at odds with her sweet and obedient nature.

Seeking answers, Kirabo begins spending afternoons with Nsuuta, a local witch, trading stories and learning not only about this force inside her, but about the woman who birthed her, who she learns is alive but not ready to meet. Nsuuta also explains that Kirabo has a streak of the “first woman”—an independent, original state that has been all but lost to women.

Kirabo’s journey to reconcile her rebellious origins, 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. Makumbi’s unforgettable novel is a sweeping testament to the true and lasting connections between history, tradition, family, friends, and the promise of a different future.

My Review of A girl is a body of water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s my introduction to Ugandan literature and I had so much fun discovering this beautiful African country that’s rich in culture, language, and myth. This book reveals to us the world of twelve-year-old Kirabo, who lives in endless wonder about so many things her young mind cannot grasp. As a young girl, she’s inquisitive. She demands answers to the countless questions boggling her. Living with her paternal grandparents and other extended family members, she asks everyone about her mother. Who is she? Where is she? Why did she abandon me? But nobody gives her satisfying answers. And since she’s not okay with the vague replies, she is determined to get it elsewhere. So she visits the village witch, Nsuuta, to enquire about her mother’s identity.

Review of A girl is a body of water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

Nsuuta, the blind, village witch doesn’t treat her like other adults who shun her for asking lots of questions. Instead, she entertains them and even explains some aspects of Kirabo’s life to the poor girl. When Kirabo complains about being a witch herself, about having a double identity; a self which is troublesome, which flies out to constitute a nuisance, and another which stays calm in her body, Nsuuta tells her that she’s special, that she’s returning to her original state. She goes ahead to tell Kirabo stories about the first woman, Nnambi, and how women used to be bold and fierce in the early days. According to Nsuuta, the first woman was huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, and independent. But now they have been stifled and forced to shrink themselves.

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The dominant theme of the book is mwenkanonkano (feminism.) In the 1970s and under the dictatorial leadership of Idi Amin, Uganda was highly patriarchal. So this book exposes how women were being trampled on in those days. According to the book, a young girl and a young man aren’t supposed to be caught walking hand in hand, because a relationship is sacred and meant to be private. But when Kirabo walks with Sio, she doesn’t feel as if she’s doing the wrong thing. In fact, she wants to yell at everyone making annoying comments and whispering about how she’s committing abomination in broad daylight, and tell them that a girl doesn’t get pregnant simply by holding hands and walking with a man. At least she knows that much, thanks to Aunt Abi.

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Unlike Aunt YA who teaches Kirabo that a woman must bend and shrink for a man in order to be accepted, Aunt Abi gives Kirabo real sex education and indoctrinates her into the world of feminism. She tells Kirabo about sex, and that if she must have it, then she must visit the pharmacy and buy contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancy. In that era, no one teaches their daughters and nieces things like that, because it makes them wayward, but that is the way forward. Girls should know what they are entering into, and at the age of twelve, they should be taught the reality of their body changes.

Teenagers experience lots of changes in their bodies, and so they need adults to guide them through. And in this case, Kirabo is lucky to have Aunt Abi who teaches her to be herself and to do the things she likes. In Nattetta, Kirabo’s village, virginity is the highest virtue a woman can possess and the best gift a newly married wife can give her husband. But Aunt Abi strongly disagrees. According to her, it’s better to test a man before getting married so you know what to expect. What if at the end of the day, he doesn’t impress you in bed? Is it not better you choose your happiness and satisfaction than the goat that will be given to your aunt as a celebration of your virginity?

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There’s also the theme of friendship and how uncertain life is. There’s Nsuuta and Alikisa/Muka Miiro, who used to be childhood best friends. They even make a pact to remain friends forever and even marry the same man, but life doesn’t always go as planned. Nsuuta and Alikisa, Kirabo’s grandmother later becomes sworn enemies, because of reasons that would later be revealed in the book. Nsuuta and Alikisa would later be connected to the same man, Miiro, Kirabo’s grandfather, but it’s no longer as rosy as they’d envisioned it to be.

Then there’s the friendship between Giibwa and Kirabo. It is just like the future repeating itself. They are very close like Alikisa and Nsuuta, but when life happens to both of them and they meet five years later, things have changed. Distance does something to friendship, it washes it, and slowly but steadily it starts fading like an over-washed pair of jeans. Some friendships and relationships don’t last forever, no matter how they’re romanticized.

Review of A girl is a body of water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

I love Kirabo’s courage and strong-willed spirit, how she faces Sio headstrong when he comes to saddle blame on the girl he cheats on Kirabo with. He doesn’t love the girl, he says. It’s Kirabo that he loves. But Kirabo won’t have any of that to the utmost surprise of Sio. Ordinarily, women and girls of Nattetta have to understand their partners when they cheat and go ahead to blame the other women for seducing their partners, but Kirabo begs to differ. How is it the other woman’s fault? When you were enjoying the act, were you under duress? Kirabo learns to question every single myth the villagers believe and force every girl to believe. Especially the ones that deal with women accepting the bare minimum and shrinking themselves.

I love how it is easy to learn about the cultures and languages of the people of Uganda in the twentieth century. There’s the subtle exposition of Idi Amin’s tyranny, how he bans women from wearing trousers and short skirts. And then there’s the mention of war. The book tells a story about the war fought by Uganda and Tanzania, and how the country existed during those trying times, how men were abducted and their families never saw them again. So many references are made to Ugandan culture and language, and I was very pleased to learn a few Ugandan words like kdto.

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The book also explores the importance of storytelling. Little Kirabo loves telling stories to all who care to listen. Even though the teenagers always scoff at her for telling stories, she never stops. Her grandfather would laugh and call her a griot, and applaud her storytelling skills. Through her storytelling, we also learn about patriarchy and its effects. There’s the story of Luzze, who pressures his wife for male children as if her daughters aren’t important. Through her storytelling, she passes a crucial message across, how villains always suffer for their atrocities and how it is best to lead good lives so you’d receive great rewards instead of punishments. Through storytelling, she gets Nsuuta to loosen up and tell her stories about their original state, and her mother.

Review of A girl is a body of water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.

This book is an important read, one filled with culture and language, one beautifully nuanced and narrated. And I particularly enjoyed Kirabo’s character. She isn’t fearful, she doesn’t cower in terror when someone wants to intimidate her. She challenges her stepmother who doesn’t accept her in her father, Tom’s home, and tells her a story about a wicked stepmother, whose stepdaughter is far more beautiful than her daughter no matter how many times the former is starved and maltreated. Africans are really interconnected. And we can only learn about these connections through stories. There’s a story told in this book which is also popular in Nigeria, my country. A story about a girl who rejects her suitors only to be married to a monster. It makes me realize that we Africans have so much in common, and we can only know about them if we tell our stories and if we read our stories. I’ll rate it as 5/5.

Have you read the book? What do you think about it? Please share your thoughts with me in the comment section. Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter, follow me on all social media platforms, and share with your friends. Thank you for visiting Bookish Pixie.

A girl is a body of water by Jennifer, Nansubuga Makumbi.
A girl is a body of water by Jennifer, Nansubuga Makumbi.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: A girl is a body of water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.”

  1. I really enjoy the sound of this book.

    I visited Uganda 5 years ago and have been learning more about the country’s culture and history ever since (I’m dying to go back) and I love stories that put women and the challenges we have faced and still face at the centre of them.

    Great review, thank you for putting this on my radar 🙂

  2. This sounds like an interesting book. It a shame young women and girls were ever taught that they needed to make themselves lesser so that they could be accepted. No one should be taught that.

  3. This sounds like a great read and I love the idea of reading about a different culture. Great review, so in-depth!


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