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.