September 26, 2020: “Let’s Tell This Story Properly” by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Happy Saturday, Story366!

Today, my oldest boy had a buddy over. It was the first time we had anyone into our house since all this COVID stuff went down. Since we’ve been so busy lately, the place had been a mess, especially in the kitchen. We don’t eat out anymore, which is great, only that makes for an awful lot of dishes. I try to do a batch or two a day, but by Friday, I get behind and sometimes most of what we have in the cabinets is piled up on the counters, waiting to get squeaky. The Karen and I spent all day, until this kid’s arrival at three, making the place spotless. He came, he left, and now we have a pristine house. In fact, Karen’s really good at not only cleaning to the baseline, but going a bit further, getting rid of stuff we don’t need and cleaning areas that we don’t necessarily need clean for guests. We keep inching toward that perfect home, ready for the magazine people to feature us in a summer spread. At this rate, we should be ready for the June 2088 issue.

Is it weird, though, to clean your house for your son’s 14-year-old friend? We talked about that last night, Karen and I, how much effort we should put in for this kid. On one hand, we have a perfectly clean house, and that’s something. On the other hand, this kid is 14 and doesn’t give a shit what his friend’s house looks like. If we had razorbacks wallowing in their own filth in our living room, the kid’s reaction wouldn’t have been any different than it was for super-clean. Right? I pointed out that when I was a kid, I was in my friends’ houses all the time, and they were in mine, too. Did any of our parents spend a Saturday busting their butts to get their place clean for me? No, of course not. If pressed, they probably would have noted how that Czyzniejewski boy could go to hell if he doesn’t like dishes in my sink when he comes to my house. And they’d be right.

Today’s book is Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, out in 2019 by Transit Books. Makumbi is a Ugandan writer who was educated in the UK and lives and teaches there still. This is the first time I’ve read any of her work, so let’s talk about that.

This book is cut up into two parts, plus a prologue that includes one story, “Christmas Is Coming.” This one’s about Luzinda, who has just turned 13 and is deeply unhappy. He is living in the UK with his family but desperately wants to go back to Uganda. It’s his birthday, and all his relatives are coming over, but he refuses to come out of the bathroom—he never does open their presents, shifting them under his bed. He petitions his family to return home for Christmas as his present, but the family can’t afford the airline tickets. Luzinda has to gut it out. One of his hangups is how his mom tends to drink since coming to the UK, making his existence hard. This isn’t made any better on Christmas, when his family decides to host a part for all their Ugandan friends and family (bookending this story with large parties). Here, both Luzina’s mom and dad drink too much, causing quite a scene, making for a sad holiday, though at least they’re together (Luzinda’s little brother actually saves the day with a pretty hilarious stunt).

“The Nod” is about a guy named Lucky who goes to a party (another party …)hosted by a friend from school. What happens next is a large conversation on identity, race, and economic status that not only takes up most of the evening, but puts an odd turn Lucky’s disposition.

“Let’s Tell This Story Properly” is my favorite of the bunch and is about Nnam, a woman whose husband, Kayita, has just died. It is a sudden death, at just 45, and embarrassing, as Kayita collapsed in the bathroom, his underpants around his ankles, Nnam dressing him before the ambulance comes to take him away.

This is an ominous beginning to the story and and a symbolic end to Kayita. Once Nnam is told that her husband is dead at the hospital, she goes home to start making arrangements. Here we find that the couple—Nnam a lawyer and a Kayita a janitor—saved and bought a retirement home back in Uganda, so this is one thing that Nnam has to get into order, search for deeds, find out whose name the house is in, etc. We also find that Kayita has a couple of sons and an ex-wife back in Africa, and Nname has been sending extra money and clothes their way. These were often delivered by Kayita himself, as he travels to take care of the retirement home—rented out—and see his sons.

When Nnam travels to Uganda for the funeral, she finds that things are not what they seemed. Different people greet her at the airport than she’d expected, boys claiming to be Kayita’s sons but are not the boys she’s seen pictures of. As she’s escorted to the retirement property, she finds out several truths. The boys from the airport are also Kayita’s sons, sons he never told her about, sons he had after he moved to the UK and married her. The family “renting” the retirement property? Kayita’s Ugandan family, of course, including his not ex-wife, who is still his wife, his legal wife. Nnam is the usurper in this situation, albeit one who has paid for this other family, unwittingly, for years. Nnam is still getting a lot of dirty looks, as everyone’s wondering why Kayita’s side hustle is suddenly in Uganda, in their home, their husband and father dead, this woman adding insult to their injury.

Nname never did anything wrong, except trust Kayita, and luckily for her she has a large support system back home. All of her family and friends come to her aid. She also receives some help from a surprise source, but I think I’ve already revealed enough here already. This is a well told story about a secret bigamist, picking up upon his death, showing the aftermath of his decisions. Nname is a worthy perspective, showcasing the terror and confusion so well, along with some class and gender politics to boot. This is a great story.

I enjoyed my time with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Let’s Tell This Story Properly, her book about Ugandan ex-pats trying to make their way in the UK. Home keeps calling them back and it’s tempting to just return, given how little anyone in their new country really wants them there. The whole scenario is a conflict in and of itself, making for easy stories, characters struggling to to find themselves, such a warm alternative always in their back pocket.