The First Woman - Jennifer Makumbi


The First Woman - Jennifer N. Makumbi (Book Cover)

Growing up in a small Ugandan village, Kirabo is surrounded by powerful women. Her grandmother, her aunts, her friends and cousins are all desperate for her to conform, but Kirabo is inquisitive, headstrong and determined. Up until now, she has been perfectly content with her life at the heart of this prosperous extended family, but as she enters her teenage years, she begins to feel the absence of the mother she has never known. The First Woman follows Kirabo on her journey to becoming a young woman and finding her place in the world, as her country is transformed by the bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin.

Publishers: Oneworld Publications

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

 “We are our circumstances and until we have experienced all the circumstances the world can throw at us, seen all the versions we can be, we cannot claim to know ourselves. How then do we start to know someonelse?”


As with her previous books, Makumbi had me transfixed from start to finish with The First Woman. I was smitten by the fact that over 70% of the the female characters had very unique worldviews and were not afraid to live on their own terms.

Quite often, there was a lot going on with the characters than meets the eye. The plot was carefully crafted, and every other element was delibrately done to ensure the story came full circle in the most edifying way. I was not shocked when I read that this book has been a WIP for 22 years before finally being published in 2020.


In the United States, this book is published as A Girl is a Body of Water. I must confess that I wasn’t a big fan of this title, but now that I’ve read it, I get it.

Makumbi writes…

 “Male ancients had such an irrational fear of the nature of women that they would try anything to keep them under control. So, they made up stories binding women to the sea as their realm and in so doing alleging that women migrants on land, thus rootless.”

I read this and paused for a few seconds to think about the number of times I have heard stories that link women to the water. The memories I dug up made me shudder.In Nigeria, there is a very uneven ratio between women accused of being mermaids, having spiritual husbands and being possessed by marine spirits and men.  

As an Igbo woman, it saddens me that our tradition does not permit women to inherit lands as of right either in their fathers houses or in their husband’s houses. So, a widow who did not bear a son is left at the mercy of her husband’s relatives who often make live a living hell for her. In the same way, an unmarried daughter will have to rely on the goodwill of the umunna to get hers.

This tradition has never made sense to me. It’s the same in many other tribes within and outside Nigeria. I am so glad that these days the law is evolving to cover the interests women. Additionally, women can purchase lands and pass them on to whomsoever they please.

In countless ways, this book embodies the very definition of feminist fiction. For the first time, I learned that there is an indigenous feminist movement called the mwenkanonkano, native to the Gandas and has no affiliation whatsoever to the modern day feminist agitations that is said to have emanated from the West.


Kirabo’s feeling of rootlessness because of her mother’s absence in her life made me think about Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow and how often we go searching for love in places where we think they should exist while ignoring the people close to us that have proved their love over and a to us.

The depth of the friendship between Nsutta and Alikissa had me reminiscing over Mi-ja and Young-Sook in Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women and how beautiful their relationship would have turned out if only Young-sook hadn’t been as outraged as she was.

Sometimes, I think about Nyasha and Tambudzai of Nervous Conditions and Kirabo and I smile because they would have made a great trio.


I absolutely loved how Makumbi kept us wondering about what really happened between Nsutta and Alikissa. The process of coming to terms with reality as a teenager – that adults were once little children too – was very well done. It’s always fascinating to see how easy it is for history to repeat itself when effective strategies are not made to curb it.



Have you read this yet? What did you think of it?

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