Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga

Translated by Melanie Mauthner

Review by Dorian Stuber

The title of Scholastique Mukasonga’s Our Lady of the Nile refers to both a statue of a Black Virgin Mary poised precariously on a ledge above a spring, the supposed source of Africa’s longest river, and a lycée, the best girls’ school in Rwanda, where the daughters of the country’s elite are trained to be neither Hutu nor Tutsi but “another ‘ethnicity,’ which the Belgians used to refer to as civilized.” This spurious distinction is one of many remnants of colonialism: the teachers are almost all European; the girls forbidden to speak anything but French. The school sits high in the mountains rather than in Kigali—where the comparable boys’ school is located—so as to keep the girls “from the temptations and evils of the big city.” Yet by the end of this minatory novel it’s clear that the girls, with the connivance of the adults in their lives, are perfectly capable of fomenting evil on their own.

Our Lady of the Nile was published in France in 2012, where Mukasonga has lived since 1992; it appears now in the UK in a translation by Melanie Mauthner. Before turning to fiction Mukasonga had published three autobiographical works. The first of these, Cockroaches (2006), is, in her moving description, “a paper grave” for the thirty-seven people in her immediate family who were murdered in the genocide, a fate she was spared by her emigration to France. The cockroaches of the title are inyenzi, a word that appears regularly in Nile as well. The Hutu majority uses it to dehumanize the Tutsi minority, especially those who were forced into exile in Burundi and Uganda in the late 1950s and 1960s. Inyenzi seems to mean both “rebel” and “scum” or “vermin”: one of the most interesting qualities of Mukasonga’s writing is that she peppers her texts with Kinyarwandan terms. Although she glosses these for her French (and now English) readers, the terms retain their foreignness, forcing at least Western readers to reflect on how this book is perhaps not primarily written for them. And so one of the main characters, who has been accepted to the school as a scholarship student, is known to her mother as her uburiza, her eldest daughter, “She to whom her brothers and sisters owed their arrival… She who opened their mother’s belly for them, She who had to be a little mother for her brothers and sisters.” In this way non-Rwandan readers learn something of a social structure that is surely not unfamiliar—lots of eldest children become surrogate parents to their siblings—but is probably not defined by a particular term that surely carries resonances we don’t catch.

In this way, Mukasonga keeps her readers a little at bay. (She is not a warm or welcoming writer.) Perhaps this reserve is a function of her background in nonfiction. Especially in its first two-thirds, Our Lady of the Nile is episodic rather than sustained, its characters minimally differentiated, its focus more essayistic than narrative. Those confusions are in their way interesting: when it comes to the characters, in particular, which initially are hard to tell apart and who only congeal into distinct entities when the differences between Hutu and Tutsi become more significant, Mukasonga might well be critiquing the deadly nature of identity politics. But then how to understand her decision not to date the novel’s events, even though they seem to describe quite clearly the tension leading up the military coup of 1973 in which army commander Juvénal Habyariman assumed the presidency? All the reviews I’ve read assume the novel foreshadows the 1994 genocide. But it seems important that she doesn’t make the claim. Genocide is not necessarily the logical, inevitable, even necessary outcome of dehumanization and persecution. But if Mukasonga believes violence and hatred are historical rather than endemic (and rightly so, in my opinion) then why be both vague and clear about when the novel is set?

Scholastique Mukasonga

Perhaps the answer is that it allows her to present history the way she wants to. In Cockroaches, for example, Mukasonga never mentions the depredations of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel army formed in neighbouring Uganda in the 1980s by the children of Tutsis forced to flee Rwanda after independence in 1962. In the civil war against the Habyariman government that lasted from 1991—94 and preceded the genocide, the RPF committed a series of atrocities against civilians in northern Rwanda as they attempted to cleanse it of Hutus. These acts of violence were never genocidal in the way of the wholesale murder of Tutsis in 1994, but they are part of a history even more complex than the one Mukasonga lets us in on. But what Mukasonga loses in particularlity she gains in emotional power. The events presented in the novel are at times schematic, but the power of her depiction of how one group can turn against another is chilling and evocative.

“My father says we must never forget to frighten people,” concludes Gloriosa, the most terrifying character in the book. A head girl whose father is prominent in the government and who has clearly trained her in Hutu nationalism, Gloriosa drives the plot in the final third, when she decides that the statue of Our Lady of the Nile has a Tutsi nose that must be replaced by one more appropriately Hutu. Like many ruthless commanders, Gloriosa is good at improvising—and at radicalizing her actions. At first she arranges to make a “majority” nose out of clay, and browbeats another student into becoming her accomplice. But when the girls sneak out on a reconnaissance mission, they are caught in a rainstorm that delays their return to the lycée for hours. To avoid punishment, the girls tear and muddy their clothes and scratch their skin. They will say they have been attacked, even, in a second telling, raped. The Mother Superior calls the Mayor who calls the local army base, which sends 50 soldiers and a lieutenant, to whom Gloriosa “admits” a new piece of information: she’s not entirely sure who the attackers were but she might have recognized the voice of one of them, the son of a Tutsi who has a stall at a nearby market. The lieutenant has heard what he wants to hear: the local Tutsi are always in contact with the inyenzi rebels, are in fact inyenzi in waiting. The bandits are probably being hidden by sympathetic Tutsis and must be rooted out. He will arrest the boy immediately. 

The novel’s most terrifying line dryly explains that “Jean Bizimana had been arrested without offering any resistance, amid the screams and tears of his parents, his brothers, and his sisters.” Although tortured—interrogated “with the intensity needed to make him give up his accomplices”—he admits nothing. And although the soldiers question the local Tutsis, terrorize their children, rip through their granaries, “The Inyenzi had fled without a word.” Gloriosa, drunk on her power, delighted at finally being the heroine of her own life story, dismisses her friend’s accusation that she has caused pain by telling lies: “It’s not lies, it’s politics.” In yet another accident, she destroys the Virgin’s head while trying to replace the nose; this violation incites a veritable pogrom. The Tutsi students—only two are allowed for every twenty Hutu according to the quota—run for their lives. Some fail to escape the murderous mob.

The ending of Our Lady of the Nile makes gripping—but also confusing—reading. Does the novel have a vision for Rwanda beyond violence? It’s easier to know what it rejects than what it avows. The promise of a post-ethnic future is as summarily dismissed as the possibility that Rwanda could escape the neo-colonization of Western investment and head-patting. A girl who wishes for her children to be neither Hutu nor Tutsi, not even half-Hutu and half-Tutsi, just “all mine,” dismisses her own desire, thinking perhaps the only escape from the connection between ethnic and female identity is to become a nun. A future in which no one need hide from pursuers under a bed or be smuggled to safety in the trunk of a car will only come about when people stop making a fetish of origins. More than anything, Our Lady of the Nile is a novel about the dangers of creation stories, which are invariably treated as fact instead of speculation. 

Perhaps the reason the novel for so long feels so aimless is that it begins again and again—or rather that it tells one origin story after another. The Christianity of the Catholic school is of course one such story—though its integrity is undermined by the venality and sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers. As are the competing stories—a potent combination of esoteric sources—told about the origins of the Tutsis. A European coffee planter named Fontenaille, for example, maintains the Tutsi are descended from the ancient Egyptians. He sees his discovery as a new dawn that will arise when he recreates the past, to which end he bribes some of the Tutsi students to pose as his models for frescoes depicting black Pharaohs. Father Herménégilde, a Hutu nationalist and antisemite, claims the Tutsis are really Jews. Unlike his colleague Father Pintard, who believes the Tutsis are remnants of the Israelites who went the wrong way after escaping Egypt, Herménégilde thinks the connection to Judaism is that Tutsis have formed a secret cabal intent on seizing the whole region and turning it into a Hamite empire. In all of these beliefs, whether extolled or despised, Tutsis are not allowed to be human. As one student puts it, “here, we’re inyenzi, cockroaches, snakes, rodents; to whites, we’re the heroes of their legends.”

Then there are the stories told to a curious student, a Tutsi, by an umwiru, a soothsayer who believes in the great forgotten kings and queens of pre-colonial Rwanda. The student, Virginia, completes a rite to propitiate the angry ghost of a Queen, whose resting place has been disturbed. The Queen will bring her good favour, thinks Virginia. And indeed, she escapes the pogrom at the novel’s end. Yet nothing in the novel suggests that the pagan world of the distant past is a real source of meaning, leaving Virginia’s good fortune only ironically connected to her following through on the soothsayer’s orders. Indeed, the more we look at origin stories in the novel, the more ridiculous they seem. Even the source of the Nile below which the lycée sits is only putative, one of several competing sites. A student struggles to trace its path in her geography book, concluding that “she’s easier to keep track of near the end,” a pithy summary of the novel itself. Even the height of the school—2500 meters above sea level; “We’re so close to heaven,” whispers the Mother Superior ecstatically—is exaggerated: the actual number is 2494. 

Perhaps the only origin story that holds any promise is one attributed not to any group of people but to the gorillas of the upland forests. Two of the girls make a trip to see the shy and rare animals, requiring them to travel to their remote location and bribe the local Batwa people who are frightened of a white woman who has come to study the animals (surely a reference to the primatologist Dian Fossey, herself an object of critique: “the white woman does not want her gorillas disturbed”). The students learn that some believe “the gorillas were once people who fled to the forest… and forgot to be humans.” 

One of the pair, a flashy young woman named Immaculée, who arrives for the first day of school on the back of a boyfriend’s motorcycle, offers a different spin on that story. Immaculée is the novel’s real hero, the one who sees the school for the prison it is, and who, despite her initial interest in fast men and revealing outfits, rejects the training for marriage and status that is its real aim. She is the only character able to propose an origin story as just that—a story, a possibility, a suggestion. As she says: 

Well, let me suggest a different story: gorillas refused to become humans; they were almost humans but they preferred to remain monkeys in their forest atop the volcanoes. When they saw the other monkeys like them had become humans, but had also become mean and cruel and spent their time killing each other, they refused to become humans.

At the end of the book, having helped to save Virginia’s life, not out of friendship particularly, or even moral obligation, but because she likes a challenge, loathes Gloriosa, and hates mob opinion, Immaculée announces, “I’m going to defy everyone, I’m off to be with the gorillas.” Fossey, it transpires, is recruiting Rwandan assistants. Confident that her intelligence combined with her wealthy background will make her a shoe-in, Immaculée tells Virginia, who is preparing to cross the border for a life in exile, that they will meet again. “Rendezvous at the gorillas”—these are the novel’s last words, its version of a happy ending. What we know of Fossey’s attitudes to the Rwandans who worked with her, to say nothing of her mysterious murder in 1985, might make us think Immaculée’s assertion will come to nothing. Our Lady of the Nile is compelling but disquieting reading. It seems that in the wake of violence, hatred, and wholescale murder, it is easier to mourn the past than to imagine the future, easier to make a grave than a home out of paper. 

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Dorian teaches in the English department of Hendrix College in Arkansas and blogs here.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile, translated by Melanie Mauthner (Daunt Books, 2021). 978-1911547884, 224pp., paperback original.

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