December 9, 2015KR OnlineReview

Coming of Age in the Shadow of Genocide: Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile

Translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2014. 244 pages. $18.00.
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Archipelago Press’s publication of Scholastique Mukasonga’s novel Our Lady of the Nile (in French Notre Dame du Nil; English translation by Melanie Mauthner) marks only the second time that a Rwandan novelist has been translated into English. Mukasonga is one of a small group of Rwandans—along with Gilbert Gatore, whose The Past Ahead appeared in English in 2012, Benjamin Sehene, and Vénuste Kayimahe—who have produced fiction that references the 1994 Tutsi genocide, as opposed to the dozens of first-person testimonial accounts that have emerged in the last twenty years. Our Lady of the Nile, Mukasonga’s first full-length novel, was awarded the 2012 Prix Renaudot, one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, making her arguably the most high-profile Rwandan writer in France and the first to achieve substantial recognition from both the French literary establishment and the mainstream press. Set in 1970s Rwanda in an elite all-girls boarding school, her novel portrays how the anti-Tutsi hate speech of the time infiltrates the life of the school, poisoning the relationships between Hutu and Tutsi classmates, and finally erupting into the kind of anti-Tutsi massacres that would engulf Rwanda completely during the 1994 genocide.

Born in 1956 in Gikongoro, Rwanda, Mukasonga lived through decades of state violence against the Tutsis, which she recounts in her memoir Inyenzi ou les Cafards (“Inyenzi or the Cockroaches”—Inyenzi is a pejorative term for the Tutsi). She emigrated to France in 1992, two years before the genocide in which Hutus murdered twenty-seven members of her family, including her parents. Thus while she is not an eyewitness to the genocide herself, her works—which include memoirs and several short story collections—give frank and devastating accounts of the hate speech and massacres that laid the groundwork for the mass violence of 1994.

The title Our Lady of the Nile refers both to the Catholic girls’ boarding school where the novel is set and to a statue of the Virgin Mary associated with the school. There is also a darker connotation, however, as this phrase references the myth that Rwanda’s Tutsis were invaders from Egypt who had enslaved the Hutu—the supposedly “real” Rwandans—hundreds of years prior. During the genocide, Hutu politicians would exhort Rwandans to send the Tutsi back up the Nile where they had come from. This origin story was false. What had once been social categories—Hutu were those who tilled the land, while Tutsi were cattle-owners—were reified by the Belgian colonists into racial categories, complete with this myth of Tutsi feudal domination. When Rwanda became independent in the 1950s, Hutu politicians continued to use this myth to consolidate power and justify brutal anti-Tutsi repression. The 1994 genocide—in which 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered—was thus not a spontaneous manifestation of centuries of interethnic conflict, as it is erroneously and often portrayed, but rather the culmination of decades of politically sponsored othering and violence.

In 1970s Rwanda, where Mukasonga’s novel is set, this climate of impending violence was rapidly becoming a fact of life. The school Our Lady of the Nile, based on Mukasonga’s alma mater the real-life Notre Dame des Citeaux, serves as a microcosm of Rwanda, and the novel follows the lives of girls from a range of geographic and demographic backgrounds. There is Gloriosa, daughter of the hardline Hutu president; Modesta, who is of mixed Hutu and Tutsi parentage; Immaculée, a Hutu who befriends her Tutsi classmates; and finally Veronica and Virginia, two Tutsi girls, who are the closest the novel comes to main characters.

An atmosphere of anti-Tutsi menace pervades the book, led by the power-hungry Gloriosa, who parrots her father the president’s racially based fear-mongering rhetoric and eventually organizes the beatings and executions of some of her classmates as the French and Belgian teachers stand idly by: “My father says we must repeat, again and again, that the Inyenzi are still there, that they’re almost ready to return, that some do still get out and are among us, that the Tutsi who stayed behind eagerly await them. . . . My father says never forget to frighten people.” Complicit in this is the Belgian priest Father Herménégilde, who, in a reference to the Belgian priests who facilitated the Hutu rise to power, delivers sermons that rail against the Tutsi as foreign invaders and feudal oppressors of the Hutu.

What makes Mukasonga’s novel so effective is her ability to show how daily life continues alongside the omnipresent rhetoric of racial hatred and the threat of imminent violence. Much of the book consists of vignettes that mirror Western coming-of-age narratives. Veronica sneaks around with a boyfriend on a big motorcycle and asks a witch doctor for a potion to guarantee his fidelity. The girls swap stories about getting their first periods. Body image is a constant source of stress, and students use skin-whitening creams to try to look like the European musicians and film stars they idolize. There are schoolgirl crushes on a French math teacher with long hair. In one especially touching scene, four girls of various backgrounds discuss their favorite banana recipes, elaborate banana preparations being an important national dish. In these moments of fellowship, Mukasonga shows how the racial discord fades into the background, further underscoring that the Tutsi/Hutu divide was a politically manufactured conflict. This emphasis on friendship and community works to counter homogenizing portraits of Rwanda in Western media and film, showing the distinctive aspects of Rwandan society that are generally subsumed by the media’s voyeuristic and sensationalist coverage of death and bloodshed, which is so often devoid of substantive historical or cultural context.

Mukasonga also has a deft comic sensibility and at times the novel resembles a comedy of manners. In one of the most enjoyable moments, the glamorous Belgian Queen Fabiola makes a state visit to Our Lady of the Nile. The sycophantic, simpering Belgian priest Father Herménégilde is oblivious to the queen’s barely concealed indifference, as are the girls, for whom this brief visit is the highlight of the year. Mukasonga’s wry descriptions have a Jane Austen touch: “Fabiola lingered a few extra minutes in Sister Lydwine’s class, as planned, allowed the teacher to ask her three questions, then, satisfied with the answers, asked the pupils what they wanted to be: nurses? social workers? midwives? To avoid disappointing her, the girls she had questioned chose, somewhat randomly, one of the three suggested professions.”

These comic moments are short-lived, however. The climax of the novel occurs when the president’s daughter, Gloriosa, falsely claims to have been raped by a gang of marauding Tutsi. An innocent Tutsi shopkeeper is wrongly imprisoned and Gloriosa all but takes over the school, bringing in youth militias to savagely beat and to terrorize her classmates.

Amidst the violence exist moments of selflessness and grace. Immaculée, a Hutu, saves Virginia, a Tutsi, from the youth militias. While thanking her friend, Virginia expresses disgust with what her home country has become: “I no longer want to stay in this country. Rwanda is the land of Death. You remember what they used to tell us in catechism: God roams the world, all day long, but every evening He returns home to Rwanda. Well, while God was travelling, Death took his place, and when He returned, She slammed the door in his face. Death established her reign over our poor Rwanda.” This scene takes place twenty years before the genocide, and the reader begins to understand how the seeds of violence had been planted many years beforehand.

As a novel, Mukasonga’s work is not flawless. Her characters rarely transcend their status as archetypes of their particular racial background or social status. The description of high school girls’ lives—schoolgirl crushes, obsessions with body image—often borders uncomfortably on caricature. The novel’s structure is at times meandering, reading more like a series of short stories than a fully plotted novel. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, Our Lady of the Nile is a powerful and important attempt to give non-Rwandan readers insight into Rwandan culture. Indeed, it is important to note that for a variety of economic and cultural reasons, reading fiction—in both European and African languages—is not a common practice amongst the vast majority of Africans. Mukasonga is thus writing almost exclusively for a European, French-speaking audience; in other words, those who have both the habit of reading fiction and the means to purchase her book (the prohibitive cost of books being a major reason for low readership in Africa). It is unlikely any Rwandans, beyond a limited circle of expatriates and highly educated cultural elites, will have read her works. What Mauthner’s translation offers the Anglophone reader is thus not a glimpse into any particular indigenous Rwandan literary tradition. It is in many respects a retranslation of what was already an act of cultural translation—Mukasonga’s attempt to make comprehensible her experience of Rwandan history and culture to the Westerners who constitute her readership.

While Mauthner’s style is for the most part rigorously faithful to the original, some important subtleties of Mukasonga’s French are lost. Mukasonga’s style is characterized by short, clipped sentences. This brevity, as she explores such fraught explosive subject matter as violence and grief, contributes to the atmosphere of tension and menace. There is something chilling about her stoical restraint. While Mauthner respects this direct, unadorned style when translating scenes of graphic violence, elsewhere she frequently combines sentences that were distinct in the original, erasing the subtle ways in which Mukasonga inscribes questions of exclusion and latent political violence in her prose. To give just one example, a literal translation from a passage in the original French would read, “For Virginia, sugar had a horrible, bitter taste. Sugar was rare in the hills” (46-47) [translation mine].[1] Mauthner’s translation reads: “Sugar, a rare commodity in the hills, tasted horribly bitter to Virginia” (39-40). The passive voice of “Sugar was rare in the hills” in the original French suggests the coded language needed to publicly express the discriminatory policies of the Hutu government that kept Tutsi families such as Virginia’s marginalized and in poverty, hence the scarcity of certain commodities. The passive voice reflects the passive posture that Tutsi were expected to adopt despite their many material privations. Such subtlety, a hallmark of Mukasonga’s style, is elided in Mauthner’s translation.

What Mauthner’s translation does capture quite admirably is the slow slide toward violence that characterized Rwanda in the decades leading up to 1994. The genocide, Mukasonga shows again and again, was not an isolated incident but the result of almost a century of colonial misrule and postcolonial political greed that begot state-sanctioned violence. While the book’s political and historical message at times comes at the expense of plot structure or character development, Our Lady of the Nile is far from a heavy-handed roman à clef. The social life of the boarding school is vividly constructed, and the reader is drawn into the daily concerns of the girls as they navigate the social minefield that is high school. Without falling into pathos or excessive sentimentality, Mukasonga makes palpable the complex social fabric that was already beginning to crack and which the genocide would completely tear apart. Her novel is a portrait of the slow, excruciating build-up toward violence and Rwandans’ attempts to lead full, meaningful lives while contending with state-sponsored exclusion. It is both a glimpse into the particular history of Rwanda and a warning about ignoring the latent signs of violence and exclusion that are present today around the globe. Implicit in her novel are many pressing questions. What crises that will erupt in the coming decade will seem so painfully predictable in hindsight? And what, if anything, is her Western readership willing to do to prevent them?


[1] “Pour Virginia, le sucre avait un horrible goût d’amertume. Le sucre était rare dans les collines.” Mukasonga, Scholastique. Notre-Dame du Nil. Paris: Gallimard, 2012.

George S. MacLeod is a PhD candidate in French and Francophone Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation looks at representations of violence in Francophone African literature and film, notably eye-witness accounts of the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda. In a forthcoming article in Études Littéraires Africaines he examines the prevalence of European-authored forwards and introductions to Tutsi survivor memoirs.