Dominique Nabokov

Scholastique Mukasonga, New York City, 2016

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 of her second memoir, La femme aux pieds nus (2008). Raising a family forcibly resettled to Rwanda’s most inhospitable region, Stefania employs all her care, ingenuity, and the resources of tradition to save her children and protect their community. Mukasonga patterns her memorial after Stefania’s tenacious example, “weaving and reweaving a shroud” of words for her mother’s unrecoverable remains.

The twinned labors of survival and mourning became the paradigm of her fiction, an oeuvre including two collections of short stories, L’Iguifou and Ce que murmurent les collines (2014), and two novels. The latest, Coeur tambour (2016), traces the life of a precolonial queen reincarnated as a world-famous diva. Across her work, womanhood becomes the key to Rwanda’s fraught history, a conduit of hidden continuities that resist annihilation. But the impositions of femininity also serve as a synecdoche for the colonial and ethno-nationalist myths that warped Rwandan society.

Mukasonga’s masterpiece is the Prix Renaudot–winning novel Notre-dame du nil, published by Gallimard in 2012 and translated in 2014 as Our Lady of the Nile, a book set two decades before the genocide at a Catholic girls’ boarding school.2 Under the anxious eye of a European mother superior, teenage scions of Rwanda’s elite struggle to secure their futures. For some, it is a question of supremacy; for others, of survival; and, for Hutu and Tutsi alike, of who counts as a “real Rwandan girl.”

The novel’s electricity comes from its deceptive lightness, the danse macabre of dorm intrigue on the cusp of Armageddon. But its core is a reckoning with the genocide’s deep origins, an unraveling of Rwanda’s colonial background that is also an allegory of its miseducation. As in so many of Mukasonga’s stories, the hero’s survival depends on returning to the beginning—to the prologue of a story known to most non-Rwandans only by its end.

Born in 1956 near the source of the Nile in Rwanda’s Gikongoro province, Scholastique Mukasonga grew up caught in an immense reversal of fortune. It was called the muyaga, a “social revolution” that replaced the ancient monarchy with a Hutu nationalist republic. What began in 1957 as a partisan struggle over who would rule Rwanda after independence—Tutsi chiefs or a new elite risen from the oppressed Hutu majority—devolved from 1959 to 1964 into pogroms. Emboldened by Belgian support, Hutu mobs burned the homes and slaughtered the livestock of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, expelling more than 300,000 to neighboring countries. Those who remained became second-class citizens in a majoritarian “democracy” that viewed them as a fifth column. The newly elected President Grégoire Kayibanda, in a speech infamously punctuated by the sarcastic refrain “Who is genocide?,” warned that not even Tutsi “students and girls” would be safe if their “terrorist race” challenged the new republic.


Rwanda’s strife was not the usual case of colonial borders throwing strangers together. The “land of a thousand hills” had been a nation-state for hundreds of years before European contact, a centralized kingdom ruled by an absolute monarch called the mwami. Such rulers—known collectively as the abami—belonged to the hereditary caste called “Tutsi,” from a word meaning “rich in cattle,” while the vast majority of their subjects were peasant farmers designated “Hutu.”3

These were not races or ethnic groups. All were “Banyarwanda,” speaking one language, sharing one society, and claiming descent from one legendary ancestor. Hutus could become Tutsis, and some northern Hutus held independent power. But fractures emerged as the abami used German and then Belgian assistance to bolster their authority. Beginning in the 1890s, European help turned into European rule, and Tutsi caste primacy into Western-style racial supremacy. Colonial authorities armed with calipers and the dubious science of physiognomy issued ethnic identity cards and replaced Rwanda’s complex divisions with Cartesian absolutes. For Tutsis, considered a “Hamitic” race superior to “true Negroes,” Belgium opened select positions in the colonial administration and the Catholic Church. For Hutus, it was forced labor.

After nearly half a century, Belgium had a change, if not of heart, then of political fashion. Tutsi elites alienated colonial authorities by agitating for independence and aligning with the Soviet Union. In the church, an influx of working-class, predominately Flemish priests sympathized with the plight of the Hutus, promoting many to consequential positions. Among them was Kayibanda, a protégé of Rwanda’s apostolic vicar and the editor of the Catholic journal Kinyamateka, which relentlessly decried Tutsi “neo-feudalism.” He won the support of colonial authorities and, in 1961, Rwanda’s presidency, which he used to consolidate an authoritarian regime. Abandoned by their erstwhile sponsors, the Tutsis were left to foot the bill for six decades of anticolonial grievance.

Belgium congratulated itself for promoting democracy in Africa. Kayibanda sat down with President Kennedy and shook hands with Pope Paul VI. American teens danced to “The Wah-Watusi,” number two on Billboard in 1962. And the world shrugged at the bloody downfall of Rwanda’s Tutsis, a blip against the cold war’s thermonuclear backdrop. Bertrand Russell, Mukasonga notes in Cockroaches, was the rare Westerner to grasp what he called “the most horrible and systematic human massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.” More characteristic was Elspeth Huxley’s repugnant analysis for The New York Times Magazine. An ex-colonist raised on a Kenyan coffee plantation, Huxley wrote that the “Bourbons of Africa” had brought their fate upon themselves:

The elegant and long-legged Tutsi with their dances and their epic poetry, their lyrehorned cattle and superb basketwork and code of seemly behavior, had dwindled into tourist fodder. The fate of all species, institutions or individuals who will not, or cannot, adapt caught up with them. Those who will not bend must break.4

Mukasonga was a young girl when Huxley wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Watusi,” four years into her family’s forced relocation to the arid Rwandan province of Bugesera. Cockroaches, her first memoir, gives only a glimpse of their former life. In the monarchy’s dwindling days, her father, Cosma, had been secretary to a subchief near the city of Butare. He was not quite a Bourbon, but in 1960, when the mobs came looking for Tutsi aristocrats, his family was not forgotten. Arsonists destroyed their enclosure, and a “jury of Hutu notables” ruled on their deportation. All they took into exile was a cast-iron cookpot.

In Bugesera, Mukasonga’s family and thousands of others were “dropped like so many Robinson Crusoes into the middle of the savannah.” The nearest city was Nyamata, or “land of milk” in Kinyarwanda—a cruel irony for pastoralists still mourning their slaughtered herds. Exile meant poor shelter, unfamiliar foods, compulsory coffee cultivation, the menace of trespassing leopards, and the humiliation of hanging mandatory icons of Kayibanda and the Madonna in their home: “We lived our lives under the twin portraits of the President who’d vowed to exterminate us and Mary who was waiting for us in heaven.”


Segregated in the hinterlands, the deportees were harassed incessantly by soldiers stationed nearby, especially after armed Tutsi refugees called inyenzi launched an invasion from just over the Burundi border in 1963. Mukasonga remembers the huge ceremonial longbow her father made in anticipation of the mwami’s restoration and their safe return. But the insurgents failed, and Nyamata’s Tutsis bore the blame: “They called us Inyenzi—cockroaches. From now on, in Nyamata, we would all be Inyenzi. I was an Inyenzi.”

It was a stigma that befell every Tutsi in Rwanda only three decades later; what the world saw in 1994, Mukasonga had already lived in rehearsal. The genocide was catalyzed by an event quite like the attack that earned her family terrible reprisals: a 1990 invasion led by Tutsi exiles in Uganda called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Unlike their predecessors, these revanchists were successful, and their commander, Paul Kagame, still rules in Kigali today. But their enemies exacted an incalculable price.

Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

A woman killed in the Rwandan genocide, from a display of photographs at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, March 2016

After the mysterious assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana during a cease-fire with the RPF in April 1994, extremists in his government instigated a genocide against the country’s Tutsi population.5 Branding them traitors and resurrecting visions of the old feudalism, officials exhorted “the people of the hoe”—a Herrenvolkish term for Rwanda’s Hutu majority—to reap a human harvest.

Gutsembatsemba, Kinyarwanda for “radical extermination,” claimed more than 800,000 lives in one hundred days—Tutsis and dissenting Hutus murdered by armed militias that often conscripted their neighbors. In Nyamata, the killers reduced the Tutsi population from 60,000 to just over 5,000 people. The urgency of Cockroaches reflects Mukasonga’s drive to redress this singular obliteration; to insist, as she puts it, that “no genocide is perfect.”

In a genre, the survivor’s memoir, that insists on redemption—and a country where reconciliation is national dogma—Cockroaches stands out for its bracing, unmitigated, and often bitter ironies. Returning to Rwanda in 2004, Mukasonga attends mass at a church in the complex where her family was rounded up for deportation in 1959. While the smiling parishioners sing hymns under the Vatican’s flag, she wonders, “How many murderers among the pious assembly?” The genocide is a pall darkening the cherished past and an undertow tugging at the present, bifurcating the world with its unbridgeable distance. It is the distance that Primo Levi, an avowed influence, describes in his reflections on Auschwitz in The Drowned and the Saved (1986): “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses… Those who saw the Gorgon have not returned to tell about it.”

The door is barred in both directions. Mukasonga “sleepwalked” through life in France as the genocide unfolded, far from the events but already shouldering their enormous weight. It is palpable in “Le deuil,” her story of a bereaved Rwandan expatriate who haunts the funerals of strangers in Paris churches. She weeps in the back pews, envying the families of the peacefully dead, until one day a priest shows her out. She flies home.

Mourning’s alienation is only sharpened by the narrowness of Mukasonga’s escape. At twelve, she was already resigned to never leaving Rwanda, expecting to end her days a “peasant.” But miraculously, she passed the national exam, cleared the racial quota restricting Tutsis, and matriculated at the lycée Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux. Her father clung to the illusion that scholarly success might put her beyond the “ethnic” ban, but in 1973, she was assaulted by Hutu classmates and subsequently fled Rwanda for Burundi. School did save her, if not in the expected way.

The instruction that really mattered was her mother’s. Raised illiterate in a Catholic orphanage—“she was only taught to pray”—yet responsible more than anyone for Mukasonga’s literary imagination, Stefania never let the Rwanda of her youth dull against the hardships of exile. She “piously” maintained a garden of plants from home, “not for daily consumption but as a way of bearing witness to what was in danger of disappearing.” She regaled her daughter with tales of the legendary mwami Ruganzu Ndori long into the night.

Mukasonga echoes Stefania’s careful transmission of heritage in her ardor for the aesthetic particularities of her childhood. Cockroaches’ most lyrical passage is a description of brewing urwarwa, banana beer, a simple pastime that subtly enfolds community and landscape. Mukasonga excels at using the thread of quotidian activity to string together episodes that imperceptibly accumulate, their anecdotal lightness condensing like vapor into clouds. She insistently traces this ethos of gathering to her mother, and it manifests most fully not in Cockroaches but her second memoir, La femme aux pieds nus. A chapter is devoted to Stefania’s efforts to construct, behind the prefabricated shelter allotted to her family, the traditional inzu, a domed, circular house “plaited like basketwork.”

The inzu was already on its way to the museum by the 1960s. But within its “maternal curves,” defiantly incongruous amid the angular homes of the other refugees, Stefania recovered some of the old Rwanda. Mukasonga, describing its interior divisions, seems to build in tandem with her mother, sheltering their intimacy against oblivion: here is the uruhimbi, a curving altar for pots of milk, here is the alcove where sisters sleep on the same mat, and here, under the inzu’s spiral crown, is the hearth where mother tells stories.

“But there were other stories,” Mukasonga continues. “The stories told by the whites.” Our Lady of the Nile—in many ways the dark mirror of La femme aux pieds nus—opens with an exercise in geography, a recitation of the school’s altitude that seems to promise a fall:

There is no better lycée than Our Lady of the Nile. Nor is there any higher. Twenty-five hundred meters, the white teachers proudly proclaim. “Two thousand four hundred ninety-three meters,” points out Sister Lydwine, our geography teacher. “We’re so close to heaven,” whispers Mother Superior, clasping her hands together.

The correction reveals an ominous subtext in Mother Superior’s remark; for heaven and mismeasurement really are behind it all. “The greatest misfortune to befall Rwandans,” Mukasonga writes in Ce que murmurent les collines, “was to live at the sources of the Nile, there where since Antiquity had grown the myth of a primordial land, a lost and inaccessible paradise.” This freighted geography encouraged fantastic racial preconceptions, myths that afflicted Rwanda’s inhabitants after European explorers reached its hills in the 1880s. Encountering a kingdom of uncommon sophistication, they decided that its rulers could not be fully African. The Tutsis—“so tall and fine-featured, with an appearance so imposing”—must have originated elsewhere, in Ethiopia or ancient Egypt or Israel, while more audacious ethnologues cited Tibet, Atlantis, or even the Garden of Eden.

Objectification led to Tutsi privilege under colonialism and exotic representations in the West, from documentaries like A Giant People: The Watussi of Africa (1939) to lost-world adventure flicks like Watusi (1959). But after independence, aggrieved Hutu nationalists turned this mythic past against its former beneficiaries, claiming that Tutsis were not authentically Rwandan at all. The former distinction became what Mukasonga calls “a shirt of Nessus,” alluding to the poisoned mantle that Deianira used to kill her husband, Heracles. Nevertheless, Europe’s invention had already left an indelible imprint. “Our skulls were Caucasian, our profiles Semitic, our builds Nilotic,” Mukasonga writes in La femme aux pieds nus. “We could not but recognize ourselves in the evil double risen from their fantasies.”

Our Lady of the Nile descends into the crucible of this national psychodrama, a perfect storm of colonial racecraft and Christian-inspired mythmaking that especially weighed upon women.6 Looming over the action is a statue of the namesake Madonna that presides over the mountain spring where the Nile originates. She is a black Virgin, pride of the school’s self-consciously “modern” students and a symbol of the young nation’s bright future. But she is also a Rwandan Galatea, fashioned by the same colonists who carved the country into competing racial ideals.

Joe McNally/Getty Images

Rwandan boys with gravestones after the genocide, December 1996

The students, many of them daughters of Hutu ministers or military officers, arrive at the start of term by Peugeot 404, ministerial Mercedes, and boyfriend’s motorbike. Everything is an accessory in the ceaseless struggle for status: love spells from the village rainmaker, contraband issues of Paris Match, preeminence in the welcome ceremony for Queen Fabiola of Belgium. Behind the scrim of this East African Mean Girls, powerful clans maneuver, using their daughters to cement alliances and secure lavish dowries. As the narrator warns us early, “The young ladies of Our Lady of the Nile know just how much they are worth.”

Their extravagant behavior shows it. Frida, from a diplomatic family, scandalizes the nuns by sleeping with Zaire’s young ambassador in the lycée’s guest bungalow. Goretti, a northerner whose father runs an army base, organizes a “patriotic” field trip in armored vehicles to see Rwanda’s mountain gorillas—outrageously monopolized, she feels, by an unnamed white researcher who is likely Dian Fossey. The queen bee is Gloriosa, daughter of a ruling party minister and leader in the “Bureau of Militant Rwandan Youth.” She relentlessly harasses Virginia and Veronica, the only Tutsi girls permitted by the school’s racial quota. Gloriosa never tires of reminding them of where things stand. “Beauty has switched sides,” she tells Veronica. “Your supposed beauty will bring you misfortune.”

The novel’s dialogue can be rhetorical and expository, tending to fit each character too neatly into the lycée’s clockwork. But this shortcoming’s complement is a preternatural sensitivity to social rhythms and the intricate ramifications of events. A trained social worker who has practiced in rural Burundi and metropolitan France, Mukasonga is remarkably good at illustrating the symbiotic, sometimes parasitic nature of identity. One dimension that distinguishes Our Lady of the Nile from other national allegories—the category to which the critic Fredric Jameson sweepingly relegated all “third-world literature”—is that the girls know they are in one, each resisting or aspiring to fulfill her appointed role.

Most often, these roles are ideals created by men. Gloriosa’s Pygmalion is Father Herménégilde, the religion teacher, a lecherous, rambling Hutu nationalist who encourages her zealotry and compares her to Joan of Arc. Another girl dreams of being adopted by the Belgian royal family, while Frida falls under the spell of her Zairean ambassador. The most unctuous pedestal-peddler is Fontenaille, a failed artist and colonial holdover who lives on a ruined coffee plantation near the lycée. He is obsessed with the Tutsis, and keen to offer the conveniently outcast Virginia and Veronica a refuge in his dreams.

They are not very original dreams; at an ersatz Nubian temple on his estate, Fontenaille stages the hoary mythology of Tutsi origins through antique tableaux vivants. Men dressed as Rwanda’s royal intore warriors perform dances, while Veronica, sedated, sits enthroned as the Egyptian goddess Isis—yet another treacherous avatar of Our Lady of the Nile. Fontenaille promises to help Virginia study in Europe, but as with Elspeth Huxley, his seeming concern belies a morbid enchantment with her people’s extinction. “Even if the Tutsi were to disappear,” he declares, “I am the custodian of their legend.”

Fontenaille pays for his solipsistic vision, and Veronica for trusting it. At the novel’s climax, Gloriosa overthrows the school by claiming that Tutsi rebels hiding in the hills have tried to assault her. The lie is a cover-up for destroying the Madonna while trying to chisel off her “Tutsi nose,” and it succeeds spectacularly. With Herménégilde’s assistance, Gloriosa busses in young men to hunt down the Tutsis under the pretext of enthroning a new Hutu Lady of the Nile. The killers find Veronica at Fontenaille’s. He has hanged himself, leaving his “goddess” to be raped and burned alive in the temple sanctum.

The grisly, farcical denouement is a mise-en-abyme of the simulacral Rwanda that Europe created, deadly in consequence yet perversely whimsical in origin, an illustration of what happens when outsiders play God. The disastrous collision of Western fantasy and African reality recalls Wole Soyinka’s 1975 play Death and the King’s Horseman, which turns on an important ritual suicide preempted by British authorities in Yorubaland. However, the immediate referent of Mukasonga’s allegory is not the colonial encounter but Rwanda’s 1973 coup, in which Grégoire Kayibanda, a southerner like Gloriosa, was overthrown by Juvénal Habyarimana, a northerner like Goretti. Kayibanda had tried to consolidate his power by scapegoating the Tutsi population, but the resulting instability gave his Hutu rivals an opening. It was a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face—and so, too, with Gloriosa. Her revolutionary terror ends prematurely after her father is imprisoned, and Goretti replaces her as doyenne of the dorms.

Only Virginia, the lycée’s other Tutsi, escapes the allegory’s machinery. She seeks out Rubanga, an elderly hermit and forgotten eminence of the old mwami’s court. He dispatches her to soothe the troubled spirit of a forgotten queen, Nyiramavugo, who is buried in a mortuary grove near the gaudy temple on Fontenaille’s estate. Her act of mourning is the grace that saves her; when Gloriosa’s killers arrive, Nyiramavugo sends Virginia a dream that indicates whom among the Hutu girls she can trust. Virginia lives by heeding Rubanga’s cautionary words: “For an umwiru, forgetting means death.”

Cicero attributed the science of memory to the lone survivor of a tragedy. The poet Simonides had just left a banquet when the roof collapsed, instantly killing everyone inside. The victims were mangled beyond recognition, but Simonides distinguished their remains by walking through the ruins and visualizing the feast. The technique became known as the “method of loci.”

Mukasonga ends Cockroaches with a walk through the all-but-destroyed villages of Gitwe and Gitagata, recording every victim she can remember in a blue schoolchild’s notebook. She recites the names of the beekeeper, the teacher, the man who cooked rice at school, the Good Samaritan who transported the sick, and the “shame of the village” who rustled his neighbors’ cows. With a parent’s tender vigilance, she divides the sustenance of grief among the shades who “vie for space” in her recollections, “all those who have no one left to mourn them.” Her census of the dead concludes in the ruins of her childhood home, where, shutting her eyes, she imagines her mother’s embrace. But trespass truncates the catharsis of reunion. A Hutu neighbor who recognizes Mukasonga runs off at the sight of her, screaming “It had to happen!”

The woman and her family refuse to say what they know, but their silence guides Mukasonga to the book’s arresting final image. Amid the stones of the inzu’s old hearth, she finds a snake and adopts it as an emblem. It is neither the biblical serpent, nor “the snake whose name the Hutus spat at us as an insult,” but the representative of a heritage that actively defies erasure:

This is the snake that my mother knew all about, she who knew so many things that the missionaries’ oppressive teachings forbade her to pass on, but that sometimes, poking through a sentence or a gesture—often addressed to me—revealed a whole world hidden beneath the lessons of the catechism.

Long after the post-independence African renaissance that gave Guinea Camara Laye and Senegal Léopold Sédar Senghor, Scholastique Mukasonga has established herself as her country’s first internationally recognized writer. She has accomplished this by writing against all those forces that for so long prevented someone like her from emerging: the Catholic and colonial authorities who extirpated or perverted Rwanda’s traditional culture; the nationalists who, like the Maoists in China, trampled their own heritage in their resentment of an overthrown elite; and the génocidaires who tried to ensure that stories like hers were never told.

Remembrance is a treacherous river, with as many muddy tributaries as clear springs. Crimes often eclipse their victims, blotting out in mind what they have already destroyed in fact; or they metastasize into pretexts for renewed atrocities. But Mukasonga’s work makes the rigorous protocols of mourning a model for a more careful remembrance, one that, like her heroes, chooses particularity over the consoling sweep of myth and propaganda; the umwiru, for whom “forgetting means death,” over the blandishments of a Fontenaille. Immortalizing her family and the Tutsis of Nyamata, who came to such terrible ends, she has given Rwanda’s modern literature a magnificent beginning.