Tradition and social progress collide in this multigenerational tale of Ugandan domestic life.
Set in Uganda in the 1940s and ’50s, Namuddu’s debut novel interweaves the stories of several Ugandan women as they struggle to find and maintain their places in a rapidly changing society. Nansamba leaves her family to enter into a successful, happy marriage with Ggalabuzi, but things become strained when, despite the influence of the Catholic Church, her husband decides to make Nansamba’s younger sister Mucwa his second wife and Nansamba’s “co-wife.” While the two women reconcile and even strategize to make sure they and their children benefit financially from the arrangement, they remain resentful toward their parents, who agreed to Mucwa’s marriage without her consent. Meanwhile, 20-something schoolteacher Biiti, fearful of impending spinsterhood, agrees to a disastrous marriage with an older man she has never met; ultimately, she’s compelled to take her young child and return to her parents’ home, eventually making a career for herself as a nightclub manager. When the spurned matchmaker Ssolo, who engineered both Nansamba’s marriage and Mucwa’s nonconsensual betrothal to Ggalabuzi, seeks revenge upon him by arranging the seduction of one of Biiti’s relations, many women’s lives become knotted together in a struggle for dominance and security. Only when the younger women caught in the drama assert their independence do the dynamics of power begin to seismically shift. Namuddu’s intriguing depiction of midcentury Ugandan society is one of contrasts. The increasing influence of orthodox Christianity contends with firmly entrenched pagan beliefs, such as those that revolve around the birth and consecration of the many sets of twins born in the novel, while women sold into marriages and rendered legally powerless must scramble and connive, often to each other’s detriment. Convoluted plotlines involving unlikely couplings, mysterious parentage and sudden revelations help further the sense of chaos and claustrophobia Namuddu tries to create, but such developments become tiresome as they grow increasingly melodramatic.
A fascinating exploration of the changing face of social customs and gender politics.