Tuesday, November 4, 2014


Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga

According to the Human Rights Council, Rwanda’s population in 1994 was composed of three ethnic groups, the Hutu, which comprised roughly 85% of the population, the Tutsi, roughly 14%, and the Twa, a little more than 1%. In the early 1990’s Hutu extremists within the country’s political elite began blaming the entire Tutsi minority population for the nation’s increasing social, economic, and political pressures. Through the protracted use of propaganda and political maneuvering the resentment and bigotry soon reached a feverish pitch, requiring but a single spark to blow it sky-high.

That spark came on April 6, 1994, out of the sky itself, when a small aircraft carrying President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. What followed was the swift and nearly wholesale destruction of the Tutsi minority. Tutsis (or suspected Tutsis) were killed on sight, whole families massacred in their sleep, their crops and villages burned to the ground. Most of the killing was done by hand, face-to-face, with machetes, axes, and hoes. Not surprisingly, Tutsi women and girls suffered the worst of it all, often systematically and brutally raped before being hacked to bits where they lay. Within a matter of weeks following April 6, 1994, 800,000 Tutsi men women and children were dead—nearly three-quarters of the total Tutsi population.

Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile tells the deceptively simple story of the students and their teachers at an elite Catholic boarding school for girls in the cloud-covered mountains of Rwanda, near the legendary source of the Nile. For all its propriety and isolation, the school proves a dramatic microcosm of the state of the country at large in the months immediately preceding the Rwandan Genocide. Attended almost exclusively by the daughters of prominent Hutus with but two Tutsi girls per class, as required by law, the tension between the students, at first subtle, even childish on its face, soon overwhelms the daily routine. Even the Hutu teachers are not above this contempt, a bigotry rooted deeply in the history of the region and cruelly exploited by the German and Belgian colonizers who cynically promoted Tutsi supremacy over the majority Hutus as a means of reinforcing their power. Says one of the teachers, Father Herménégilde, in reference to the famously fictitious tract The Protocols of Zion, which he had read with interest when he was a seminary student:

The Jews wrote that they wanted to conquer the world, that they had a secret government pulling the strings of every other government, that they had insiders across the board. Well, I’m telling you, the Tutsi are like the Jews. Some missionaries, like old Father Pintard, even say that the Tutsi are really Jews, that it’s in the Bible. They may not want to conquer the whole world, but they do want to seize this whole region. I know they plan a great Hamite empire, and that their leaders meet in secret, like the Jews…They’re hatching every plot against our social revolution. Naturally, we’ve chased them out of Rwanda, and those who’ve stayed, their accomplices, we’re keeping an eye on them, but one day we’ll maybe have to get rid of them, too, starting with those who infect our schools…

It is a hatred, a rivalry, the author herself knows well.  A Tutsi, she and her family were made to suffer greatly under Hutu rule during the ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s, humiliated daily, dispossessed of their lands and finally forced to resettle in the highly polluted district of Bugesera in southern Rwanda. She and her family were later made to flee for their lives to neighboring Burundi. In 1992 Mukasonga moved to France where she now lives—just two years before the genocidal rampage that swept through Rwanda, claiming the lives of 27 family members. When asked why she writes, she replied: “I know why I write. If I close my eyes, I’m forever walking down that path nobody takes anymore. For there are no more houses, no more coffee shrubs, no more sorghum with pestles, no more men in endless discussions around a jug of banana beer, no more little girls dragging their dolls by a string. They have all fallen to the machete, without proper graves…”

Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956. Her first novel, Our Lady of the Nile, was published in France by Éditions Gallimard and won the Renaudot Prize, the Ahamadou Kourouma Award, and the French Voices Grand Prize. Our Lady of the Nile was translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner.
Peter Adam Nash

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