Book Review - Manchester Happened

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s debut novel, Kintu, a powerful, family saga set in Uganda, has been likened to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Uganda is once again her focus in this boisterous, short story collection. Makumbi lectures in Creative Writing but evidently delights in breaking as many rules as possible. She includes double negatives, is prone to ramble and her prose is littered with “and then”. However, these written anomalies reflect a rich oral storytelling tradition and powerfully evoke Ugandan culture and language.

Manchester Happened is divided into two parts: ‘Departing’ and ‘Returning’. The first half is mainly set in Manchester, the latter half in Uganda, and the stories span the 1950s to the present day.  In ‘Our Allies the Colonies’, twenty-one-year-old Abbey Baker (optimistically named after Westminster Abbey and Samuel Baker) arrives in Manchester aboard a Dutch Merchant ship. It’s 1950 and Makumbi vividly recreates life for an African male immigrant at that time – the bomb sites, double work shifts, dancing at the Merchant Navy Club, poor accommodation and routine racism: “to be called ‘bongo bongo’ was okay but to hear Do those chaps still eat each other or Even fellow blacks can’t stand them was crushing.”    

In Makumbi’s titular story, Nnambassa is sent to London at the tender age of sixteen. Her father had studied at the London School of Economics in the early 1980s, when teenagers arrived in their droves confident that “with British degrees, the world belonged to them.” In 1988, Nnambassa finds it difficult to adapt: The reality was “at once a sacrifice and a privilege.” Makumbi writes perceptively about the pitfalls faced by upwardly mobile Africans in search of a job in Britain: “with a name like Nnambassa the first interview was on the phone to weed out nightmarish accents. If the interviewer started saying, I didn’t catch what you said…can you spell that word for me please, you knew you’d failed. So you swallowed your pride and applied to a nursing home.”  Uganda’s brutal and tumultuous past is a constant shadow: “There was distrust and intrigue within the community. You had to be careful who you sought to network with on jobs, housing and visa issues. You had to be careful how much of yourself you put out there.” Nnambassa’s attitude might appear cautious but many Ugandans, like her, recognised that past misdemeanours and unsavoury affiliations often accompanied them across continents.
In ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly’, winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Nnam returns to her native Uganda for her husband’s funeral and discovers that he has been keeping a wife and family there as well as sustaining his marriage in Manchester. Nnam’s experience must be every immigrant’s worst nightmare, many of whom leave children behind when they move abroad for work. Nnam, struggling to succeed in a foreign country, to make a modest fortune for her family, suffers the ultimate betrayal and her bitterness is acute: “There’s nothing more revolting than a corpse caught telling lies.”

Manchester Happened glitters with similar examples of Makumbi’s terrific turn of phrase, often heightened by her use of the second person, such as this one: “Ugandans in Britain will tell you The British didn’t give your culture a visa: leave it at home.

There are two linked stories featuring Poonah who “had mastered that perfect combination of sheer hard work and stinting frugality that an immigrant with a deadline needed.” ‘Something Inside So Strong’, opens in 2006. This is a prime example of one of Makumbi’s more convoluted sentences: “Poonah was not one of those middle- or upper-class Ugandans who, having grown up in the posh suburbs of Kampala and fed on middle- or upper-class British images paraded on TV, in cinema and magazines, arrived in London’s Peckham or Manchester’s Rusholme and – because they had imagined that all of Britain was Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Savoy and skyscraper – whined in dismay You mean this is England?” Poonah works as an Aviation Security Officer at Manchester airport. She plans to train, find a job in social work, save and return home.

The final story, ‘Love Made in Manchester’ is set in 2018. Poonah has achieved her goal, but remains in England. It’s the fate of many of Mukambi’s characters who arrive in the UK, build a new life and never return. Dedicated to “the fearless Ugandans in the diaspora”, Manchester Happened provides an entertaining insight into their lives. It’s a fascinating collection and confirms Mukumbi as an exciting new voice.   

Originally published by New Humanist