Nate, a Reference Staff member, continues his exploration of contemporary African Literature on the blog with a look at Rwanda and a review of author Scholastique Mukasonga’s recent novel “Our Lady of the Nile.”
Rwanda, one of Africa’s smallest countries, is also the continent’s most densely populated nation. Tucked into the highlands of the African Great Lakes region, Rwanda is mountainous, verdant, and home to some of the last remaining populations of mountain gorillas, who live within the forests of the Virunga Mountains. Rwanda (much like its neighbor to the south, Burundi) is unique in that it has mostly maintained its precolonial political borders.
Wars and armed conflict that have occurred in Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda over the last three decades can all be at least partially linked to continued ethnic tensions in the great lakes region of Africa, which were exacerbated and cemented through colonial policies in the first half of the 20th century. Though ethnic identities existed prior to the colonial period, the impact of colonial stratification and political identification along ethnic lines served to cement such distinctions in a way that led directly to violence in the late 20th century.
The Rwandan genocide, covered so intensely by the international media, has resulted in a large number of works of nonfiction; unfortunately, little space has been provided for Rwandans to tell their own stories, both during and after the conflict. Western authors such as Philip Gourevitch and Jean Hatzfeld have written accounts which have collected international acclaim. These works often include Rwandan voices in the form of interviewees, but the narrative is not shaped by Rwandans. As identities on the African continent, such as Hutu and Tutsi, were both modified and in many cases exacerbated during colonial rule, individual histories and accounts are important in shedding light on the complicated nature of current ethnic and racial understandings. To be a Hutu or a Tutsi is not simply an ethnic identity, but is often intricately tied to social, economic, and political status. Because of this, literature (specifically literature written by those with direct experience interacting with such identities) plays an important role in examining the ways in which they continue to impact life in the region.
The literary scene in Rwanda is growing rapidly. New presses and festivals such as Huza Press, located in Rwanda, and the Jalada Festival, a traveling literary festival with stops throughout East Africa, including Kigali, are providing much needed platforms and press for authors from the continent. Though journalists may find the environment in Rwanda challenging, novelists are experiencing a rapid growth in popularity and renown. A number of Scholastique Mukasonga’s works, initially published in French, have recently been translated into English. Her memoir Inyenzi ou les Cafards, or “Cockroaches,” received a nomination for the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose this February from the Los Angeles Times.
Another work by Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile, tells the story of a group of young women attending a prestigious boarding school in Rwanda in the months leading up to the genocide of 1994. Mukasonga effectively uses high school politics to illuminate the ethnic tensions brewing in Rwandan society in the early to mid 1990’s. Though the building of these tensions within the confines of the school plays a prominent role, readers of mostly western authors will also find familiarity in the writer’s examination of the boarding school and its social politics. The interactions and relationships of the students touch on puberty, love, social class and racial identity. The novel also includes investigations of the lingering effects of European colonialism in Rwanda through the use of characters. This is exemplified by Mukasonga’s choice of staff for the school,
“There were only two Rwandans on the entire teaching staff of the Lycée of Our Lady of the Nile: Sister Lydwine, and the Kinyarwanda teacher, naturally. Sister Lydwine taught History and Geography, but she made a clear distinction between the two subjects: History meant Europe, and Geography, Africa.”
Certain of these characters help to illuminate the impact of colonial systems of categorizations that then led to ethnic tensions across the Great Lakes Region, thus playing major roles in sparking the genocide in Rwanda. One character in particular, Monsieur de Fontenaille, is utterly preoccupied with the notion of Tutsi ethnicity and showers attention upon two of the Tutsi students, Veronica and Virginia,
” ‘That’s Philae, the temple of the Great Goddess,’ explained Monsieur de Fontenaille. ‘And there, that’s Meroe, capital of the Kush, the empire of the black pharaohs, of the Candace; capital of a thousand pyramids. I’ve been there for you, the Tutsi, and I found you there. Here, I’ll show you.’ “
Beyond his grandiose opening, Monsieur de Fontenaille reiterates the idea that the Tutsi migrated to Rwanda from the northeast and are therefore outsiders and racially different from the Hutu. This reasoning has been used by both colonial and Rwandan governments to establish a distinction between the two groups.
The inclusion of other characters serve as examples of continued western involvement in Africa. These include morally corrupt clergy members, foreign monarchs, foreign service officers, and international business people. Mukasonga uses characters in her story to critique characteristics and members of the Rwandan government, including instances of nepotism, bribery, the employment of violent rhetoric, and overindulgences funded by the state coffers. Mukasonga’s descriptions and interactions involving such characters and acts at times border on the absurd. Take this passage regarding the Zairian ambassador to Rwanda, who at this point in the story is engaged to a student of the high school, and has taken it upon himself to establish a weekend residence at the Lycée,
“While Sister Bursar showed the ambassador around the Bungalow, his liveried servants unloaded huge trunks and swarmed noisily throughout the villa, shifting furniture, piling up groceries and alcohol in the kitchen, unfolding canvas chairs in the living room, placing President Mobutu’s portrait on an easel, carting a large bed on a seashell frame edged with gold trim into Monsignor’s bedroom, and piling it high with cushions of every shape and color.”
Collectively these elements of Mukasonga’s writing make for a captivating story—a story that is also able to carry a significant amount of weight and authority on issues surrounding both the Rwandan genocide and the continued impact of the country’s colonial history.
-Nate M, Reference