Discovering a great book among the titles that have been on your to-read list forever is a bitter-sweet feeling. That was my experience with Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.
But how do I even begin to explain the magnificence of this book?
I recently saw a Twitter interaction where, in response to Sauti Sol’s Bien Aime’s alleged vasectomy, one man declared he was not interested in having children because of the trauma he faced from his own parents as a child. “I don’t want to pass on this turmoil. Besides, I don’t even like kids,” or something to that effect. Another man responded that he could have been the one to break the generational curse, and the other man responded that he remained unmoved.
And that got me thinking about the recent realization in online mental health spaces that unresolved emotional trauma can be passed on from one person to another, especially from parents to children. And they can twist up your brain real good for the 20 (plus) years they have you under their roof. Then you get out into the world and realize you need to spend the rest of your life untwisting yourself. Most of us have gone through some version of that, myself included. And so reading Makumbi’s Kintu was a battle. I was a warrior decked out in full armor at all times waiting for the enemy to attack in the form of Makumbi’s clever metaphors. Throughout, though, I was aware that the true enemy was, ironically, myself.
Kintu is the story of an ancestor in the Buganda Kingdom named Kintu Kidda, a Chief whose life ends in tragedy due to a curse cast on him by a Tutsi whom he had wronged. 300 years later, we follow his descendants as they grapple with the curse in their modern day lives. The story is witty and hilarious but also drops some killer commentary on colonialism, feminism, religion and family traditions in Uganda.
This is probably a good book to give anyone who wants to understand how Africans think. There’s a character that represents most of how we have dealt with our situation as the ‘Dark Continent.’
But beyond that, my main takeaway is the theme of generational curses which is the plot driving the book. These many descendants of Kintu Kidda and his twin wives come together to break the curse which has popped up as a slew of mental illnesses that affect a great number of characters.
The characters grapple with the questions, “Are generational curses real?” and “Can they really be broken?” They hire a medium who performs a ceremony to do just that. But we see many perspectives that show the different levels of belief that Kintu’s descendants have in how much it’s going to work. Makumbi makes sure to remind us through a slew of tragedies that happen just after the ceremony is held, that things can never be that easy and straightforward.
I have been devouring the work of Dr. Gabor Mate, a Hungarian-Canadian physician and author known for his expertise on addiction, trauma, stress and childhood development. He’s a big proponent of the body-mind connection and the fact that mental health cannot be separated from physical health.
He says that trauma – physical, sexual, emotional abuse, mistreatment and deprivation of basic emotional needs – especially experienced in childhood, shows up later in life as an increased risk of physical diseases such as cancer and high blood pressure as well as mental illnesses like Borderline Personality Disorder, anxiety, depression, ADHD and many more.
I connected this with something Makumbi brought out in Kintu. The fact that all societies have always had ways of doing what modern psychology and therapy does for us today. The Medium that the Kintu clan hired to rid them of their curse is a Europe-educated man who discovered his abilities later in life. He jokes that his extensive education should have “lifted me above these cheap versions of psychology.”
And that’s how our modern life views ancient African traditions and practices. As cheap versions of psychology. But they are psychology nonetheless. And our detachment from them is never going to be a good thing. I’m not saying everyone reading this should drop their therapist and go find a Medium. All I’m saying is that our culture already has an acknowledgement of the importance of mental wellness, so our modern day denial of its importance is counter-intuitive.
Whether or not it’s possible to break a generational curse or not is still out for the jury to decide. Makumbi certainly does not provide an answer one way or another. But our belief in our ability to improve our lives is certainly way more important. It can literally change your outcome. The consequences of a pessimistic worldview can be read through the many characters in the book whose lives were cut short or maimed by their unbelief in themselves and their destinies.