TITLE : The First Woman

AUTHOR : Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

GENRE : Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction, East African Literature

FR RATING : ⭐⭐⭐⭐( 4.5 Stars)

DATE OF PUBLISHING :  October 1st 2020


DISCLAIMER : Thank you, Netgalley and OneWorld Publications for providing me with an ARC of this book. I am leaving this review voluntarily.

The First Woman is my first book from the Ugandan novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Her first novel is very well received. When I read the synopsis of the book, I was intrigued. The novel tells the story of a young girl Kirabo raised by her grandparents in a rural village in Uganda. Her father is only an occasional visitor, while there is no news about her mother. As she starts to grow up, she feels the absence of her mother and is on a quest to find out more about her. She searches out Nsuuta, the village witch, to learn more about herself and her mom. Nsuuta tells her the story of women and how society tries to silence them using mythology and other tales. The First Woman is rooted in Ugandan mythology, and it paints a feministic account of what it means to be a woman in modern society and their power in the patriarchal community.

The book was brilliant with lots of quotes that will make you think about women and their value in modern society. The story is a valuable lesson in what it means to be a woman in today’s world and how they need to survive in a patriarchal society that is determined to silence them. The story is also quite intimate, taking us through the lives of the female characters as they navigate the reality in front of them. It is a bold portrayal of the strength of different kinds of women, each with their principles held high. What one woman might think of as being submissive and powerless is that woman’s form of resistance against the injustices happening to her and her family. The showcasing of passion and strength to protect one’s family is varies from woman to woman, but their goal remains the same. The knowledge imparted by the lives of the women and their actions is incredibly thought-provoking. Every time I read through the pearls of wisdom revealed in the novel, I had to stop and think about the brilliance of it and how beautifully and smartly the author delivered them.

The characters were fascinating and wonderful to explore. The character study this book provided is amazing. The pacing is slow, and it takes some time to round out all the details and bring together the story. Even though it is slow-paced, it still creates an engagement with the reader.

I want to add some of the quotes that will make the readers understand the honesty and rawness of each of them. The beauty and truth these words carry, even in today’s day and age, will be remarkable to see. I saw the honesty and intelligence residing in these words. I also found myself thinking about the state of women, and how even today, our silence is valued and respected. There were so many similarities between the Ugandan and Kerala cultures. I appreciated the representation of the state of women, and I am glad to see the situations voiced by the author. I believe the book will be incredibly thought-provoking, and the words will resonate with people who have lived in patriarchal societies.

Once we shrunk, men had to look after us, and it was not long before they started to own us. Fathers sold daughters; husbands bought wives. Once we became a commodity, men could do whatever they wished with us. Even now our bodies do not belong to us. That is why when they need it, they will grab it. Things were so bad in some cultures, women had to be hidden away to protect them, in separate spaces where no men were allowed. Soon, they had to be spoken for by men.

“Stories are critical, Kirabo. The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.” 

“I told you Grandfather is easy. Tom, I mean my father, is the same: they don’t put barriers against me. It is Grandmother, it is always other women, apart from you, who put up barriers against girls and on themselves. I know men can be tyrants, but a lot of women are nasty to women – everybody says it, unless you have not met Jjajja Nsangi, Grandfather’s sister.’ ‘Kirabo, have you seen God come down from heaven to make humans behave?’ ‘No.’ ‘That is because some people have appointed themselves his police. And I tell you, child, the police are far worse than God himself. That is why the day you catch your man with another woman, you will go for the woman and not him. My grandmothers called it kweluma. That is when oppressed people turn on each other or on themselves and bite. It is as a form of relief. If you cannot bite your oppressor, you bite yourself.” 

“Remember, be a good person, not a good girl. Good girls suffer a lot in this life.” 

“And did all the women shrink?’ Kirabo steered Nsuuta away from Grandmother. ‘With that kind of perversion, who would not shrink? Who would want to be huge, or loud, or brave, or any of the other characteristics men claim to be male? We hunched, lowered our eyes, voices, acted feeble, helpless. Even being clever became unattractive. Soon, being shrunken became feminine. Then it became beautiful and women aspired to it. That was when we began to persecute our original state out of ourselves.” 

Feministic themes are the focus of this book. Other than that, the author also talks about colorism, racism, marriage, friendships, relationships, and family dynamics. The novel is more than a coming-of-age story of Kirabo. It also gives us a glimpse into Kirabo’s grandmother and Nsuuta’s life and how their grandfather’s relationship with the two of them changed the friendship between the two women. It was interesting to see how society viewed and cheered the women based on what people inferred about their relationship. With the wrong idea in mind, the community shunned Nsuuta, dubbing her to be a witch capable of drawing men to her. The responsibility of men concerning their actions in these communities is laughable, and we see how they turn the blame onto women and how women also turn against one another in moments of strife.

The novel shows us how colonialism affected the communities and how their cultures and traditions were seen as inferior by the western people. The younger generation was eager to adopt the western-mindset and traditions, while the older generations wanted to hold on to their beliefs. Christianity became prominent and influential. It was forced on the villagers. The impact of colonialism and how destructive it is to a society’s identity is very well-depicted in this novel.

Overall I had an amazing time reading this book. The novel is an incredibly honest and intimate look at Ugandan women, their position in society, and how each generation resists in their own way towards the oppressive patriarchal system. The characters were splendid and were a delight to study. I loved the depiction of the culture and the insight it provided to the readers. I also believe this is a book that is bound to make people think and discuss more. Jennifer will be an author on my watch-list, and I hope to get to her first book soon. My rating for the book is 4.5 stars, and I highly recommend checking this novel out. If you love reading slow-paced character studies, then you need to pick this book up.


The stunning second novel from the award-winning author of Kintu is a soulful, fiercely original novel rooted in Ugandan mythology.

Smart, headstrong Kirabo is raised by her grandparents in rural Uganda. But as she enters her teens, she starts to feel overshadowed by the absence of the mother she has never known.

At once epic and deeply personal, The First Woman is the bold and piercing story of one young girl’s discovery of what it means to be a woman in a family, a community and a country that seem determined to silence her. Steeped in the rich folklore of Uganda but with an eye firmly on the future, Jennifer Makumbi has written a sweeping, effervescent tale of longing, femininity, and courage. 

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