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The First Woman

Winner of the Jhalak Prize, 2021

Published by Oneworld Publications
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

'In Jennifer Makumbi, we have a giant of literature living among us.' Peter Kalu, Jhalak Prize Judge

Longlisted for the Diverse Book Awards, 2021

'Jennifer Makumbi is a genius storyteller.' Reni Eddo-Lodge


At once epic and deeply personal, the second novel from prize-winning author Jennifer Makumbi is an intoxicating mix of Ugandan folklore and modern feminism that will linger in the memory long after the final page.

As Kirabo enters her teens, questions begin to gnaw at her – questions which the adults in her life will do anything to ignore. Where is the mother she has never known? And why would she choose to leave her daughter behind? Inquisitive, headstrong, and unwilling to take no for an answer, Kirabo sets out to find the truth for herself.

Her search will take her away from the safety of her prosperous Ugandan family, plunging her into a very different world of magic, tradition, and the haunting legend of 'The First Woman'.

'The First Woman is a fabulous, wide-ranging, complex, funny and sad coming-of-age story with one of the most engaging heroines in years.'

– Louise Doughty, Jhalak Prize judge

'The First Woman 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.'

– Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King

'Jennifer Makumbi is a genius storyteller.'

– Reni Eddo-Lodge

'The genius of this novel is in its subtlety: home truths about the treatment of women throughout history are hidden like gems within the utterly engaging tale of a single girl... So, I’m calling it now: The First Woman will soon be considered a coming-of-age classic. And rightly so.'

– Stylist

'A beautifully woven, intricate novel weaving together family history, traditions, cultural norms, history and more.'

– Yvonne Battle-Felton, Jhalak Prize judge

'In Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi we have a giant of literature living among us. The First Woman has magnetic, tender, vindictive, generous, oh-so-human characters whose journeys through the novel moved me – this block of stone known as me – to tears. Makumbi is a supremely gifted writer and The First Woman an astonishing accomplishment.'

– Peter Kalu, Jhalak Prize judge

'At turns rapturous and devastating... Makumbi's writing uplifts and inspires, evoking the grand tradition of folklore and stories passed down, one woman to the next.'

– Refinery29

'The First Woman is a wonder, as clear, vivid, moving, powerful, and captivatingly unpredictable as water itself... With wry wisdom, great humor, and deep complexity, Makumbi has created a feminist coming-of-age classic for the ages.'

– Namwali Serpell, author of The Old Drift

'A mesmerizing feminist epic.'

– O, the Oprah magazine

'With each new work, Makumbi cements her position as a writer of great influence in our time and for future generations.'

– Booklist (starred review)

'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. The First Woman rewards the reader with one of the most outstanding heroines and the incredible honor of journeying by her side.'

– New York Times

‘Ugandan literature can boast of an international superstar in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi.’

– Economist

'Makumbi balances heartbreak with humour… The novel is also a discourse on power (whether political, social or sexual), but executed with a beautifully light touch.'

– Daily Telegraph, 16 New Season Reads

'A beautiful coming-of-age story, The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is set to the backdrop of a small Ugandan village. Surrounded by strong women, protagonist Kirabo starts to miss the mother she never knew and the book follows her journey growing up and finding her place in the world. It's a tale steeped in folklore and feminism, rebellion and longing.'

– Evening Standard

'Makumbi taps the shoulders of readers lest they forget the power of being able to tell your own story. Whether it be teaching something new or overwriting something old—[The First Woman] makes clear the importance of being able to speak for yourself.'

– Chicago Review of Books

'Makumbi's writing is lyrical and vivid as she not only captures Kirabo, but the world and community that Kirabo is navigating.'

– Alma

'Bewitching... Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a mesmerising storyteller, slowly pulling readers in with a captivating cast of multifaceted characters and a soupcon of magical realism guaranteed to appeal to fans of Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, or Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing.'

– Library Journal (starred review)

'A magnificent blend of Ugandan folklore and more modern notions of feminism... This book is a jewel.'

– Kirkus, starred review

'Ambitious...unapologetically African.'

– The Millions

'Superb. An intoxicating tale that combines mythic and modern elements to make the headiest of feminist brews.'

– Irenosen Okojie, author of Nudibranch

'A beautiful coming-of-age story...steeped in folklore and feminism, rebellion and longing.'

– Evening Standard

'The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is the feminist coming-of-age story we've been waiting for. With the timeless quality of a story shared from lips to ears, this novel is a page-turner and a mind-blower.'

– Tayari Jones, author or An American Marriage

'All around, Nansubuga Makumbi opens up vistas of oppression: Idi Amin's reign of terror and the patriarchal despotism against which women have to struggle. Bursting with resilient humour, the novel is as engaging as it is informative.'

– The Times, Best Books of 2020

'Fantastic... Packed with passion and drama — and in possession of sharp political elbows — The First Woman finally becomes a moving and resonant celebration of sisterhood.'

– Daily Mail

'Makumbi has told a critical story. With beautifully wrought prose, characters you cannot help but fall in love with, and the bravery to confront the complex issues of society, she gives us a vision of a brighter, stronger, and more equal world.'

– Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift

'Magnificent. The First Woman is ambitious and affecting in equal measure. It is that rare thing, a multifaceted novel guaranteed to stay with you long after you read it. Makumbi is indeed a singular talent.'

– Tendai Huchu, author of The Hairdresser of Harare

'[An] arresting bildungsroman... Kirabo, a strong, empathetic protagonist, reveals a society where women are routinely pitted against one another or silenced. This beautifully rendered saga is a riveting deconstruction of social perceptions of women's abilities and roles.'

– Publishers Weekly

'In The First Woman, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi takes the classic male quest for identity and turns it spectacularly on its head. Kirabo's journey toward self-possession is a beautiful, wise, and exhilarating read.'

– Lily King, author of Writers & Lovers

‘Makumbi writes with the assurance and wry omniscience of an easygoing deity.’

– New York Times

'In her characteristically page-turning and engaging style, Nansubuga 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.'

– Sylvia Tamale, Professor of Law, Makerere University

'What a ride! I feel naked while reading Makumbi—because there is so much history, and cultural nuances packed into her novels... In The First Woman, you will be enamoured by the Ugandan folktales with witches, men and betrayal, or sympathize with the coming of age narrative, or find yourself plunged into patriarchy, colonialism, spread of religion and power dynamics. The First Woman is indefinitely layered.'

– The Book Satchel

'Ugandan society is richly drawn, both in its traditions and the tumults of increasing modernity...but Makumbi keeps the focus on culture and the personal sphere... [She] writes a heroine who is vivid and with many dimensions.'

– Press Association

'It is clear that Makumbi is writing for Ugandans and, by extension, other Africans — and this is partly what makes the book a delight to read. However, the chief delight is the humour. It’s impossible to highlight just one passage as the humour shines from the first page to the last.'

– East African

'The First Woman 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'!'

– Namwali Serpell, author of The Old Drift

'A poignant coming-of-age tale about women's hard-won wisdom... Glorious.'

– Washington Post

'An intoxicating coming-of-age tale set amidst the brutality of Idi Amin's Uganda, The First Woman is a hymn to survival, rebellion and the enduring power of the female spirit.'

– Waterstones (October's Best Books)

'A feminist coming-of-age epic... Her intimate prose is charming and compulsively readable. With equal parts wisdom and wry humour, [Makumbi] casts Kirabo as a character you care about… The First Woman is a refreshing bildungsroman that offers both a formidable heroine and an ornate snapshot of 20th-century Uganda.'

– Literary Review

'A captivating feminist coming-of-age tale set in Uganda.'

– Independent (Book of the Month)

'A powerful coming-of-age tale… Kirabo is a fantastic character – headstrong and curious – and the way Ugandan myths are woven through the story is mesmerising.'

– Good Housekeeping

'Kirabo, the protagonist of Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's The First Woman, is a wonderful, daring character who is growing up in the patriarchal society of 1970s Uganda. Intricately woven with themes of feminism, mythology and tradition, this exquisitely written and compelling story delivers a thoroughly satisfying ending.'

– Abi Daré, author of The Girl With the Louding Voice


– Psychologies (Book of the Month)

'Kirabo's journey of self-discovery is at once inspiring and epic.'

– Popsugar

'Makumbi's rich language and detailed descriptions are a must-read.'

– Hello Giggles

'In lyrical prose, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi renders Kirabo's coming-of-age tale as a tender depiction of evolving womanhood, self-awareness in a tight-knit community and the path back to family and history.'

– TIME, Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2020

'The award-winning author of Kintu returns with a powerful coming-of-age tale set in Uganda. This is the story of teenage Kirabo as she searches for her mother, a woman she doesn't remember. Kirabo is a fantastic character – headstrong and curious – and the way Ugandan myths are woven through the story is mesmerising.'

– Good Housekeeping

'A vivid, powerful coming-of-age story, which is driven by indigenous feminism... A wise, moving and a multi-layered novel, which not only immerses us in authentic Ugandan culture, but also allows the reader to look at the universal themes from a different angle.'

– The Upcoming

'A standout coming-of-age novel about parents, friendship and storytelling.'

– Mail on Sunday

'Breathtaking... What's more important than loving and knowing yourself?'

– NB magazine

The First Woman is captivating, wise, humorous and tender: Makumbi has come back stronger than ever… A timeless, universal story with a contemporary feminist message, The First Woman portrays an unforgettable group of headstrong independent women… Makumbi has written a sweeping effervescent tale of longing, femininity and courage.’

– Pride

'The First Woman is a lively, engaging read, and Makumbi cleverly braids the immensely personal – Kirabo's yearning for a mother who appears to want nothing to do with her – with far larger scale social and political shifts... Its energy derives from its considerable wit and the charm of its central character.'

– Guardian

'This vivid novel marries folklore with modern feminism... [A] wonderful coming-of-age story.'

– Sunday Express

'A novel bursting with resilience and warmth... Mixing the mythic and the modern, happily ignoring formal neatness to encompass Uganda's miscellaneousness, it's an enthralling achievement.'

– The Sunday Times

'Kirabo's odyssey makes for a riveting, exuberant novel, a coming-of-age like no other.'

– O, The Oprah Magazine (Best Books of 2020)

'Kirabo, the heroine of this rangy, Ugandan-set novel, was the character I most enjoyed spending time with this year. We first meet her aged 12 in 1975, desperate to find her absent mother — who has her own dramatic tale. Makumbi braids Ugandan feminism, history and folklore into an utterly absorbing story.'

– Daily Mail, Best Books of 2020

'The First Woman is a powerhouse of a book... The writing is superb, the multi-layered plot just ensnares the reader, the characters are realistic... It's something very special. Definitely deserving of the number one position of my fave 2020 books.'

– The Bobosphere blog, 'Best Books of 2020'

'With The First Woman...Nansubuga Makumbi explores the power of women in a society bent on stripping them of it.'

– Al Jazeera, Best Books of 2020 by African Writers

'The First Woman is bold, empowered, authentic storytelling of the highest order, that embraces its cultural origins and exposes the reader to universal emotions, questions, conflicts, shame, friendships, love and humanity.'

– Word by Word

'Joyful and intimate... Makumbi revels in the female perspective of this unusual, richly detailed coming-of-age story.'

– Times Literary Supplement

'Laced with humour and delightful tales of female bonding, this book is an invaluable addition to modern feminist writing.'

– Telegraph, India

'Captivating…a gorgeously penned celebration of women…for women, about women, that should be read by all men who would like to understand women.'

– New African

'Makumbi…addresses the forces that control and divide women – their fathers, schools, other women – and takes Kirabo down a path that leads away from Western concepts of feminism towards a vision of feminine strength rooted in African tradition and folklore. It's a coming-of-age story that becomes a mythical journey, told with compassion and wisdom.'

– Herald (Glagow)

'This sweeping coming-of-age story grips tightly from the start and will not let you go... An exquisitely captivating, beautifully textural and unforgettable tale of feminist awakening.'

– Cambridge Edition

More books from this author: Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi