Short Story Review: The Winner by Barbara Kimenye
I recently read the short story The Winner by Ugandan writer Barbara Kimenye. The story is included in the collection Modern African Stories edited by Charles R. Larson, published by Fontana Books 1971.
About Barbara Kimenye
Barbara Kimenye was born in 1929 in England but considers herself Ugandan by birth. Kimenye began writing at an early age and put together her first newspaper when she was 11. Kimenye studied nursing in London. She married a Tanzanian and returned to Uganda in the early 1950s.
Kimenye became the private secretary of the Kabaka of Buganda, Mutesa II. Kabaka is the title given to the king of Buganda. Buganda was once an independent kingdom in what is now called Uganda. Uganda is actually the Swahili term for Buganda that was adopted by the British. Buganda is the largest traditional kingdom in Uganda and is inhabited by Uganda’s largest ethnic group the Baganda or Ganda people. The Ganda speak Luganda. Kampala, the capital of Uganda, is located in Buganda.
Kimenye was encouraged to pursue a career in journalism by Kenyan politician Tom Mboya (Barack Obama’s godfather). Kimenye went on to become a columnist for the Uganda Nation and Kenya’s Daily Nation. Kimenye is considered to be the first Black female journalist in East Africa and is one of the first Anglophone women writers to be published out of East Africa.
The short story The Winner comes from Kimenye’s collection Kalasanda(1965). The stories in this collection and Kimenye’s later collection Kalasanda Revisited(1966) follow the ordinary lives of the inhabitants of the village Kalasanda in Buganda.
Kimenye has gone on to become a prolific writer of African Children’s Literature. Her most popular series is about a boy named Moses who attends a school for boys who have been kicked out of more reputable schools for misbehaving. Moses and his friends get in to all kinds of trouble but are not really bad, just mischievous.
The elderly Pius Ndawula has won the football pools. This has totally disrupted his quiet life. Now swarms of distant relatives have converged on his home and reporters want to talk to him about his good fortune. Pius’ closest friend, Salongo, also wants Pius’ money, but for the restoration of the tomb of a great Bugandan hero, of which he is the custodian.
Pius is particularly irritated with Cousin Sarah. He doesn’t really know her or the exact nature of his relationship to her (We later learn that she is the widow of a stepson of one of his cousins, hardly a close relationship). She has begun taking over his house as if it is hers, and remarking that Pius’ needs a woman to take care of his home. Salongo warns Pius that Cousin Sarah might want to trap him into marriage.
Pius has his own dreams for the money. He wants to add a new roof on his house or perhaps build an entirely new house out of concrete blocks. He would also like to extend his coffee shamba (garden) and invest in raising hens.
Pius was initially delighted when his close family members came to visit him after hearing the news about his winnings but was overwhelmed when relations he didn’t even recognize flooded his shamba. Salongo convinces Pius that he shouldn’t tell anyone what he wants to do with his winnings-including reporters. A reporter with a Ugandan radio station attempts to get an interview out of Pius but Salongo orders him to say nothing. Cousin Sarah ends up coming to the rescue and gives an interview on Pius’ behalf. Much to his horror, she states that she plans to stay and look after him for as long as he needs her.
Pius’ friends Yosefu Mukasa comes to visit him in the evening and is shocked to see how tired Pius looks and is also surprised to be greeted by Cousin Sarah who behaves as if she is mistress of Pius’ house. Yosefu offers to have Pius stay at his house and Cousin Sarah agrees that is it a wonderful idea and packs his bags. Salongo also thinks it is a good idea so that Pius isn’t left alone over night with Cousin Sarah.
Pius spends two days with the Mukasas being taken care of by Miriamu, Yosefu’s wife. While at the Mukasas, Pius gets the unfortunate news that there has been a mistake and he has not won all the prize money but must share the original amount he thought he won with 300 other people. Much to everyone’s surprise, Pius is not that upset.
Cousin Sarah ends up clearing all of Pius’ relatives out of his house but his shamba has been wrecked by them. When Pius returns to his house he finds that Cousin Sarah is still there and has plans for the repair of his house with his winnings. She also plans to bring over her own hens. By this time, Pius has begun to like Cousin Sarah but wonders why she wants to live with him. She tells him that both her sons are married and she doesn’t feel comfortable having another woman in the house. After seeing the news that Pius had won the football pools, she remembered Pius from her wedding when he had been very helpful. She decided that he needed her help to keep away greedy relatives and to take care of his house.
At the end of the story we learn that Pius gives Salongo some money for the tomb but, much to Salongo’s chagrin, Pius has decided to marry Cousin Sarah.
The Winner is an enjoyable read. It is a simple story but Kimenye manages to weave a few references to some dramatic changes in the social life of the Ganda peoples in post-Independence Uganda. For example, we learn that certain taboos around what women can and cannot eat are being challenged:
“Salongo and he had always said that there was money in hens these days, now that the women ate eggs and chicken; not that either of them agreed with the practice. Say what you liked, women who ate chicken and eggs were fairly asking to be infertile! That woman Welfare Officer who came round snooping occasionally, tried to say it was all nonsense, that chicken meat and eggs made bigger and better babies. Well, they might look bigger and better, but nobody could deny that they were fewer! “
Pius and Salongo, as representatives of an older generation of Ganda, are not happy about such changes but that won’t stop them from trying to profit off them.
The change in women’s eating habits reflects the changes in women’s position in Ganda society in the modern era which also relates to the “take-charge” character of Cousin Sarah. Initially, Cousin Sarah’s assertiveness is seen as threatening by Pius but eventually he warms to her and realizes that he needs her. Her assertiveness actually seems to rub off on him because at the end of the story Pius is able to stand up to his friend Salongo in a way we have not seen him do before.
On a side note, I wonder if Pius’ friends Yosefu and Miriamu are meant to be Muslims. These are Muslim names and there is a Muslim population in Buganda. In the mid-19th century, under the rule of Kabaka Mutesa I, a small but significant minority of Ganda were encouraged to adopt the practice of Islam from Swahili missionaries, particularly as it was seen to be advantageous to the Buganda Kingdom to have people who could read. However, as there is no other indication that Yosefu and Miriamu are Muslim it might simply be that they have taken the Swahili versions of the Biblical names Joseph and Mary.
To learn more about the origins of Islam in Buganda I recommend reading Buganda: Religious Competition for the Kingdom in Muslim Societies in African History by David Robinson.