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“The British didn’t give your culture a visa: leave it at home.” A review of ‘Manchester

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, author of the critically acclaimed novel, Kintu, has released a new short story collection entitled Manchester Happened. In this collection, Makumbi throws her readers into various introspective musings of African immigrants. Makumbi zooms in and out of their lives, creating a mosaic using the blend of perspectives. This successfully paints a diverse image of the travelling Africans. This is significant in a time where Britons have a tendency to homogenise immigrants, grouping them together as the job-and-NHS-threatening ‘enemy’. Together, these heartwarming stories elegantly depict the struggle of contemporary Ugandan immigrants; Makumbi accurately describes their search for a stable identity and sense of belonging as they traverse the difficult climate of British intolerance.

Photo by: @vitalwritersblog.

The book is divided into two sections: ‘Departing’ and ‘Returning’. The ‘Departing’ section consists of various stories about Ugandans living in Manchester. Makumbi’s characters are thrown into the deep end of British culture; they arrive expecting wealth and luxury and instead find themselves disillusioned by the lack of opportunity, working menial jobs and living on council estates. There is a common thread of isolation, confusion, shame and homesickness, as these Africans search for community amongst the rising tide of British hostility which shows very little respect for their roots and origins. As one of the characters aptly summarises: “The British didn’t give your culture a visa: leave it at home.”

The following section ‘Returning’ deals with the other side of this culture clash. Makumbi’s stories act as a poignant commentary on diaspora wars. For these characters, there is a gap that widens in their absence. For some, their identity has become a negotiation. Makumbi describes a family’s reaction to a character’s name change from ‘Nnakimuli’ to ‘Flower’;

‘…the disconnect was complete. Their rural tongues called her Fulawa. When she helped them, Fl, Fl, Flo-w-e-r, they said, Fluew-eh. Nonetheless, she had brought a little something for everyone. People whispered, There’s a little of Nnakimuli left in this Fulawa.’

The returning characters must hence readjust to life in Africa and reacquaint themselves with relatives who are very sensitive to the belittling Western view of Africa as a place of destitution. For example, some Ugandan relatives ask upon their return: “What lies is the world telling?” , implying the narrow view of Africa in the British cultural psyche.

Although these stories provide excellent insight into Ugandan culture, they are by no means designed to cater to a Western audience; Makumbi’s stories contain no translations or footnotes. Rather, it is a testament to the skill of Makumbi’s writing that her work is still largely accessible for a wide range of readers. For instance, at one point we witness the humorous intricacies of a Ugandan marriage negotiation without feeling alienated or confused. Makumbi’s writing welcomes you with open arms without being necessarily tailored for you; a fine balance is achieved.

Makumbi will be speaking about this collection on Saturday the 6th of July for the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival at the British Library. Tickets are available here.

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

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