They say that “God roams the world, all day long, but every evening He returns home to Rwanda,” where He makes his way to His chosen house, the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile. Here, at the source of the great river, Rwanda’s young female elite are groomed to be the wives of ministers, ambassadors, and businessmen. “There is no better lycée,” assert the teachers, “nor is there any higher.” At twenty-five hundred meters above the town of Nyaminombe, the lycée is high enough to make the Mother Superior whisper, “We’re so close to heaven.”
Our Lady of the Nile is the fourth book by the Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga, and her first to be translated into English. Set in an exclusive girls’ boarding school in the 1970s, this novel that begins with a celebration of height—and all the nobility and purity that implies—starts its descent immediately. In a humorous aside, the geography teacher points out that the lycée is, in fact, only two thousand four hundred ninety-three meters high. No one takes any notice, but the saintliness and perfection of the school have already been undermined, and does not cease from this point on to erode.
The lycée is a microcosm for the country that at the time was, like its students, relatively young. Rwanda had gained its independence in 1961, though the government and the church continued to maintain strong ties to the country’s former colonial rulers, Belgium and, to a lesser extent, Germany. Consequently, at the lycée Our Lady of the Nile, most of the teachers are Belgian nuns and priests. French is the only language permitted on campus, though most students speak Kinyarwanda at home. The students themselves belong to one of Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Tensions between these groups had been exacerbated by colonial governors under the sway of eugenics; at the time of Our Lady of the Nile, the Hutu (the “majority people”) are in power, while the Tutsi’s participation in public life is limited by strict quotas. At the lycée, the quota is two Tutsi for twenty pupils.
Against this complex background, Mukasonga’s novel works as both a collective coming-of-age story and a prelude to genocide. Through a series of vignettes focusing on individual characters or events, Our Lady of the Nile gradually exposes the fault lines that will, in the end, tear both the lycée and the country apart. Within these fault lines is a sort of competition, a contest for survival between different ways of being—European and African, Hutu and Tutsi. The competition is deadly for most, but Mukasonga does not strand us in tragedy. She works hard to trace out an authentic, if fragile, means of survival for her protagonists, refusing to succumb, in the end, to total despair.
Mukasonga writes in French, the language of her country’s colonizers; moreover, to French readers, the original title of her novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, immediately calls to mind that pillar of French literature, Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). With this nod to Hugo, Mukasonga positions herself as an heir to European literature, and encourages us to consider the parallels between her novel and her predecessor’s, and their shared intention to display the danger of demonizing the least powerful among us. But Mukasonga is a Rwandan writer, and she puts the French language to new purposes in order to describe Rwandan realities: Our Lady of the Nile, even in Melanie Mauthner’s English translation, is frequently interspersed with Kinyarwanda words. This strategy of “interrupting” a colonial language has been popular with other postcolonial authors as well; it disrupts the hegemony of the imposed language and carves out a new, hybrid literary space. (In English, Mauthner’s choice to leave the words “lycée” and “lycéenne” untranslated compounds this hybridity and adds another layer of “foreignness” to the text.)
This linguistic hybridity is a counterpart to Our Lady of the Nile’s thematic negotiation between two rationalities: the European/Christian and the Rwandan/pagan. The European rationality, in general, does not have much to recommend it. Represented by such characters as Father Herménégilde, a priest who sexually abuses his students, and Monsieur de Fontenaille, a recluse obsessed with the Tutsi and their ancient goddesses, European ways of thought seem out of touch with reality at best, sinister and insane at worst. And yet the girls of the lycée have accepted several markers of European identity, introducing themselves with sentences like, “My name is Virginia, my real name is Mutamuriza.” Adopting European names, European languages, and a European religion does not seem to cause them any great distress, but neither does it fully determine their world view. Just as Kinyarwanda words pervade the text, so do Rwandan rain goddesses and prophetic dreams fill the girls’ world alongside communion and confession. Throughout the book, several girls visit “witch doctors” to solicit spells, at times only to secure a boyfriend’s loyalty or a future baby’s gender, at other times for much higher stakes.
Rwandan culture is no more uniform nor free of internal conflict than European culture. This heterogeneity of pre-colonial Rwandan identity is evident throughout the book: the girls all smuggle Rwandan food from home at the beginning of term (“They make them eat nothing but white people’s food at the lycée,” their mothers lament) and meet secretly during the night to eat together and compare recipes from home. They argue for three pages over the proper way to cook bananas, lovingly describing the ingredients, the preparation, the final sweet or savory taste. When Virginia, a Tutsi, asserts that bananas are best eaten grilled out in the fields, a militant Hutu called Gloriosa snaps, “So what did you come to the lycée for? You should have stayed in the sticks munching bananas in the fields. You would have made room for a real Rwandan from the majority people.”
Even in the school perched so close to heaven, politics is never distant, and the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi increasingly dominates the events of the novel. Gloriosa, the cruelest and most fervent of the Hutu girls, bullies the two Tutsi in her class, Virginia and Veronica, and even takes it upon herself to vandalize the statue of Our Lady of the Nile (representing a black Virgin Mary, located near the source of the Nile, some distance from the school grounds). Gloriosa decides that statue bears “a Tutsi nose,” and sneaks out one night, hoping to remove the nose and replace it with a new, “majority nose” that she has molded herself. In her fervor, however, she accidentally shatters the entire head of the Virgin, and has to invent a story about Tutsi-affiliated bandits to cover her tracks. The story fuels hostility toward the Tutsi at the lycée and in the rest of the country as well: the power of Gloriosa’s like-minded Hutu extremists grows daily.
Gloriosa is the novel’s villain: she is empty inside, made of nothing but her hatred for the Tutsi. If as a character she seems less complex, less interesting than her fellow students, this is likely intentional. Manic self-righteousness and bigotry hollow out the soul; real evil, as Simone Weil wrote, is “gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.” Gloriosa is an incarnation of real, historical evil, and we cannot hold it against Scholastique Mukasonga if she chooses not to beg sympathy for the devil. Fortunately, Gloriosa is not the only representative of the Hutu in the lycée. There is also Modesta, an intelligent but meek girl with a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. Fearing for her safety in an increasingly anti-Tutsi environment, Modesta aligns herself with Gloriosa, who frequently threatens to abandon her. “You know I’m your friend,” Modesta protests. “Better for you, then, that you always stay my friend,” Gloriosa laughs. The only Hutu who truly stands up to Gloriosa is Immaculée, a confident rebel who, to everyone’s astonishment, leads an expedition into the jungle to visit the gorillas. Immaculée becomes one of the most thoughtful characters in the novel, and perhaps the only one to critique the entire system represented by the lycée: “I no longer want to be a part of this marketplace,” she declares, rejecting the fate ordained for her by Our Lady of the Nile, to be married off to a rich and influential man. Gloriosa teases her for talking “like a white girl in the movies” and suggests she go back to the gorillas, away from civilization. “Ah, good advice,” says Immaculée. “Perhaps I will.”
But Mukasonga’s true protagonists are the Tutsi girls, Veronica and Virginia. Both are courted by the reclusive Monsieur de Fontenaille, an artist who believes that the Tutsi are descended from the ancient Egyptians and therefore worthy of worship. Fontenaille spends his days making drawings, photographs, and sculptures of ancient Egyptian goddesses; he persuades the girls to model for him, claiming that “Even if the Tutsi were to disappear, I am the custodian of their legend.” (His phenomenal arrogance is shrugged off by the girls as further evidence of white “craziness.”) Fontenaille is particularly interested in Virginia, claiming that she is the reincarnation of “Candace,” a “Queen of the Nile.” Though Virginia, like her friend, thinks that Fontenaille is deranged, she ends up becoming intimately involved in his projects. When Fontenaille disturbs the bones of one of these ancient Candace queens on one of his amateur archaeology expeditions, Virginia goes to a Rwandan witch doctor to learn how to put the queen’s spirit to rest. As a result, she is visited by the queen in a dream and marked as her favorite in the world of the living. It is this queen, a symbol of the vitality of the pre-colonial Rwandan ways of life, who ultimately leads Virginia to the person who will save her from the Tutsi massacre.
When the violence finally erupts, Virginia is the only Tutsi to escape. She survives physically thanks to two unexpected protectors, one spiritual and one worldly, but she survives mentally because she, more than any other character in the book, has managed to forge a genuinely hybrid identity for herself. Rooted in a Rwandan spiritual tradition, she has also succeeded in the European sphere. She flees the bloodshed armed not only with an education, but with a sense of self strong enough to protect her in what we know will be difficult years to come. In this respect, Virginia is something of Mukasonga’s alter ego: Mukasonga was also a Tutsi girl who was chased out of her school in the 1970s. She was able to escape to Burundi, but twenty-six members of her family, including her mother, were killed. She has written that she sees her work as a project of remembrance; Our Lady of the Nile, she says, is a “tomb of paper” for her lost family.
Although Our Lady of the Nile is not without its flaws—certain characters are too schematic, and dialogue and exposition are occasionally clumsy—we should nevertheless welcome the opportunity to read Mukasonga’s work in English. African francophone literature, and particularly that written by women, continues to be underrepresented in English, and as a result, we are not only missing out on compelling stories, but on an important political project. Scholastique Mukasonga, and likely many of her colleagues whom we have yet to translate, is working to correct the frustratingly persistent Western narratives about Africa and its history. “When the killers fall upon us,” Veronica says in Our Lady of the Nile, “some will say: it’s always been like that in Africa, savages killing each other for reasons no one understands.”
Genocide is incomprehensible, but not because it occurs in Africa. The West has indeed too often dismissed suffering in Africa, but books like Our Lady of the Nile remind us why we must not be dismissive, why we must not look away. “God roams the world, all day long, but every evening He returns home to Rwanda,” Immaculée says to Virginia in the novel’s final pages. “Well, while God was traveling, Death took his place, and when He returned, She slammed the door in his face.” With Our Lady of the Nile, Mukasonga pries the door open again, and asks us to look inside.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature. Her criticism has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, Asymptote, and Tweed’s. She lives in Berlin.