Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s A Girl is a Body of Water weaves together myths and stories with the realities and struggles of being a woman in Uganda under the military dictatorship of Idi Amin in the 1970s. It tackles the substantial theme of mwenkankano (feminism) and women’s rights through the life experience of the heroine, Kirabo, a girl searching for her mother as she grows into a woman. Her story is surrounded by and folded within the stories of women who came before her. This is a story told by women and about women, in a world made by men and for men.
“The imagery was brutal. Tom had been a god, like Buddha, huge and golden. Aunt Abi, Nnambi, Grandmother, Nsuuta, Mwagale, and Kirabo had sat around him in worship. Occasionally they had snapped at each other, wrangled, formed enmities and built alliances around him. Now that the god had been pulled down, they were starting to see each other. … He had not made himself a god. They, the women, had.”
This novel swept me across the world, through time and thought, into a culture unlike my own in a time and place unlike where I sit now. And yet, as a woman, it often spoke my thoughts and expressed my feelings. It brought me close to womenkind and united me with the women who were painted in this story surrounded by stories. While the language was not particularly descriptive or poetic, Makumbi’s words planted seeds that grew into Kirabo’s world around me. My immersion in the story was disrupted slightly in the section of the novel titled, When the Villages were Young, where the change in time and perspective made it feel more like a brief history than a continuation and deepening of the story. I found it disorienting and was tempted to skip ahead to return to the perspective and story of Kirabo, the heroine. However, I was thankful that I did not as the content of this section was key to the development of two very important women.
“Nsuuta, every woman resists. Often it is private. Most of our resistance is so every day, women don’t think twice about it. It is life.”
Makumbi addresses a wide variety of themes in her novel, including: poverty, roles of wealth and power, sexuality, the “fluidity of life”, and the relationship between children and parents. However, they all tend to hinge on the central theme of womanhood. It is certainly a coming-of-age story, but through a perspective and experience that I am ashamed to say I do not know much about. As a muzungu (white person) from Canada, I was honored to read it. It opened my eyes wider to the smallness of my worldview through a most powerful medium, storytelling.