The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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    by Natasha Trethewey
A Girl is A Body of Water
A Girl is A Body of Water
by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Hardcover (1 Sep 2020), 560 pages.
Publisher: Tin House Books
ISBN-13: 9781951142049

International-award-winning author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's novel is a sweeping and powerful portrait of a young girl and her family: who they are, what history has taken from them, and--most importantly--how they find their way back to each other.

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, her best friend, and her many aunts, but the absence of her mother follows her like a shadow. 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, 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.

Kirabo's journey to reconcile her rebellious origins, alongside her desire to reconnect with her mother and to honor her family's expectations, is rich in the folklore of Uganda and 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.


Nattetta, Bugerere, Ugand

May 1975

Until that night, Kirabo had not cared about her. She was curious on occasion (Where is she? What does she look like? How does it feel to have a mother?, that sort of thing), but whenever she asked about her and family said, "No one knows about her," in that never-mind way of large families, she dropped it. After all, she was with family and she was loved. But then recently her second self, the one who did mad things, had started to fly out of her body, and she had linked the two.

On this occasion, when she asked about her mother and family fobbed her off again with "Don't think about her; think about your grandparents and your father," something tore. It must have been the new suspicion (Maybe she does not want me because I am ...) that cut like razors.

A mosquito came zwinging. It must have gorged itself on some-one because its song was slow and deep, unlike the skinny, high-pitched hungry ones that flew as if crazed. Kirabo's eyes found it and followed it, followed it and, rising to her knees, she clapped it so hard her palms burned. She brought her hands to the candle to check her prize. Black blood: yesterday's. There is no satisfaction like clapping a bloated mosquito out of existence mid-air. She wiped mosquito mash on a stray piece of paper and sat back and waited again.

Kirabo wanted storytelling, but the teenagers were engrossed in gossip. They lounged on three bunk beds in the girls' bed-room. Some lay, some sat, legs dangling, others cross-legged, squeezed cosily, two or three to a bed. They had gathered as usual, after supper, to chatter before going off to sleep. Kirabo was not welcome.

For a while she had watched them, waiting to catch a pause, a breath, a tick of silence in their babble, to wedge in her call to storytelling—nothing. Finally, she gritted her teeth and called, "Once, a day came ..." but her voice carried too far above the teenagers' heads and rang impatient in the rafters.

The hush that fell could have brought down trees. Teenagers' heads turned, eyes glaring (But who does this child think she is?), some seething (What makes you think we want to hear your stories?). None answered her call.

Another twelve-year-old would have been intimidated—there were ten teenagers in the room—but not Kirabo. Not visibly, anyway. She stared straight ahead, lips pouting. She was the kabejja of her grandparents, which meant that all the love in the house belonged to her, and whether they liked it or not, the teenagers.

Excerpted from A Girl is A Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Excerpted by permission of Tin House Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's luminous second novel, a young woman comes of age in Uganda in the 1970s while searching for her missing mother.

Print Article Publisher's View   

First Impressions readers were fascinated by A Girl Is a Body of Water, a riveting and nuanced novel set in Uganda, awarding it an average score of 4.5 out of 5 stars.

What it's about:

Kirabo is a 'special child.' She was born with 'the original state' inside her, a consciousness going back to Ugandan origin myths. It allows her to leave her body and fly, swinging from the church steeple until, 'like a canon, she launched into the sky.' Kirabo is conflicted because her Christian upbringing tells her these powers are evil. In secret, she consults Nsuuta, the village witch. She has two requests: to lose her original state and to find her birth mother, who deserted her when she was a newborn. These conflicts propel Kirabo forward as she leaves the village for boarding school in Kampala, falls in love, and survives Idi Amin's reign of terror (Naomi B).

Readers appreciated the opportunity to learn about Ugandan culture and language...

A fascinating journey into Ugandan culture. The author uses her gifts for crafting narrative and language to examine the particulars of a patriarchal and storytelling culture and how Christianity impacts and challenges families and social structures (Claire M). It was quite an experience traveling to Uganda through this book, learning about this rich culture: family, village life, beliefs and the unrest and civil war in the 1980s. I loved the storytelling within the storytelling. It was like sitting around a fire and listening to your grandmother tell tales of long ago about why life is the way it is now. A very captivating story of a young girl coming of age: falling in love, attending school, experiencing pain. But through it all, she endures (Sonia F).

...particularly the author's approach to the experiences of women in Uganda:

There's such a contradiction between the expectations and demands and treatment of Ugandan women (by the men of course) vs. the raw internal strength and impenetrable will of these women when the men aren't around. But even though the men and the culture take what appears to be everything from the women (including losing both their first and last names upon marriage) the women always persevere, and beautifully. It's ultimately an incredibly informative, educational and uplifting story that feels so very real (Shaun D).

Some found the novel a little difficult or felt it took some time to get invested...

Maybe it's my choice of books lately but I haven't been anywhere near this challenged by a book, start to finish, in a very long time. My advice is to stick with it because it's hands-down one of the best books I have ever read. It challenged me in myriad ways, from the language (which is so beautifully lyrical) to the cultural references to the geography and history of Uganda, all of which forced me to read at a much slower and more careful rate than usual, pausing frequently to do research. This frustrated me at first but ultimately benefited my understanding and appreciation of the book as a whole (Shaun D). It took about 75 pages for the story to hook me and then I couldn't stop reading. I cared about each character (Sandy F). I found the first part (200 pages) to be very slow. I actually put the book down for a few weeks. I picked it up again about a week ago and flew through the last part. It was beautifully written and took me away to Uganda in the 1970s and '80s. That is no mean feat during these trying times so I applaud the author. I look forward to her next book (Susan C).

...but most found the challenge more than worthwhile and recommend A Girl is a Body of Water, especially for book clubs:

Makumbi weaves a thoughtful tale with the threads of clan relationships and rivalries, with strong elements of expanding feminism, with the values of schooling all set against a political background of government vs. rebellion. Book clubs should find rich material for discussion. In my view this is an excellent novel and a good read, albeit at times the path is strewn with unfamiliar language. Readers should feel rewarded for traveling on these Ugandan roads in Kirabo's shoes (Darrell W). Young women especially may identify with the theme of coming of age, regardless of culture. The main family characters are strong and thoughtful. The novel shifts between past and present to support a tender story highly recommended for book club discussion (Margaret F). I cared about each character — and there are many. I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. This is not an easy read but it is worth it. A rich and compelling story (Sandy F).

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

New York Times
Makumbi's prose is irresistible and poignant, with remarkable wit, heart, and charm—poetic and nuanced, brilliant and sly, openhearted and cunning, balancing discordant truths in wise ruminations. A Girl is a Body of Water rewards the reader with one of the most outstanding heroines and the incredible honor of journey by her side.

Publishers Weekly
This beautifully rendered saga is a riveting deconstruction of social perceptions of women's abilities and roles.

Library Journal
Makumbi is a mesmerizing storyteller, slowly pulling readers in with a captivating cast of multifaceted characters and a soupc¸on of magical realism guaranteed to appeal to fans of Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, or Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In its depiction of both singular characters and a village community, this book is a jewel.

Author Blurb Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift
A Girl is a Body of Water is a wonder, as clear, vivid, moving, powerful, and captivatingly unpredictable as water itself–from the 'irate noises' of Nnankya's stream to the 'theatrical' rains of Nattetta with which Makumbi's women wash, delight, and sate themselves. With wry wisdom, great humor, and deep complexity, Makumbi has created a feminist coming-of-age classic for the ages, sure to join the company of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions, and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet. Being surrounded by Makumbi's women—young and old—as they each struggle in different ways to clarify and achieve mwenkanonkano, feels like love, feels like learning–and best of all it often feels, as she puts it, 'like mischief'!

Author Blurb Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King
A Girl is a Body of Water is captivating, wise, humorous and tender: Makumbi has come back stronger than ever. This is a tale about Kirabo and her family, and her place in the world as she searches for her mother and a true sense of belonging. But most of all, this is a book about the stories that define us, and those we tell to redefine ourselves. A riveting read.

Author Blurb Sylvia Tamale
In her characteristically page-turning and engaging style, Makumbi lays bare the complex power dynamics of patriarchy, capitalism and neocolonialism, not through academic jargon but via that most effective tool of education--storytelling. An achingly beautiful tale.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Michael Jessica
A Girl is a Body of Water
This book is very intriguing and fascinating. It is about the story of a brave girl who wants to know her mother. It is indeed a tale for all girls.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Shaun D. (Woodridge, IL)
A Challenging but So Worthwhile Read
Maybe it's my choice of books lately but I haven't been anywhere near this challenged by a book, start to finish, in a very long time. My advice is to stick with it because it's hands-down one of The Best books I have ever read. This book challenged me in myriad ways....from the language (which is so beautifully lyrical) to the cultural references to the geography and history of Uganda....all of which forced me to read at a much slower and more careful rate than usual (including many pauses to do a quick bit of on-line research to further my understanding and appreciation of every aspect of this transformative story) which at first frustrated me but ultimately benefited my understanding and appreciation of the book as a whole. Absolutely everything is 180 degrees different from American life and culture. There's such a contradiction between the expectations and demands and treatment of Ugandan women (by the men of course) vs the raw internal strength and impenetrable will of these women when the men aren't around. Everything the men say and do is always and completely excused thanks to that tired tautology 'boys will be boys' so consequently the women are faulted. But yet again even though the men and the culture take what appears to be everything from the women (including losing both their first and last names upon marriage) the women always and beautifully persevere. It's ultimately an incredibly informative, educational and uplifting story that feels so very real. It would make a wonderful miniseries!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Claire M. (Sarasota, FL)
A Girl Is a Body of Water
A fascinating journey into an African culture, specifically Uganda, in which the author uses her gifts of storytelling and language to examine the particulars of a patriarchal and storytelling culture. The ways of speaking which move from Bantu and local dialects to one influenced by the arrival of Europeans delight in the way they represent African language and culture. The impact on Ugandan culture of Christianity challenges and impacts the family and social structures which divides families, portends a future in which culture is changed by the proselyting it can't overcome.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Chris H. (Wauwatosa, WI)
A Girl is a Body of Water
This is a wonderful book about a girl growing up in Uganda. It tells her story as she is raised in a small village by grandparents and others who teach her traditional ways. Her story continues as she begins to becomes school educated and is exposed to life outside a small village. This may be a simple and incomplete review, but if you can imagine the title, as more literal than figurative, you will understand the meaning of the story. It is quite brilliant!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Liz D. (East Falmouth, MA)
A Girl is a Body of Water
It takes a family to raise a strong woman. In the book A Girl is a Body of Water the women in Kirabo's teach and guide her to be a woman of the 21st century. She learns from her grandmother and aunts about the life of an African living in the small village of Nattetta, Uganda. Kirabo learns the tribal and customs,the stories and ledgends, the hard work of farming and making a successful life on the land. But Kirabo's dreams go beyond the village she desires European education.

In the boarding school Kirabo meets girls who have grown up in the city. She begins to expand her worldy knowledge. Going between school and Nattetta Kirabo feels she is between worlds. Her father Tom comes home to Nattetta and takes Kirabo to the city to attend University. In Kampala Kirabo is left under the wing of her Aunt Abi, who teaches her the ways of the modern world while instilling in Kirabo the importance of her heritage.

One of the threads of Kirabo's rich story is her search for her mother, she wants to find her place in the world and family.

After university Kirabo's journey takes her back to Nattetta where she is able to reconcile her education with her families customs and ways finding a unique place for herself in modern Africa.

Ms. Makumbi has give a beautiful insight into African culture filling the book with memorable characters and stories. i would recommend this book to many friends because like any great book it can be read and experienced on many levels.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Marianne L. (Syosset, NY)
A Gem
A Girl Is a Body of Water is a beautifully written book that sketches the story of a girl in 1970's Uganda struggling to discover who she is amid the overbearing clutches of a patriarchal society. Early in the book you come to care for Kirabo, our main character, rooting for her as she navigates the myriad influences of time and place. Storytelling exerts a powerful influence upon the characters in this book, whether that be for better or for worse. Rich in its depiction of Ugandan culture in the 70's, you become immersed in its wisdom and deceit. If the intricacies of cultures beyond the western world interest you, you may enjoy this book. Given the vast differences between western and Ugandan culture, this story convincingly shows how much our human needs and desires transcend time and culture.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Sonia F. (Freehold, NJ)
A Girl Is A Body Of Water
Jennifer Mansubuga Makumbi is a born storyteller. Every word resonates with such imagery of this Uganda village and its denizens. Told in alternate chapters from a third person point of view,this novel has a " folklorish" aura about it: tradition, superstitions, tribalism is all served up in this captivating page turner.

Kirabo search for her mother haunts her throughout this novel and while seeking who and where her mother is learns about the rest of the family. The secrets, the silence is all complicit. The vernacular is at times funny, but yet brilliantly served up with personification and profound metaphors: " his stare made her feel as if the world was scorched but she was the only plant sprouting ".

The characters are rich and round... they all have a story to tell and tell it they do . At this juncture, I will say that it was helpful that there was a character list at the end of the book It was very hard keeping the numerous names in place.
Even though it took many pages later to find out who Kirabo's mother was, it was quite an experience traveling to Uganda learning about this rich culture: family, village life, beliefs, and much told about the Uganda unrest and civil war in the 1980's.

I love the storytelling within the storytelling. It was like sitting around a fire and listen to your grandmother tell stories of long ago and why life is the way it is now.
A very captivating story of a young girl coming of age: falling in love , attending school, painful experiences, but through it all she endured .

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Nicole S. (St. Paul, MN)
Great storytelling
We learn early in the book that a great storyteller deserves a level of respect from her listeners. This is a great story. The descriptions of Uganda are evocative and lush. Kirabo is the type of girl heroine that you cheer for and at times grimace at. But her search for her mother, her self and her history are all heart and fascinating. Enjoy this book, it's a treat.


Print Article Publisher's View  

Women in Uganda

Ugandan women working on machinery provided by UNDPIn A Girl is a Body of Water, set in the 1970s-'80s, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi presents a compelling protagonist named Kirabo who is coming of age in Uganda and learning what it means to be a woman from her grandmother, aunts and other women in her village. Like most cultures, Ugandan society is largely patriarchal in structure. Women are generally expected to care for the household and children, despite the fact that many also perform paid labor outside of the home. A 2018 report by OXFAM indicates that it is viewed as socially unacceptable for men to engage in household duties because these are traditionally "a woman's task." The same study notes that 62 percent of women surveyed reported their husbands having paid a "bride price"— a dowry given by a man to the family of the woman he wants to marry — and that women whose husbands paid this fee are often expected to take on more work in the home. Polygamy is legal in Uganda, though it is controversial; a petition introduced by women's rights group MIFUMI in 2018 to have the practice ruled unconstitutional was dismissed by a judiciary panel. MIFUMI has also been active in the fight against domestic violence in Uganda and successfully lobbied for bride price law reforms.

About 80 percent of Ugandan women take part in paid work outside the home, according to statistics from the United Nations. There is, however, a substantial wage gap of anywhere from 10-40 percent between men and women. The United Nations Development Programme has organized a campaign providing grants, equipment and livestock to women in Uganda to promote gender equity and independence. Working outside the home provides women with financial stability and empowerment A senior level officer of Uganda's Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development told Global Press Journal, "When these women are able to earn their own money, they become stronger."

This strength and independence can be critical for women who need to escape from a dangerous situation. In a national demographic survey from 2011, 56 percent of women and girls (ages 15-49) in Uganda reported having been victims of domestic violence, and 28 percent reported being victims of sexual violence. Legal efforts to pass meaningful legislation to combat this issue have repeatedly stalled, and the legislation in place is often ineffective. Critics of the Domestic Violence Act of 2010 argue that the law lacks critical protections, failing to criminalize marital rape, for example. A report from the International Federation for Human Rights notes that women are often further hindered in seeking justice because of limited access to medical and legal resources.

Education is also an important factor in developing independent and successful women. The UN reports that about half of girls and young women in Uganda ages 15-24 are illiterate and that four out of five girls do not attend high school. This is the result of a confluence of challenges, including poverty, sexist cultural attitudes and an extremely high teen pregnancy rate — nearly 25 percent of girls ages 15-19 have been or are pregnant according to 2019 research data.

Nevertheless, Uganda continues to make strides toward gender equality. The Ugandan parliament is made up of 34.7 percent women (as of 2019). In addition to MIFUMI, numerous organizations are working hard to empower women and reduce gender discrimination. The Uganda Women's Network advocates for legislative action to improve economic circumstances for Ugandan women, while Uganda For Her promotes education and access to medical care and menstrual supplies (click to donate), as well as running a workshop teaching leadership skills to girls.

by Lisa Butts

Ugandan women working with machinery, courtesy of UNDP

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