The Hutu authorities in Rwanda, Scholastique Mukasonga writes in The Barefoot Woman, portrayed the Tutsi as ‘inyenzi, cockroaches, insects it was only right to persecute and eventually exterminate’. The term inyenzi evoked images of an enemy that could survive anywhere, no matter the conditions, a pervasive force which had undermined Hutu civilisation. Mukasonga’s literary project, which spans memoirs, novels and short stories, responds to this dehumanisation by reclaiming Tutsi life from the debris of Rwandan history.
Mukasonga was born into a Tutsi family in southwest Rwanda in 1956. Under Belgian colonial rule, the Tutsi aristocracy grew extremely powerful, elevated to positions of privilege within a system built on existing feudal structures supplemented by dubious ethnological theories. As Mukasonga puts it, the colonial authorities ‘claimed to know better than us who we were, where we came from’. They weighed bodies, examined skulls, and concluded that the Tutsi were of Caucasian, Semitic and Nilotic origin. A racial category was invented to account for these newly discovered origins: the Tutsi were Hamites. According to the Belgians, the Hamites’ proximity to whiteness set them apart from the Bantu people of the region, who were deemed unfit to rule. Mukasonga writes in Cockroaches (2006) that her father was ‘not an aristocrat with vast herds of cows’ (cows symbolise social status in Tutsi society), but an accountant and secretary to the sub-chief of the region. Nonetheless, the family was seen as complicit in the systematic oppression of Hutus.
Cockroaches describes the events leading up to the genocide of 1994. In Mukasonga’s telling, the outbreak of ethnic violence seems inevitable. (The penultimate chapter is called ‘1994: The Genocide, the Long-Awaited Horror’.) Her account begins in the late 1950s, when Hutu militants first begin to target Tutsi civilians. For most of her childhood, Mukasonga lived in fear of anti-Tutsi pogroms. ‘They didn’t take anything,’ she writes of one of the first attacks on her family home. ‘They only wanted to destroy, to wipe out all sign of us, annihilate us.’ She is certain they will be killed in the end. As the situation worsens, the family is forced to leave their home near ‘a large high-altitude rainforest’ in southwest Rwanda for the barren Bugesera district in the east of the country. Mukasonga describes it as ‘unpopulated savannah’. It’s no wonder, she thinks, that most Tutsi families choose to flee across the border to Burundi. She and her brother André eventually join them. ‘We’d been chosen to survive,’ she writes.
In Cockroaches, Mukasonga criticises the culture of silence that has characterised the post-genocide reconciliation process. Towards the end of the book, she recounts her final visit to Rwanda before the genocide. Her parents throw a welcome party to celebrate her return, but the presence of ‘a family of strangers’ unsettles Mukasonga. She is told that their new neighbours are ‘Hutus from the north of the country [who have] been given a place at the far end of our field’. Thirty-seven members of her family are killed in the genocide, yet when she returns a decade later, in 2004, these neighbours still occupy the same field. She confronts the father of the family, but he claims never to have heard of Mukasonga’s parents. She berates him. Eventually he admits he did know them, but quickly adds that he was away (‘in the Congo’) when the genocide happened. We are left to draw our own conclusions.
Cockroaches is concerned with memory and loss, but also with the ecological consequences of colonialism and war. ‘I’ve always loved working at home and in the fields,’ Mukasonga writes. ‘That might be why I chose social work as my trade – so I could stay close to the earth, to the peasants.’ For her, social, political and ecological issues are intertwined. She often mentions the Karama Agricultural Institute, where her brother Antoine worked as a gardener. The institute is a colonial institution par excellence: its agronomists visit the Tutsi exiles to teach them how to grow coffee and other cash crops. The lack of biodiversity unsettles the delicate balance of the natural environment and increases the risk of famine. The institute’s task is little more than the neocolonisation of nature. Communal violence has devastating effects for pastoral Tutsi culture, too. Mukasonga recalls that when militants began to appear at the lakeshore, ‘we found little pieces of skin and rotting body parts in our calabashes when we fetched water.’ This is not only an attack on the Tutsi, but on their way of life. By contaminating their water source, the militants have ruptured the relationship between a people and their environment.
Mukasonga’s experiences in the exile communities of Nyamata and Gitagata are the focus of her second memoir, The Barefoot Woman, first published in 2008. This is, above all, a tribute to Mukasonga’s mother, Stefania, and the other women who created a community in exile. They share a common fate, but their views on Rwanda’s history – and future – vary widely. Stefania is a keeper of Tutsi tradition: she prays to Ryangombe, an ancestral deity, and refuses to use matches to light a fire (she instead fetches fire from other people’s huts). ‘The white people have given us many gifts, and look where it’s gotten us!’ she warns her children. Some of the other women more readily embrace progress. Félicité, for example, returns from secondary school and builds a house next to her family home, so that she may live freely. She even has her own toilet installed next to her house – a symbol of modernity quietly condemned by Stefania.
The spirit of amajyambere (‘progress’ in Kinyarwanda) is captured in all its ambiguity by a woman called Nyirabazungu, also known as Kilimadame, or Almost-Madame. She has saved up enough money by working ‘among the Bazungu, the white people’, to open a shop selling beer, soft drinks, cigarettes and bread. (Bread is especially desirable: Mukasonga dedicates a whole chapter to it.) Kilimadame brings to mind the character Wanja from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood (1977). Like Wanja, Kilimadame is unmarried and self-sufficient. Her little shop becomes a place where the ‘important’ men of the village relax and discuss ‘the latest news from the capital’. Like the fictional Ilmorog in Ngũgĩ’s novel, Nyamata is undergoing a process of modernisation, which allows women to rid themselves of some of the constraints of tradition. But progress isn’t straightforward: ‘Thanks to Kilimadame, Nyamata was making great strides towards civilisation, but those innovations nearly shattered the solidarity the displaced community had so long shown.’ Even sorghum beer, a Rwandan staple, has been replaced by Primus and Amstel.
Sorghum is treated in such detail and with such care by Mukasonga that it is almost a character in the story. Because it is considered a charm or fetish that protects people and allows them to flourish, the preservation of the sorghum crop is of the utmost importance. (In Cockroaches, the family’s sorghum stores are the first thing the Hutu militias destroy.) For Mukasonga, the cultivation of sorghum is bound up with the past. ‘It was while we were weeding the sorghum field,’ she writes, ‘that Mama taught me most of her memories of the Rwanda that used to be.’ The memories (or dreams) of a better Rwanda are passed from mother to daughter in a matrilineal counter-history of the nation. But this alternative genealogy isn’t just passed on through stories; it is embedded in the soil. Mukasonga tells us that Stefania reserves a section of her small patch of land to grow plants that have fallen out of favour.
Because Mukasonga can’t preserve the memory of her mother and the other women of Bugesera in the soil, she turns to writing instead. Cockroaches and The Barefoot Woman refuse to commemorate the victims of the genocide in the abstract. Instead, they give individual names and stories to some of the ‘nameless skulls’ stored at remembrance sites such as the Nyamata Genocide Memorial, a former church thirty kilometres south of Kigali, where the remains of around fifty thousand people are buried. ‘In the schoolchild’s notebook that I am now never without, I write down their names. I have nothing left of my family and all the others who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.’ It’s hard to approach this paper grave with detachment. At the start of Cockroaches, I wondered whether Mukasonga would describe the gut-wrenching violence to which she alludes. She does – in short, sparse sentences. The killing of her pregnant sister, Jeanne, is particularly distressing.
Mukasonga’s parents believed that education alone would allow their children to transcend their status at the very bottom of the ‘ethnic demokarasi’ established by Grégoire Kayibanda, the leader of the pro-Hutu MDR-Parmehutu party and the first president of Rwanda (Tutsis were coerced into voting for the politicians who had vowed to destroy them). Mukasonga’s schooling began in Nyamata, where exiled teachers set up a makeshift classroom under a tree. In 1968, she won a place at the Lycée Notre-Dame de Cîteaux, an elite secondary school for girls in Kigali. She felt she was finally on her way to a place where intelligence mattered more than ethnicity. But ethnic quotas, which stipulated that only 10 per cent of students could be Tutsi, ensured that she was isolated at school. Education was a means of liberation, but also another site of oppression.
When Mukasonga left Kigali to study social work in Butare in 1971, the anti-Tutsi pogroms followed her. She was forced to cut her studies short when local party militants invaded the college looking for inyenzi. Mukasonga turned this episode into the climax of her first novel, Our Lady of the Nile (2012), which weaves the personal dramas of a group of schoolgirls into a narrative about the disintegration of postcolonial Rwanda. The novel is set in the Lycée Notre-Dame du Nil, a fictionalised version of her own school. The boarders there are the daughters of ‘ministers, high-ranking army officers, businessmen and rich merchants’. Most, of course, are Hutu. The novel leads up to the 1973 coup, which brought Kayibanda’s Hutu rival, Juvénal Habyarimana, to power. Increasingly desperate to hold onto his position, Kayibanda began to stoke anti-Tutsi sentiment among the Hutu. We experience its slow and steady intensification alongside the girls at the school.
The lycée was built just as Rwanda gained its independence, and the classroom drama that drives the novel’s plot parallels the events taking place outside the school gates. A student called Gloriosa, whose name alludes to the ‘glorious social revolution’ that abolished Tutsi rule, is the most popular girl at school. Her bullying of Tutsi students becomes increasingly sadistic as her father, a Hutu politician, moves up the party ranks. Virginia and Veronica – two of the school’s few Tutsi students – are the targets of Gloriosa’s spite. ‘I think we’re going to have to take care of things ourselves and get rid of these parasites once and for all,’ she says to Modesta (who is half Tutsi and must constantly prove her loyalty to Gloriosa to secure friendship and protection). The European teachers – a mixture of 1968-inspired countercultural types and pious missionaries – have long since adjusted to the new order. The Tutsi girls have little respite from their daily humiliations at the hands of both teachers and students.
To forget this stifling environment for a while, Veronica acquiesces to the advances of Monsieur de Fontenaille – a failed painter from a European family who now runs a dilapidated coffee plantation near the lycée. For him, Tutsi aren’t humans either but the heroes of ancient legends. He is obsessed with their mythical origins and claims to have ‘read everything there was to read on the subject’. Fontenaille concludes that the Tutsi come from the ‘empire of the black pharaohs’ – Egypt. Every Sunday, when the other girls are out shopping, Veronica dresses up as the goddess Isis in de Fontenaille’s shrine. She is convinced that participating in his rituals will protect her from the wrath of local youth militias, who have occupied the school. But of course it has the opposite effect. According to the militants, de Fontenaille is ‘in cahoots with the inyenzi’; for Gloriosa, who’s taken command of the local party youth, Tutsi tradition is close to devil worship: Monsieur de Fontenaille and Veronica must be part of a pagan conspiracy to undermine Christian Rwanda.
The lightness of Mukasonga’s prose defies her story’s subject matter. ‘I emphasised the force and dynamism of these young girls who aren’t yet adults, yet who find themselves concerned with adult divisions and hatreds,’ she told an interviewer in 2020. ‘I couldn’t move beyond the fact that these were, first of all, young girls, with all the dreams of young girls.’ Because the lycée is high in the mountains (‘2500 metres’), it takes some time for the gravity of the situation to dawn on the students. It eventually becomes clear when a discussion about beauty escalates into an argument about what makes a ‘real’ Rwandan girl. The statue that lends the lycée its name is of a Tutsi woman, and reflects the colonisers’ idea of Rwandan beauty. (It is located at the source of the Nile – a nod to the Tutsi’s mythical Egyptian origins.) Gloriosa has already hatched a plan to destroy the statue, so that it can be replaced with one that resembles a ‘real Rwandan lady with a majority nose’. To cover up her vandalism, Gloriosa tells Sister Gertrude that the girls, who are covered in dirt and were missing for several hours, were attacked by inyenzi. This lie unleashes a wave of violence.
In the missionary-run lycée, femininity and womanhood are treated as suspect – and often as analogous to sin. ‘You’ll see how much you have to suffer for that,’ Sister Gerda tells Modesta after her first period. ‘It’s God’s will, payment for Eve’s sin.’ For Sister Gerda, redemption can only be achieved through submission to patriarchal society. But, as she reminds Modesta, one can never fully ‘erase the sin of being a woman’. This scene contrasts with Veronica and Immaculée’s visit to a traditional healer – the ‘rainmaker’ Nyamirongi, who says her power was inherited from her mother, ‘who received it from her own mother, who had received it from her mother, who herself received it from our ancestor Nyiramvura, “She of the Rain”’. These matrilineal spiritual practices, Mukasonga suggests, have been suppressed by the patriarchal forces of Christianity and colonialism. Yet they remain powerful: with the help of Nyamirongi, Immaculée saves Virginia from the militants.
In Kibogo, Mukasonga’s most accomplished novel, the rainmakers celebrated in Rwanda’s ancestral myths take centre stage. Told from four overlapping perspectives, the novel recounts the story of Kibogo, who is said to have sacrificed himself to the skies at the top of Mount Runani in order to restore the rains to his hillside village. In the first section, set in 1940s colonial Rwanda, the hillside community is in the midst of another devastating drought. Though nature bears responsibility for the drought, the famine that follows is of the Europeans’ making: the potato, cassava and coffee monocultures the villagers have been forced to plant are vulnerable to disease. The working conditions on the plantations are dismal. The whole village has been forced to contribute to the Europeans’ war effort. While the children pick flowers that protect soldiers from malaria, local men are sent off to work in Congolese mines to extract the copper and iron needed to manufacture rifles and cannons. Those who stay behind are recruited to harvest the crops that feed the miners. When the famine comes ‘crashing down on the poor Rwandans’, the ‘weakened men, the emaciated women [and] the sickly children’ are the first to go. They plead for the seasonal rains to return but are out of tune with the cycles of nature.
The villagers’ desperation doesn’t go unnoticed by the church. Soon, priests arrive to establish a mission, which they claim will alleviate poverty and hunger – as long as the villagers stop practising their ‘pagan’ rituals and convert to Christianity. According to the missionaries, their heathenism is to blame for the drought. The villagers know this isn’t true. ‘All these misfortunes are the padri’s fault,’ they complain. ‘We used to have a king … and he commanded the rain.’ Ironically, Mukamwezi, a woman who claims to be able to speak to the clouds, has been ostracised by the community and branded a witch. She was the last woman Kibogo married before he sacrificed himself and is a repository of ancestral knowledge. It’s rumoured that she alone (the ‘bride of Kibogo’s spirit’) can talk to the skies and bring back the rains.
Kibogo is a parable about the power of folklore and the dangers of forgetting. (Mukasonga plays with the tension between oral histories and her role in transcribing them.) The second part of the novel tells the story of Akayezu, a renegade priest whose attempt to fuse the myth of Kibogo with biblical narratives leads to his expulsion from the church. (A real-life Jean-Paul Akayesu was tried in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for encouraging the systematic use of sexual violence during the genocide.) Though Akayezu comes from a humble background and isn’t the most gifted student, his thirst for knowledge – he wants to know everything that is in the ‘big fat book’ – and mastery of Latin secures him a place at the seminary. But his attempt to indigenise the Bible angers the padri, not least because Akayezu has come to believe that the Bible tells the story of Rwanda and that Kibogo is, in fact, Jesus. ‘Two spirits have taken up residence in my head: one is the spirit of Yezu and the other is of Kibogo,’ he tells his hillside congregation. Mukamwezi is unconvinced by this hybrid doctrine. When Akayezu tries to evangelise her, he disappears into her hut ‘for an entire moon’, and then both of them disappear altogether. No one knows ‘what they said or what they did’; there is talk of a blood pact, but nothing is certain.
In the final part of the book, an anthropologist arrives at the village to study the story of Kibogo, which, he believes, proves that Rwandans practised human sacrifice. ‘He wants to see your elders,’ the sub-chief tells the villagers. ‘He wants them to tell him stories from the olden days.’ The sub-chief encourages fanciful storytelling and asks the villagers to play up their ‘pagan’ practices, so he can satisfy the anthropologist. (Mukasonga portrays the chiefs as merchants of their own history; to them, it’s only worth what the Europeans are willing to pay.) The anthropologist is described as childlike; his khaki shorts are ‘like a schoolboy’s kabutura’. (In the original French, and in Mark Polizzotti’s faithful translation, Kinyarwanda words are left untranslated.) The villagers even joke that ‘old white professors are like infants’ who need to be treated with special care. Mukasonga’s aim here isn’t to ridicule the pursuit of knowledge but to show that Rwandan history must be understood on its own terms. As she said in 2020, ‘How can we not be irritated to see our culture and our history interpreted according to Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism and other scientific modes?’
The ‘Father Principal’ of the mission is convinced that the anthropologist is ‘corrupting a naive population with his crazy ideas’. (By this point, the trees at the top of the mountain have been cut down and the church has erected a statue of the Virgin Mary where Kibogo’s hut once stood.) The dispute between the priest and the anthropologist comes to a head when the latter suggests that the statue should be moved so that a team of archaeologists can excavate the site of the hut. (‘Come now,’ the professor says, ‘we’re just going to move your statue over a bit: the Blessed Virgin isn’t going to stand in the way of science, is she?’) But then he dies in a plane crash while flying over Mount Runani during a storm. Could this be Kibogo’s wrath? Mukasonga leaves the question open, but it’s clear that the novel is her response to what the Senegalese academic Felwine Sarr has called a ‘crisis for meaning within a technical civilisation’. The mythical universes constructed by Rwandans might offer an alternative to religious or rationalistic ways of understanding the world.
Mukasonga has said that she could only write about present-day Rwanda if she lived there. Given the trauma she describes in her memoirs and fiction this seems an unlikely prospect. But she has also expressed her interest in writing from an ‘unencumbered’ perspective, addressing the ‘generation born after the genocide, who didn’t know its brutality’. Her books offer a way for younger Rwandans to rediscover their own culture through myths and stories that have largely been forgotten.
Each of the novel’s four sections ends with an attempt to conjure the spirit of Kibogo, whose return promises to end the drought. And each time, the stories of Kibogo, Akayezu or Mukamwezi become part of local folklore. But neither the reader nor Mukasonga’s characters are offered any certainty about what has taken place, or when. The narrative is out of joint. Early on, we are introduced to five elderly men who can’t agree on a version of the Kibogo story. He was either chosen to be sacrificed or a martyr who agreed to be taken. Later, following the anthropologist’s arrival, the village elders – all of them unreliable narrators – still disagree. (‘No, no, no … don’t listen to him,’ a man called Gasana interrupts while one of the others is being interviewed. ‘He gets everything mixed up. It wasn’t during the war among the Whites that Kibogo went up to Heaven. It was long before they came here.’) But what’s important isn’t exactly what happened, or when, but where. Mount Runani is the fixed centre of this world, and despite decades away from home, Mukasonga’s sense of place remains strong.
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