African Library: Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga

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Originally published in French in 2012 as Notre-Dame du Nil and translated by Melanie Mauthner for the 2014 English publication, this novel is one of the several accounts of the Rwandan situation around the genocide of mostly Tutsi, moderately Hutu and some other Rwandan indigenes, as well as expatriates, in 1994. The text is set during a period of Hutu political ascendancy prior to the massacres, and, in fact, in an elite Catholic high school near the putative source of the Nile (hence the title) – a boarding school housing privileged or scholarship-winning local adolescent girls, of whom only ten percent are permitted to be of Tutsi origin. The text won several major book prizes, and it is easy to see why; in its unusual perspective on the build-up to murderous violence and gradual permeation of a society by hatred and fear, it achieves a viscerally convincing, emotionally spell-binding and morally astute representation of how the “ordinary normalities” of high school rivalries hold the seed of the sort of bloodshed that would overtake Rwanda, or how naïve it is to expect youngsters to be immune to cross-currents of political contention and mobilised ethnocentric rancour. Mukasonga has recently had a memoir published: a text evoking the loss of twenty-seven of her family members (among them her mother) who were killed during the genocide; she herself had left the country beforehand, and presently works in France.

The narrative voice is often lightly sardonic, as in the following early passage:

It’s a girls’ lycée. The boys stay down in the capital [alluding to the location of the school high up in the mountains]. The reason for building the lycée so high up was to protect the girls, by keeping them far away from the temptations and evils of the big city. Good marriages await these young lycée ladies, you see. And they must be virgins when they wed – or at least not get pregnant beforehand … The lycée’s boarders are daughters of ministers, high-ranking army officers, businessmen, and rich merchants. Their daughters’ weddings are the stuff of politics, and the girls … know what they’re worth (8).

Like everywhere else, “temptations and evils” follow people up high like down low. One strange kind of “temptation” is presented by the lycée’s eccentric neighbour, the expatriate Frenchman Monsieur de Fontenaille: the black sheep of a noble family, a hermit, a wealthy former coffee farmer, a would-be artist and a self-proclaimed visionary obsessed with the Tutsi people. He has “discovered” the “Ancient Egyptian origins” of the Tutsis of Rwanda, and has the money and time to indulge this fantasy, and to people it with the assistance of some of the lycée girls – particularly the Tutsi beauty Veronica, and to a much more reluctant and limited extent, her friend and fellow Tutsi Virginia, the mature and deep thinking schoolgirl who turns out to be something like the central consciousness of the story, and who develops her own vision of the Tutsi people’s past by other means.

Veronica’s “real” (non-Catholic, Kinyarwanda) name is Tumurinde, meaning “Protect Her” – and even though M de Fontenaille promises to do so, his project is, of course, basically exploitative: to make her the stand-in to solidify his self-imposed task, which is not to save the Tutsis of Rwanda (whose impending extermination he takes as more-or-less a given), but to save “the legend that was the truth” (77). Virginia sagely warns Veronica: “You’ll end up believing you’re the goddess [Isis]. You know what happened to us Tutsi when some agreed to play the role whites assigned to us … They dressed [us] to fit their own delusions” (85–86). Veronica’s words are spoken to no avail, of course; the combination of the other girl’s own inquisitiveness and flattered vanity, along with the money the Frenchman gives her, make her comply with and enjoy the dressing up and modelling for highly romanticised paintings for which he needs her co-operation. A far more sordid equivalent of this Frenchman’s interaction with Veronica (for his attitude is not that of a sexual voyeur) is the Hutu chaplain at the school, Father Herménégilde, who hands out glamorous dresses and undergarments to girls whom he summons up to his study, ostensibly as reward for “good works”, in order to ogle them while naked or nearly so, since they “must” try out the garments he has chosen to see whether they fit! This lustful hypocrite is also one of the major anti-Tutsi hatemongers at the school, despite his preference for their slender figures. The girls’ bodies are objectified in another manner by the nuns, especially the one who gives the boarders the local version of sex education as soon as a girl starts menstruating, telling them that their bodies and bodily functions are ineradicably tainted, by saying things like, “There’s a tub for you to wash your dirty pads. You’ll scub and you’ll scrub, but you’ll never scrub hard enough to erase the sin of being a woman” (92).

One of the girls, Modesta, has a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father, who, at an earlier stage in his life, declared himself on the “side of” and wanting to join the Tutsis, but who has recanted from that position since political power swung back to the Hutus. Her position is difficult; her real inclination is to be friends with and spend time with the Tutsi girls with whom she feels a personal affinity, but she has been, as it were, conscripted to be the “best friend” and chief “assistant” to the school’s major Hutu bully, who rejoices in the unlikely name of Gloriosa. Modesta confides in Virginia:

“All I know is that I don’t want to turn into my mother, and be treated the way she’s treated. Ever since my father became a Hutu again, he’s ashamed of her. He hides her. She can no longer leave the house. It’s no longer she who serves beer to my father’s friends, those who still come visit. He calls for my little sisters. She’s lucky if he lets her go to Sunday Mass: early Mass, not High Mass. He’s even tried to find her a great-great-great Hutu grandfather, a Hutu chief, an umuhinza. Everyone had a good laugh when he came out with that. My older brothers hate their mother, it’s because of her they’re not like everyone else, that people call them mulattos or Hutsi. Jean-Damascène, who’s a soldier, says it’s because of her that he’ll always remain a lieutenant, because they’ll never trust him. I’m the only one who still speaks to her, kind of in secret, like with you. As far as I’m concerned, she’s neither Hutu nor Tutsi, she’s my mother.”

“Maybe one day, there’ll be a Rwanda with neither Hutu nor Tutsi.”

“Maybe. Hey, watch out, there’s Gloriosa. Hope she didn’t see us together.”

“Quick, go and be with your best friend, Modesta, off you go” (99).

The heart-wrenching poignancy of a situation in which a girl feels compelled to keep it a secret that she [still] speaks to her own mother is hard to miss; one would be tempted to describe the evocation as a melodramatic exaggeration if we did not know that exactly this type of dreadful and eventually murderous cleavage did cut through many Rwandan families during the massacres.

One very interesting girl at Our Lady’s is called Goretti. She has a powerful father, a general, and therefore carries some clout and is not afraid to stand up to Gloriosa, whose father is a high-up minister in the Hutu government, even though Goretti is Bakiga – a people who live mainly in Uganda – and therefore not Hutu or Tutsi or Batwa (the other, smaller indigenous minority in Rwanda, sometimes referred to as pygmies because of their generally small physical stature). Goretti gets incensed when she hears the pronouncements of one of their teachers about the gorillas of Rwanda. Monsieur de Decker, a Belgian, says things such as declaring the gorillas “Rwanda’s future, her treasure, her opportunity”, and that it is Rwanda’s “sacred mission” to save the gorillas (102). His attitude is evidently another version of the disguised or inverted colonial contempt or disregard of Rwanda and its people that emerges in De Fontenaille’s assumption of the role of saviour of the Tutsi heritage. For Goretti, M de Decker’s ideas call to mind the role in the Rwandan jungles of Dian Fossey, who is not named in Mukasonga’s novel, but is clearly the person to whom Goretti alludes. Goretti complains that this white woman “hates all humans, especially Rwandans” (103), and that this is but another example of the “Bazungu” assuming that “Rwandans must be in the service of the gorillas”, and that “the only interesting thing in Rwanda is the gorillas” – ignorant of the fact or forgetting that Rwanda’s forest people, the Batwa, have lived with and hunted gorillas for as long as memory recalls. Goretti decides that the gorillas “are Rwandans too”, and that she does not want to “leave them to foreigners”; that it is her “duty to go and see them” (103). She’ll be able to do this because her father, the general, will help her; there is a military encampment in the vicinity of the gorillas’ habitat. Asking for a volunteer to accompany her, Goretti and everyone else are surprised that it is Immaculée, whom everyone had assumed to be nothing more than a “glamour girl”, who volunteers; she says that she’s tired of riding around with her boyfriend on his motorcycle and wants to demonstrate that she is a young woman of courage – “an adventurer” (104). Earlier, Immaculée had already shown something of an unexpected open-mindedness by going to see a local “medicine woman” to get a love remedy, which she used and found wholly effective. After the visit to the apes, Immaculée presents her novel combination of local lore and evolutionary science by declaring that “gorillas refused to become humans … when they saw that other monkeys like them had become humans, but had also become mean and cruel and spent their time killing each other” (108–109).

One eventually tragic story, almost an interlude in the narrative – but contributing (like the other portraits of individuals and events at the school) to building up a composite impression and a social mosaic – is told with some satirical savouring of its potentially comic elements. It concerns a girl named Frida, the flirtatious and ambitiously worldly daughter of a diplomat, who captures the lustful attention of the Zaïrian Ambassador to Kigali, Jean-Baptiste Balimba – reportedly fabulously wealthy and offering Frida’s father a highly lucrative business partnership. The fact that “it was rumoured that [this man] had other wives dotted along the length of the river Zaire (formally Congo) as far as Katanga (now known as Shaba)” (116) appears to be of little concern to either Frida or her father – clearly, Jean-Baptiste is considered a “catch”. Very amusingly (and satirically evoked), the fastidious and morally pernickety Mother Superior (a Frenchwoman) is dragooned by means of the political power wielded by the ambassador and his Rwandan associates (or beneficiaries) to allow Balimba to set up a weekend love nest with Frida right on the school grounds, in the cottage reserved for only the most important visitors. Later, the ambassador is persuaded rather to send his official limousine to fetch Frida from the school for extended weekend visits to his residence in Kigali. Because Frida is presented in an unflattering light when she brags gushingly to her school friends to describe how she and her “fiancé” “[speed] down narrow tracks ... causing everyone to flee” (125) and men to crash off their bicycles so that they can make love in a secluded spot, the reader tends not to feel intensely sympathetic to the poor girl when she falls pregnant and dies in painful childbirth, causing her fiancé to flee the country. All the girls are shocked and frightened by this, but it is only Immaculée who voices the feminist point that Frida’s case demonstrates the demeaning role of the daughters of even the most powerful Rwandan families, serving as nothing other than trade goods in the marriage market to advance the wealth and standing of their families. When Goretti taunts her, stating that “she’s talking like a white girl in the movies, or in those books the French teacher makes us read”, asking, “Where would you be, Immaculée, without your father and his money?” and “Do you think a woman can survive in Rwanda without her family, first her father’s then her husband’s?” she adds the sneering suggestion that Immaculée should perhaps return to the gorillas whom she had so recently visited. To which the latter replies that she considers this “good advice”, saying, “Perhaps I will” (131).

Mukasonga’s narrative opens up more clearly into other distinct strands of individual lycée pupils’ stories from here on, the narrator having introduced us initially to the various social positions and perspectives embodied by these adolescent girls on the brink of adult womanhood. We catch a glimpse of Virginia’s home and family circumstances; of her mother’s hopes and ambitions for her or, rather, “through” her. Disappointingly though poignantly, her thoughts indicate the poor, rural based mother’s petty ambitions for small material gains; Virginia is more a means to the end of obtaining some “real” mattresses for the five younger children to sleep on, folding chairs to sit on and, most importantly, a “shiny golden thermos, always full of tea (three liters!) and always hot awaiting the arrival of Sunday visitors” (135) – neighbours who would envy her her luck in having a daughter like Virginia. Cheerfully helping her mother in the fields with weeding and planting tasks, Virginia also entertains her younger siblings with stories about the school. Soon after arriving, she announces her duty to go and see her strict and influential paternal aunt at a neighbouring village. The visit turns out to be, in some respects, a ruse to allow Virginia to pay a secret visit to an ancient seer who lives in the vicinity. She needs to consult him concerning her troubling visions of a Tutsi queen of long ago – the very queen whose bones old M de Fontenaille had accidentally discovered on his estate. The mysterious dream visions of the Tutsi girl contrast with the old Frenchman’s attempted delusional appropriation of an invented Tutsi history. As Virginia walks along the path to her aunt’s home, we are given one of the few evocations of the Rwandan landscape in this text, but it is a beautifully rendered description:

The narrow path followed the ridge, above the slope of cultivated terraces that ran down to marshland planted with maize. All the hills, as far as the eye could see, were similarly terraced, and dotted with houses, some round, some rectangular, their roofs mostly thatched, a few tiled. Many were hidden behind thick banana groves, their presence betrayed only by the bluish plumes of smoke that stretched out lazily above the large lustrous leaves. Coffee bushes, planted in neat rows, already hung heavy with their bunches of red berries. A few bunches of papyrus sedge managed to thrive in the swampy hollows, while four black-crowned cranes strutted with carefree elegance, oblivious to the women working their fields (138).

It is by now clear to the reader that the peace and lushness of scenes like these should not make one forget the building anxiety in the hearts of young people like Virginia – expectation of the cataclysm that will drive people like her into far other climes, and destroy many of their family members. The very landscape above appears dominated by the Catholic mission church’s “crenellated tower”; even though the building appears reminiscent of “the fortress in Europe where noble knights once lived, according to Sister Lydwine’s oft-repeated lesson” (139), one knows that in the impending slaughter the church’s role will be anything but “noble”, and that there will be little protection for genocide victims in the mission settlements.

Virginia seeks protection from a far more ancient local source. Although she herself has deep respect for him, the local boy whom she asks for directions to the seer’s hut disrespectfully as well as fearfully refers to him as a “witch doctor”. In his hut, she tells him her “real” name, Mutamuriza, which means “Don’t Make Her Cry”, and explains why she has come to consult him. Rubanga explains to her that the buried queen whose grave was disturbed must be angry at the event. He tells her that when he was a boy, he went with his father, a renowned umwiro, to attend the queen’s funeral rites. With them went a girl who was the queen’s favourite handmaiden, whose task it was to take the dead (but not yet departed) queen a calabash of milk every day. Rubanga says that the queen’s spirit must be appeased and that Virginia has been chosen to do so. On a second visit, he will explain to her how to do so. When she returns, Rubanga instructs Virginia to take a branch from a particular plant that soothes the dead, and to fill the small clay pot he hands her with milk from an inyambo (long-horn) cow that must be milked for her by a strong young warrior, an intore. Then she must go to the place where M de Fontenaille erected a shrine over the disinterred queen’s bones, find the sacred flame tree that grows nearby, dip the branch in the milk and sprinkle the tree with it while uttering an invocation imploring her to rest again. With the co-operation of Veronica (with whom she does not share her secret knowledge, as Rubanga had instructed her to tell no one), Virginia goes to de Fontenaille’s place and fulfils the ritual injunctions, after which she feels “bathed with a serene strength” (162).

Meanwhile, we learn, there has been a macro-political swing in the government, bringing the officers from the more northern parts of the country into prominence and greater power; even the president is forced to acknowledge them. Since this means that Goretti’s father has acquired a more influential and leading role, her own position in the school hierarchy at Our Lady’s has climbed a notch or two: despite the girl’s previously deplored “rude” language, they now “refrained from the customary teasing and showered Goretti with signs of affection and solicitation, which she received with disdainful benevolence” (168). Another development, one that causes feverish excitement at the school and for a time brings another girl into prominence, is the impending visit to the institution by Queen Fabiola, for the Belgian royal couple will be paying a state visit to Rwanda. All the stops are pulled out in the school’s preparations for the event; even the girls’ bolero jackets are given “Belgian colors on the right, Rwandan colors on the left over the heart” (173). Gifts of embroidery are sewn for the queen, and songs composed and rehearsed for her visit – duly censored by the mayor and also by Gloriosa, “the watchful eye of the Party” at the school, for she considers “heavy praise of kings and queens unbefitting to a Republic … only recently freed from the tyranny of the Bami and the entire aristocracy” (173). One sees how subtly the theme of queens (and parallel shifts in power enabling different young women to “queen it” over their fellow pupils) is maintained throughout the narrative. The girl who now lords it over the others is Godelive, the daughter of a banker, who, as the new power figure, preens about, dropping intriguing hints that lead to the eventual revelation that, since the Belgian royals are childless, the Rwandan president is going to offer them his youngest daughter to adopt (so sealing a family bond between the countries) and that she, Godelive, has been chosen to accompany the little girl, who might otherwise get homesick, to Belgium. Of course, the “ignorant” Belgian rulers decline the offer, and an embarrassed and disgraced Godelive never returns to face the other girls’ mockery after the ignominious outcome to her boastful hopes; it is rumoured that her father subsequently sends her to a boarding school in Belgium.

Queen Fabiola’s visit turns into a [literally] damp squib; a downpour descends at the time of the visit, itself cut ignominiously short because the queen has so many other visits to pay and duties to fulfil. Veronica cannot refrain from remarking that the Belgian queen is “no more beautiful than Queen Gicanda”, the deposed Tutsi queen who languishes under house arrest, as Goretti delights in reminding her – adding the taunt that as far as Tutsis’ praised looks are concerned, “your supposed beauty will bring you misfortune” (193). One aspect of “Tutsi looks”, namely their straight, prominent or “sharper” noses (compared to the average “Hutu nose”), comes to the fore again when the “boss girl” Gloriosa announces to her cowed sidekick Modesta that she is irritated that the nose on the statue of the [black] Virgin Mary above the spring that is the supposed Nile source – a shrine to which the boarders at Our Lady of the Nile lycée pay annual homage – clearly appears to resemble that of a Tutsi rather than a Hutu woman. She announces (when a horrified Modesta warns her of severe punishment should she attempt to change the nose of the statue) that she will simply speak to her father, since “he said they plan to de-Tutsify schools and government”, and that “it’s already started in Kigali and at Butare University”. Since it will be a “political gesture” to change their Rwandan Virgin’s nose, Gloriosa states, she is much more likely to be congratulated than rebuked (197). In the end, the attempt to knock off the “Tutsi” nose of the statue shatters the entire head of the effigy, but Gloriosa – never one to panic – decides that she and Modesta are together going to claim that Tutsi bandits attacked and attempted to rape them (though they bravely fought them off), and that the whole statue of the Virgin can now be replaced by a “properly” Hutu-looking effigy. She tells Modesta,

“My father says we must repeat, again and again, that the Inyenzi [the word – meaning ‘cockroaches’ – that was used to denounce Tutsi Rwandans before and during the genocide] are still there, that they’re always ready to return, that some do still get out and are among us, that the Tutsi who stayed behind eagerly await them, and perhaps even half-Tutsi like you. My father says we must never forget to frighten people” (202).

The story of the attack sends the lycée into a tailspin; the Mother Superior gets the mayor and two gendarmes to the school, since a huge “Inyenzi” raid is supposedly impending, and pupils and even nuns will be raped – so goes Gloriosa’s story – unless sufficient defensive measures are put in place. Gloriosa even ruthlessly implicates a local Tutsi shopkeeper’s undoubtedly innocent son as having been part of the supposedly attempted rape attack on herself and Modesta. A truck full of soldiers is sent to guard the school, and the shattered head of the Virgin statue is also blamed on the imaginary Tutsi raiders. Gloriosa uses the fomented panic to seize back prominence; at a gathering in the school chapel she announces that, speaking, as she claims, “in the name of the Party” of “the majority people”, she can identify the “communists and atheists” who damaged the Virgin’s statue as “our eternal enemies, the executioners of our fathers and our grandfathers, the Inyenzi” (215). As she returns to her pew, Gloriosa whispers triumphantly to Modesta, “You see, here, I’m already the minister” (217). With the “militant” assistance of Father Herménégilde, she proclaims herself the “President of the Committee for the Enthronement of Our Authentic Lady of the Nile” (219) – for whom a “properly” Hutu-looking sculpture has already been commissioned. In fact, Gloriosa takes virtual command of the school, while the Mother Superior huddles in her office. Gloriosa makes speeches in Kinyarwanda “phrased as slogans” and “heavy with double meaning” (219). Gloriosa and Father Herménégilde go to the capital and return to announce that, for the occasion of the unveiling of the new statue, the “elite of the Militant Rwandan Youth, the JMR” (220), will gather near the school so as to “protect” and add “stature” to the gathering.

“It’s coming, Virginia, do you realize that?” (222) Veronica says to her friend. Both are aware that tension is building at the school and that the Tutsi girls will bear the brunt of the coming chaos. Veronica says that she will go and seek refuge with de Fontenaille, but Virginia warns her that her visits there have not gone undetected, and that Modesta has clearly insinuated (and all too likely informed Gloriosa concerning) her awareness of these excursions. Veronica knows that none of the adults at the lycée will help them: Mother Superior has shut herself away in order not to see anything; Belgian teachers will “keep on teaching, unperturbed”, while the French educators will obey their embassy’s instruction of “no interference” and respond, when the killing starts, with the usual comments that “it’s always been like that in Africa”, with locals “killing one another for no discernible reason” (225). Tutsi girls are now (on Gloriosa’s orders) excluded from eating with the other students; Immaculée, Virginia notices, always leaves last and leaves a bigger portion for the Tutsi girls. Although she is no longer able to sleep, terrified of the horror that is coming, Virginia is inexplicably convinced that she herself will be safe. She has another dream of the ancient Tutsi queen and of being rewarded for her loyalty with the gift of a white heifer named Gatare. Soon after, she gets a note from Immaculée in which she is invited to hide in the latter’s dorm room when the youth militants arrive and start attacking Tutsis. The letter is signed with her unexpected friend’s full name: Immaculée Mukagatare – the latter part of the name (meaning that which is white or pure) clearly recalling the dream she’d had. Hence, when the rowdy Hutu youths arrive for their bloody work, Virginia does take refuge in Immaculée’s room. She arrives and informs Virginia that she has organised an even better hiding place for her; she will be accompanied to the old rainmaker and prophetess Nyamurongi’s hut. Here Virginia has to remain in hiding for a number of days, until Nyamurongi one evening divines that the rain “is leaving” even as there has been a change in “the season of men”, “down there in Rwanda” (235). Nyamurongi was also given the warning to convey to Virginia, not to trust the seemingly quiet times, and announces that the girl will soon be leaving her.

The next morning, Nyamurongi tells Virginia’s future. She will leave Rwanda, she says, and go far away to learn “the whites’ secrets”; she will also have a son whom she will name “Ngaruka, ‘I shall return’” (235). When Immaculée arrives in a Land Rover to take Virginia away, she informs her that there has been a coup d’état; the army has taken over and placed the president under house arrest, and Gloriosa’s father has either fled or been jailed. At the school, she says, everyone turned against Gloriosa, and Goretti is more-or-less in charge; an army vehicle took Gloriosa away. But, says Immaculée, she’s pretty sure that they have not seen the last of Gloriosa, who is simply too forcibly ambitious to disappear from the political scene. Virginia then asks for the information she has been dreading – whether all the Tutsi girls were killed. Immaculée reassures her that most of them made their escape into the mountains and may have been given shelter by braver or more kindly disposed people; Gloriosa was mainly after the two Tutsis in her own class, Veronica and Virginia. She knew where Veronica could be found and despatched the youth militia there, where they found her hiding with M de Fontenaille, whose attempt to defend her was ineffectual. They tied her to the throne set up for her as the Frenchman’s Isis, and killed her by ramming sticks up her vagina. The Frenchman was later found hanged by his own hand in his “temple”. When the bloodthirsty youths returned and Virginia was still missing, Gloriosa offered them the half-Tutsi informer, Modesta, to gang rape and humiliate, claiming that she must have helped Virginia to escape. Silenced by the terrible news, the girls tell each other their future plans. Immaculée plans to go and live with the gorillas, since “the white woman” is now accepting Rwandans, but Virginia says that after she has said farewell to her parents, she will immediately and perhaps forever leave Rwanda – the country from which Death has ousted God, although it used to be his dwelling. “I’ll return when the sunshine of life beams over our Rwanda once more,” says Virginia; and Immaculée responds (in the book’s final words), “Of course we’ll see each other again. Rendezvous at the gorillas” (244).

Brief as it is, and with some of the naïveties of a first novel, Mukasonga’s narrative packs a powerful punch without exploiting the Rwandan tragedy for merely melodramatic effects. The lycée girls are depicted as strong and interesting persons, young as they are, and the narrative in its wider ranges (that include existence outside the school premises) presents us with a convincing spectrum of Rwandan life in a crucial period of this society’s existence. Mukasonga is an author to keep track of. Her revelation of the sinister and awful impulses lurking even within the supposedly mundane environment of a girls’ boarding school and of the powerful appeal of self-aggrandising ethnic hatred even among adolescent girls creates another striking work, enriching the African literary archive.

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