Book Review: The First Woman

As many of you may know, I have a strong penchant for feminist fiction – especially, international feminist fiction. Through Kirabo, we have our eyes opened to the enchanting retellings of Ugandan folklore and various origin myths. A local “witch” i.e. wise woman, Nsuuta, teaches Kirabo of the foundations of indigenous feminism – mwenkanonkano – a Ugandan movement that predates Western feminism as we know it. If you are wise enough to read this title, make sure you have a pen and paper to soak in all it’s lessons. Starting with “If God created Adam and Eve in his own image, then afterwards Adam recreated Eve in his own image, one that suited him”

This book is filled with such pearls of wisdom, I can honestly say that every page was a joy to read. Beginning in 1975 Uganda – during Idi Amin’s dictatorship – this book chronicles one village girl’s pursuit to find her mother. Born headstrong and inquisitive, Kirabo questions matters others would rather she forget. She calls this rebellious streak her second self – a side of her that makes her do “bad” things, like climbing trees and flying outside of her body. In a bid to rid herself of this infliction, she seeks the village witch (and her gran’s nemesis), Nsuuta. The witch tells her that the second self is, actually, the “original state”; a power that has been bred out of women to make them more amenable to men, and to a male-ordered society. “Stories are critical, Kirabo,” she added thoughtfully. “The minute we fall silent, someone will fill the silence for us.”

Kirabo’s journey to adolescence is both rich and complex; casting a personal plight for maternal belonging against a sociohistorical backdrop. Uganda, is a changing nation, with its own second self — nurturing the traditions it had before it was exploited by Christianity, colonialism and corruption. As such, it is a multigenerational tale; clan hierarchies set Kirabo’s well-meaning grandparents’ apart from the ambitions of younger family members. Members that have grown up in the westernised city of Kampala, are no longer confined sociologically to village etiquette. Thus, like many books of this period of transition, we are introduced to the great disparities between village life and city life. I was shamefully shocked by the realization that the very concept of time i.e. the 24hr clock, 12 month years, 60 minute hours, were not universal constructs, but forced upon others in a shift for anglicisation and capitalism. 

I liked how this book was not one dimensional – it does not say “this is how you should do feminism”. Through the variances in ambition between Kirabo and her friends, we see feminism splinter along class lines, urban and rural lines, along differences of tribe and race. We observe the many ways in which women create agency for themselves and maintain power, either through sharing their husband, abandoning their child or rejecting marriage. Juxtaposing this, however, is also the ample reasons for why women make other women suffer, and the collusive female subservience it can generate. “If you cannot bite your oppressor, you bite yourself.”

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