Helena is the most beautiful girl in Rwanda. She has everything: a bevy of admiring suitors, lace garments and high-heeled shoes, skin-lightening creams from Nigeria, and a coveted spot at Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux, Kigali’s finest lycée. The white teachers adore her, one so distractedly that he pronounces her—in a whisper the other students cannot help but overhear—“a real Tutsi beauty.” While this schoolgirl gossip betrays the fledgling envies of adolescence, in the newly independent republic of the “majority people,” it also augurs Helena’s ruin. After graduation, ascendant Hutu nationalism prevents her from working, marrying, or remaining in the country; expelled from jobs as a Belgian official’s secretary, then a shopkeeper’s kept “clerk,” she flees to Burundi in 1973 and becomes a prostitute.
At the hotel Sources of the Nile in Bujumbura, Helena draws an elite clientele of businessmen, military officers, European diplomats, and even Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko. Ministers’ wives groom her for his state visit, weighing every aspect of her dress, ethnicity, and deportment, preparations dismissed in a moment’s tap of the strongman’s ivory-pommeled cane. His rejection marks Helena’s expulsion from Bujumbura’s glittering circuit. She dies destitute and humiliated, murdered as a scapegoat during an outbreak of AIDS. Only the narrator, another young exile, cares to remember the cousin who was once the pride of their village: “It was a great misfortune to be beautiful,” Asumpta begins. “And none greater than to be beautiful in Rwanda when you were a Tutsi.”
“Le malheur d’être belle,” the penultimate story of L’Iguifou (2010), is not yet available in English. But its arc of precarious pride, loss, and remembrance in the lives of girls and women exemplifies the work of Scholastique Mukasonga, a Rwandan writer who has lived in France since 1992. Centered on life in Rwandan villages and Catholic schools, her six books1 of memoir and fiction span the century from colonialism’s advent in 1894 to the genocide that occurred exactly one hundred years later. Among the nearly one million people killed were thirty-seven members of her family, including both of her parents and all but one of her siblings. She last saw them in 1986.
Ten years passed before Mukasonga returned to Rwanda. There was nobody left to visit. Brush had reclaimed the site of her family enclosure, where the Hutu neighbors, stammering alibis, swore that no one had ever lived. She published her first book, Inyenzi, ou, Les cafards (2006), translated in 2016 as Cockroaches, to defy this oblivion. The book is a “paper grave” for her dead and the narrative of her own survival, from her displaced youth through the needle’s eye of education to exile and the painful solace of recording a Rwanda she outlived.
That she did escape—first to Burundi in 1973 and then to France in 1992—owes much to her mother, Stefania, the subject…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.