Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga

Our Lady of the Nile: A Novel BY Scholastique Mukasonga. Archipelago. Paperback, 240 pages. $18.
The cover of Our Lady of the Nile: A Novel

All is quiet at Our Lady of the Nile, an elite boarding school high in the mountains of Rwanda. Or so it seems. Our Lady of the Nile, Scholastique Mukasonga’s fairytale-like novel, is the literary equivalent of a slow burn. Set in 1979, it is a highly charged, fictional account of the events leading up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Using an unlikely focal point—a gaggle of senior-class high school girls at a small, religious school—Mukasonga answers the question of how such an atrocity could have occurred. The author lost twenty-seven members of her family in the genocide, so she is familiar with the realities and aftermath of such brutality.

The deadly turn kicks off when one of the girls, Gloriosa, decides that a Virgin Mary statue—the “Our Lady” of the title, which is also the name the school—has a nose that is too Tutsi-like. She hatches a plan to break off the nose and replace it with one more Hutu-like, but accidentally chisels off the entire head. Of course, she doesn’t take any responsibility for this, and gives a speech at the school after the “crime” is discovered: “We’ll soon have a new statue of Our Lady of the Nile, and she’ll be a real Rwandan woman, with the face of the majority people, a Hutu Virgin we’ll be proud of,” she proclaims. “As you know, our lycée is still full of parasites, impurities, and filth that render it unfit to receive Our True Lady of the Nile. . . . We must clean everything, down to the smallest recess.” She concludes by leading the assembly in singing the national anthem.

“And that’s how a genocide starts,” I thought as I read this passage. After the anthem, Gloriosa returns to her pew. “You see,” she says to her flunky, Modesta, “here, I’m already the minister.” She is drunk on power, a dangerous state of mind. The “filth” Gloriosa refers to is the Tutsi girls, who were admitted to this forward-thinking boarding school as supposed peers, but are never considered equals or treated as such. Soon a crew of boys from neighboring schools arrive, under the cover of a gathering of the “Militant Rwandan Youth,” who beat, and in one instance kill, the Tutsi girls. These militant youth and the Hutu girls who assist them know exactly what they are doing.

Though Our Lady of the Nile has moments of beauty, it does not always succeed on the sentence level. Nonetheless, Mukasonga is extremely good at showing, as only a novelist can, how the tendencies toward the Rwandan genocide started well before 1994. Sneaky, lingering, her story evokes a sense of menace, and eventually a scene of full-blown violence, that sticks with you.

The novel, translated by Melanie Mauthner, opens at the school. Though events skew grim, there is no turn, no place at which one could place a finger and say, “Here is where the tension shifts into darker territory.” Instead, iniquities appear throughout—a Tutsi girl gets the sugar for her gruel last, simply because of her race; Tutsi students are often singled out on the basis of their background—and then, after an absurd but highly feasible chain of events, hate crimes begin. In such a climate, ripe with prejudice and intolerance, it’s astonishing, Mukasonga reminds us, how quickly bias can accelerate and turn extreme.

Though the ethnic strife comes to a head during the action of the novel, the discord had been ongoing for years. The girls were sent away to school to be kept safe—not just from bad boyfriends and unplanned pregnancies, but also from the Hutu-Tutsi conflict. The school has some token Tutsi students, perhaps in an attempt to show how open-minded they are—after all, good Christians should not discriminate—but in the end, it becomes evident that such factional conflicts run deeper than religious open-mindedness.

Still, ritual is vital here. “At sundown, the clanging bell and the creaking of the closing gates solemnly ushered in the start of the new school year,” Mukasonga writes. There is a sense of enclosure, of the futility of asserting one’s individuality or escaping the gated schoolyard, a feeling of forced collectivity and of abiding deeply engrained rules. This is a land where religion bleeds into superstition and everyday rhythms are shot through with ritual, where everything is done by protocol. This is a place of spells, of actions done to appease gods; much deeper than imagination, all of these measures are perceived to be real, steeped in the culture over many generations. Spells designate where queens should be buried. Certain plants soothe the dead because they have no thorns.

These girls are led to believe that life will be easy for them: Prestigious education and wealth will protect them from the realities of life in Rwanda. The school is supposed to be a place of empowerment for young women, but Tutsi schoolgirls are constantly discriminated against, and have learned to internalize that marginalization. Virginia and Veronica, the two Tutsi seniors (enrolled to fill a quota), often express the plight of their race via conversation, as when Virginia tells Veronica: “Tutsi aren’t humans: here, we’re inyenzi, cockroaches, snakes, rodents.”

The ugliness at the boarding school is usually just glossed over, but this, of course, only leads to problems later. One of the powerful Hutu girls, Frida, becomes engaged, and her fiancé is appointed Ambassador to Kigali. She gets pregnant and leaves school, and news that she has died comes shortly after. The cause is not clear, and though her death causes quite a stir, the girls are expected to banish the topic from discussion quickly. “Once the week of mourning was over, Frida’s name was tacitly banned by everyone at the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile,” Mukasonga writes. “If one of the girls made a slip of the tongue and said the forbidden name, all the other girls turned away, pretended they hadn’t heard anything, and began to talk really loudly . . . there was now a shameful secret lying coiled deep within the lycée.” This is only another log on the already smoldering pile of shameful secrets, and Frida’s death is just another example of the ineffective way difficult things are handled at the school, and in the Rwandan climate in general, in 1979.

Though the girls are very much invested in the conflict, thanks to their parents’ politics and the political culture in which they were raised, some seem ambivalent about it, or foster some sense of hope for change. Modesta, a girl who is half-Tutsi and half-Hutu but is considered Hutu because her father is, confides in Virginia: “I want my children to be neither Hutu nor Tutsi. Neither half-Hutu nor half-Tutsi. I just want them to be mine, that’s all.” Here and throughout, Mukasonga uses the semi-innocence of the young to show how hard it is to live in such a divided culture. Teenage girls, though they can be as ruthless as their parents, still experience these moments of cultural idealism, and Mukasonga uses such moments to great effect.

Our Lady of the Nile, published in English twenty years after the massacre of the Tutsi people, is a political novel, addressing race, culture, gender. The brutality of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict is easily misunderstood. This book makes it human, brings it down to the level of the everyday. When the question of how such a thing could have happened is asked, the treacherous answer is here, in the mundane. By imagining the everyday lives of Rwandans, Mukasonga makes more sense of the climate leading up to the genocide than a stack of news articles does. From this slant, the novel does its work quietly and well, with its head down—the way a Tutsi student might have done at Our Lady of the Nile.

Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Berfrois, The Rumpus, and Bomb magazine.