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The First Woman

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The ultimate feminist read. 
Taking place in 1970's Uganda we meet Kirabo. A young, strong female protagonist who I fell lin love with. I loved her determination and independence, she is an icon.  
I learnt so much about Ugandan history and culture, it was so well written I couldn't have enjoyed it more. Normally when religion is brought into a piece of historical fiction I zone out a bit but Makumbi did an amazing job of showing how religion was used to colonize Uganada. 

A really beautiful and important book that I'm recomending to everyone.
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Thanks to NetGalley and The Publisher for this eARC in exchange for an honest review.

I don't give out 5 star ratings often, but I knew from the moment I started this it was was going to be great! And it didn't disappoint. This is one of the most empowering book I have read in a long time. The range and depth of the female characters was truly inspired. Part saga, part coming-of-age story, part historical fiction, part feminist manifesto Wholly Brilliant! I can't believe this is the first thing I've read by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. It certainly won't be the last.
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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 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 interest in the reader.

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.
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At once a coming of age tale of modern feminism and an epic sweeping tale wrapped in mythology and folklore, The First Woman is so many things all at once. Through no fault of the book's, I found parts of it difficult to access because of my own ignorance, but for that I'm grateful as I felt I learned from the book socially and politically, as well as reading an entrancing novel.
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Growing up in a small Ugandan village in the seventies, Kirabo's world is far removed from modern 'western' life. Her father, Tom, and Aunt Abi visit from the city but life at home in Nattetta is still strongly traditional, following a way of life that has remained largely unchanged. Tribal hierarchies are still firmly in place, with men in charge as the owners of the land and animals which represent wealth, but the women still tell stories, passed through the generations from mother to daughter, of when they were as powerful, if not more so, than men. Kirabo wants more from life than her village can offer, and when her father sends her to boarding school she looks well on the way to achieving it, but two things still unsettle her - the identity of her unknown mother, and her love for a village boy, Sio.
The First Woman is a coming of age tale with strong themes of women's friendship and independence. It's one of those titles that you start out assuming it refers to the heroine, Kirabo, but could equally belong to others - the Ugandan version of Eve in the creation myth, Kirabo's mother (as the mother of Tom's first child), Nsuuta the first love of Kirabo's grandfather, or the country's first female president ( a role Nsuuta believes Kirabo could achieve). As the titled is multi-layered, so is the story itself.

 The story centres on Kirabo, on one girl finding her own way to adulthood, and understanding her place in the world by discovering both her past through her mother's identity, and that of her family through the friendship and rivalry of grandmother Alikisa and the 'witch' Nsuuta. On the side though I learned a lot about Ugandan history - from the influence of missionaries, Idi Amin's dictatorship and the war which ended it, to its culture and traditional way of life, and the conflict, at both a personal and wider level, between that culture and the new 'modern society' of the cities.

I hadn't heard of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi before I caught her event at this year's online Edinburgh Book Festival. Hearing her talk about and read from The First Woman, I decided to track it down and explore more by this author billed by the festival as 'Uganda's First Woman of Fiction'. I'm really glad I did.
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Powerful and insightful

Kirabo’ is a girl growing up in Uganda. She was abandoned by her mother and she is affected by this of course. Her family can't understand why but she wants to find out more about her. Kirabo is  a strong character and we see her want to obey her family but also follow her heart.

There's lots to love in this book as we learn about Uganda and the story of Kirabo who is lots of women rolled into one character. Add in some folklore, local magic and emotional upheaval and you have one good book,
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I love Makumbi's writing. This is not my first book from her and I was never disappointed. This is the story of an extraordinary woman. It's very inspiring, emotional, very well written. Gret characterization. I'm very impressed.

Definitely recommended. Thanks a lot to NG nad the publisher for this copy.
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I absolutely adore multigenerational novels. I think it takes a certain kind of craft to be able to flesh out a whole variety of characters through generations. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s novel does this phenomenally.

The story centres on twelve year old Kirabo who was raised by her grandparents and aunts. However, the absence of her mother remains a presence all her life. And thus this novel explores not only her personal search for her mother, but also the true meaning of being a woman. 

This book is a rich saga that oozes in familial secrets, being completely unpredictable - taking twists and turns in ways you wouldn’t suddenly expect. I adored the resilient female characters in this novel. I especially loved the letter correspondence between Alikisa and Nsuuta. A complicated relationship that had me thoroughly transfixed. I was gripped reading this entire novel - reading about Kirabo’s trials and tribulations. 

Yet I savoured it too because it is simply a book worth savouring. The exploration of feminism, living in & defying the patriarchy, friendship, education, conflict and Ugandan folklore - this book was not only an enjoyable read but also a learning curve too. Although I’m a fan of multigenerational sagas, I have not read anything like this before. I have also never read anything written based in Uganda so reading about its history was an eye-opener. I will be looking to read more of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s work for sure. 

This was such a fantastic coming-of-age book infused with beautiful storytelling that I’ll be thinking about for a while.
Thank you to OneWorld Publications and NetGalley for allowing me to read this ARC.
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I enjoyed reading Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's short story collection, Manchester Happened, in May last year so leapt at the chance to read an review this new novel of hers, The First Woman, when it appeared on NetGalley. (In America, the same book has been published as A Girl Is A Body Of Water and I do prefer that more enigmatic title.) Set in Idi Amin's Uganda, The First Woman is a strong coming of age story which explores not only Kirabo's personal experiences as she grows up, but also the effects of Ugandan creation myths and the historic role of women within the culture. My favourite aspects of the story were conversations between young Kirabo and her elderly neighbour, Nsuutu, who teaches Kirabo to see why their traditional way of life came to be. I loved the synchronicity of having recently read similar ideas from a Christian perspective in Susan Scott's In Praise of Lilith. Kirabo has to balance religious and cultural expectations against her own desires. Makumbi's nuanced portrayal of her confusion made it easy for me to empathise, especially as Kirabo observes the most ardent supporters of a repressively patriarchal lifestyle are actually other women - not men.

I am glad to have read The First Woman and there were plenty of philosophical concepts that I spent time mulling over both while reading the book and in the days since I have finished. I did think that the book was rather too long for its story because I sometimes found my concentration wandering. Also I struggled to differentiate between everybody in the large cast of characters, particularly those with similar names. That said though, I loved the historical side. Makumbi's way of depicting the era though the way in which characters dress, or comments they make about food shortages, is very effective. I liked Kirabo. She is someone I was happy to spend time with and the similarities between her life's trajectory and that of her grandmother provided The First Woman with a satisfying narrative structure.
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This excellent novel is the story of one girl’s journey of self-discovery, but also an exploration of the mythological origins of gender roles and the archaic structures of the patriarchy. 

There is a quote of Makumbi’s that I adore which is: ‘I don't write for a Western audience. If I can understand Shakespeare, you can understand me’. When I read that I knew I needed to read this book and I was not disappointed. I can understand her and I am richer for it.


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Wow is the first thing I can think when I think about this book.  Just so beautiful, the writing is very slow paced but in a good way, it makes you slowly absorb the book and in this case its done very well.  I can't rate this enough and would certainly recommend to anyone and everyone!
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An interesting read about the history of Uganda and the place of women in it's community and society. This story  is full of interesting characters and strong female protaganists.
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This took me a long time to get into, and that affected my enjoyment of it even though I did eventually end up interested. The problem was that it begins incredibly slowly. I’m usually a fan of non-linear narratives but I found this one a little confusing, as (particularly at the start of a chapter or section) a statement would be made about what was happening and then the narrator would go into many pages of explanation as to how it got to that point from where the last chapter ended. I kept thinking that we were skipping ahead in time, and finally getting somewhere, but then it would go right back to the start. It was a little frustrating. But once things got going, about halfway in, I was fascinated by the way the author weaves a tale of Ugandan culture and the long-lasting effects of colonialism and a dictatorship on the country (all of which I knew almost nothing about) into what is essentially a feminist Bildungsroman. It sprawls decades and family members, becomes a boarding school novel and then an epistolary narrative, but always comes back to the story of a young woman looking for her mother. When reading it initially I noted that I liked the water fable that Kirabo, the protagonist, and her witchy mentor discuss - that women belong to the sea and men to the land - and I was pleased to discover that the novel comes back to this theme to close. It wasn’t enough for me to forgive The First Woman entirely for its slow opener, but I did get something out of it in the end.
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The First Woman is an absolutely stunning and powerful read, something I would encourage everyone to pick up. . The book looks into the role and status of women in Ugandan Society, between modern and tradition, ‘Family values’ and the quiet rebellion and resistance of women fighting for equality. This is an epic family drama that shows each generations contribution to feminism and equality. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a fantastic writer and  I will definitely be reading her future work.

Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for giving me this ARC.
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The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is described as a "soulful, fiercely original novel rooted in Ugandan mythology, and I found it to be an engrossing coming of age story that transported me to another time and place. It is the story of Kirabo, who lives with her grandparents in rural Uganda before moving to the city to live with her father and later becoming a pupil in an exclusive boarding school. Her family and roots play a large part in the story, from the mother she never knew and spends years searching for, to her grandmother's feud with  her former best friend and local "witch woman". The reader sees the parallels in the two stories set generations apart as well as getting a feel for the turbulent history of the period and how that impacted the daily life of regular people. The conflict between the modern and the traditional , both for the country of Uganda and in Kirabo's own story lies at the heart of the book and I particularly liked the way the author incorporated the changing roles of women over the course of the book , and the strong feminist overtones . 
It did take a little time to get settled into the book and get a grip on the many many characters and their relationships and connections, but once I was able to get that straight in my head I found myself completely immersed in the story . 
I read a review copy courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, all opinions are my own.
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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, Muka Miiro, (and grandfather), her best friend, and her many aunts, but the absence of her mother follows her like a shadow. Her father, Tom, is an affluent businessman in Kampala and comes to visit her once in a blue moon. 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, and her grandfathers lover 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. When her rendezvous with Nsuuta are discovered, her grandmother sends her to her father in Kampala who in turn sends her to an all-girls boarding school.

Kirabo’s journey to reconcile her rebellious origins, alongside her desire to reconnect with her mother and to honour her family’s expectations, is rich in the folklore of Uganda and is 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. The First Woman is a powerful and striking bildungsroman set in 1970s Uganda under the rule of Idi Amin and presents a vivid and riveting picture of Ugandan life and its mythology. It explores the role of women in a largely patriarchal society where the belief is that women should be seen and not heard and be family-orientated; looking after and caring for a husband and children is their assigned roles, which they are told not to deviate from. Kirabo is a wonderful protagonist; she's a strong, relatable, bold and independent character who jumps off the page and into your heart with ease. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Oneworld for an ARC.
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“The belief at St Theresa’s was that every girl needs that girlfriend, nfs-nfe, for whom she would prise open the crack of her buttocks to check the pain up there without worrying about the ugliness. Because only a woman knows how to love a woman properly.”

What an epic saga of a book. Spanning the lives of three generations of women against the backdrop of a society moving slowly from tribalism through a violent dictatorship into the modern-day era, it reads both as a lengthy feminist tract and epic family saga. 

Through the lives of Kirabo and her elders, Uganda’s patriarchal tribal system is portrayed in a fascinating way and the women’s quiet acts of resistance revealed: “every woman resists. Often in private. Most of our resistance is so everyday, women don’t think twice about it. It is life.”

Kirabo is raised by her grandparents in their village before being whisked off to the big city, Kampala, to live with her father and his family. Her life is a blend of (seemingly, to us) outdated traditions and modernity, of forward-thinking elders who believe in the education of girls, and archaic customs that maintain that a man’s children be raised by his family’s clan upon his death, neglecting a mother’s rights or wishes to her own children. 

I could go on and on about all the poignant matters of feminism, equality and simple humanity that this book has raised, and I could plaster this post with endless quotes taken from the text (the one at the top my absolute favourite, not only because the imagery made me laugh, but also because we all know, it’s true!), but I don’t think a short post would do this epic book much justice.

Yes, it’s a long read and it did take me a while, but it’s so very worth it to learn about a country and about a culture that I really didn’t know anything about before this book. So thank you to the author and thank you to Netgalley and Oneworld for allowing me such a titillating insight into the lives of ordinary Ugandans. I’d definitely recommend!
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In The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, we follow a young Ugandan girl, Kirabo, from the ages of 12 to 18 in the 1970s and 1980s, as she works out what kind of a woman she’s going to be. She has never known her mother; at the beginning of the book, she lives with her paternal grandparents Miiro and Alikisa in rural Nattetta, then she moves in with her father Tom and his family in urban Kampala, before going to boarding school.

Kirabo’s curiosity about her mother runs throughout the book to greater or lesser degrees, alongside several other themes. These include female friendship, the power of stories, the legacy of colonialism, and conflicts between tradition and modernity, country and city, and women’s compliance and independence.

I found The First Woman fascinating, and loved watching Kirabo develop as a character. Right from the start, she’s faced with conflicting messages from Alikisa, and Alikisa’s rival and neighbourhood ‘witch’ Nsuuta. The former values propriety and submission, and regards sex as dirty, while the latter champions women’s ‘original state’ of assertiveness and strength before they stifled themselves to please men, and is far more positive about sex. I enjoyed the scenes early on in the book where Kirabo sneaks off to Nsuuta’s to hear Ugandan stories that are used to explain the place of women in society, and considers the power of storytelling in maintaining established hierarchies.

What Kirabo doesn’t know at the beginning is that when they were growing up, Alikisa and Nsuuta were best friends, and it was these conflicting attitudes that eventually drove them apart. I loved the section of the book that told their story in the 1930s and 1940s, as Nsuuta is an especially interesting character - she had a marriage partner lined up, but she went against her family’s wishes and broke things off to train as a nurse instead. I also liked reading about Kirabo’s friendships, particularly with her childhood playmate Giibwa; as they grow older, a gulf opens between them partly due to their differences in social status, which did not affect them as children.

Even when she’s at boarding school, where the students are expected to excel across fifteen subjects and feminism is the default, Kirabo still can’t escape these conflicting visions of womanhood. Her experiences of going to an all-girls’ school matched mine: even though the students are in what should be a feminist utopia, they nonetheless compete with one another for male attention and police each other’s relationships with boys, shaming girls whose behaviour they don’t approve of. Kirabo herself gets a boyfriend, Sio, and has to take care to protect her reputation.

Another thing I found interesting about The First Woman was how it deals with polygamy. The story takes place over a time period when attitudes overlap: some rural families still practice it, but others who have been influenced by Christianity reject it, as do most urbanites. Nor do all women see polygamy as a bad thing; some see it as an opportunity to share reproductive and domestic labour, and as children, Alikisa and Nsuuta plan to marry the same man so they can always be together.

On the surface, men hold all the power in terms of land, inheritance, and so on. However, despite this, women exercise a surprising amount of power by policing one another and deciding who can be part of the family. This is especially true of Kirabo’s great-aunt Nsangi, who acts as an arbiter of family affairs and dominates Miiro as his older sister. With the possible exception of her beloved grandfather, it’s women who have the most influence over Kirabo’s life and attitudes. They also possess comically low expectations of men - though it isn’t so funny for poor Kirabo when her Aunt Abi fights Sio’s corner and thinks Kirabo’s been too harsh on him when he does her wrong!

The First Woman is a fascinating Ugandan coming-of-age tale that contains multitudes.
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Why penned hens peck each other

‘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.’

The First Woman is a feast of Ugandan history, language, culture, mythology but above all mwenkanonkano—a Luganda word that loosely translates as feminism, but the concept is older, local, not something imported from the west.

‘Any mwenkanonkano is radical. Talk about equality and men fall in epileptic fits.’

This is a novel about Kirabo, a bright, driven young girl coming of age in 1970s Uganda. We follow Kirabo as she navigates a world shaped by patriarchy, colonialism, Idi Amin’s brutal regime, and complex overlapping hierarchies of clans, classes and ethnic groups. Kirabo’s extended family has its share of secrets and long-held grudges, not least of which is the identity of Kirabo’s own mother.

It sounds like a lot, but really this is a personal, character-driven story about Kirabo and her family. The rest is context—necessary context—not a history lecture. However, at times the novel favours explanatory detail over action. For instance, when Kirabo moves to boarding school, a lot of time is spent establishing this new setting, new characters and social hierarchy… but very little happens there, and the action soon moves away from the school again.

Like gravity and the tides, kweluma and mwenkanonkano are the forces that move this story. One or both of these influence every piece of the drama—friendships slowly eroding or smashing apart, first love, deaths and marriages. They even shape the stories that are passed down, whether they be ancient myths or recent family history. A rich and rewarding read.
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I absolutely loved reading The First Woman. With an insight into Ugandan society and the role and status of women, among other things, The First Woman captured my attention right from the beginning.  Makumbi is a writer who writes very well and i will definitely be looking forward to reading whatever next she writes. A fresh voice, Makumbi's novel is bound to catch hold of its readers. 

Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for giving me this ARC.
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