The JRB presents an excerpt from Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, out now in a new edition.
Our Lady of the Nile
Scholastique Mukasonga (trans. by Melanie Mauthner)
Jacana Media, 2022
Read the excerpt:
The first week of the school year nearly always coincided with the start of the rainy season. If the rains were late, Father Herménégilde would ask the pupils to go and offer a bouquet to Our Lady of the Nile, on Sunday after Mass. They’d pick flowers under the anxious, watchful eye of Sister Bursar, who fretted that the girls would destroy her garden, then off they went to lay the wreath at the statue’s feet, next to the spring that never ran dry. Most of the time, there was no need for this pilgrimage. A blast of ceaseless thunder rolling and grumbling from the valley meant the rains were on their way. A dark sky, darker than the bottom of an old stockpot, poured down torrents of rain as the children of Nyaminombe celebrated, dancing and squealing with joy.
For the seniors, lycée life held no further mysteries. They no longer jumped at the noises that woke them each morning: the groan of the gates being opened, the clanging of the school bell, and the whistles the monitors blew as they walked through the dormitories prodding the girls who were slow to rise. Godelive was always the last to get up, whining about wanting to leave the lycée, how she wasn’t cut out for studying. Modesta and Immaculée did their best to encourage her, reminding her that Christmas break was approaching, that it was her last year; finally, they would end up yanking her forcibly out of bed. Quickly, they had to take off their nighties, wrap themselves in one of the two large towels that Sister Bursar had given out at the start of the year, tie it under one armpit, then run to the washroom, jostling to reach one of the faucets (showers were taken in the evening). Thanks to her sturdy build, Gloriosa was always the first to lean over the rushing water: everyone else had to make way for her, no matter what. Ablutions over, there was barely enough time to slip into the blue uniform and head to the refectory for tea and porridge. Virginia would swallow it with her eyes shut, forcing herself to think of the delicious ikivuguto buttermilk her mother prepared for her each morning during vacation.
She pushed away the little cup filled with powdered sugar, which the other girls fought over so viciously, despite some of them having their own supply, which they poured into their cups to make a sugary gruel. Sugar, a rare commodity in the hills, tasted horribly bitter to Virginia. When she entered sixth grade, she’d never seen as much sugar as she saw here in the cups placed on each of the breakfast tables. She thought of her younger sisters. If only she could bring them the contents of that little cup! Virginia could already imagine the outline of their lips, all white with sugar. She decided to discreetly purloin a few pinches of the precious powder that filled the little cup. It wasn’t easy, because this coveted treat was very closely watched. What’s more, being Tutsi, Virginia received the cup last, and there were only a few grains of sugar remaining at the bottom. She carefully scooped them up with her teaspoon, and instead of pouring the sugar into her bowl, slipped it furtively into one of the pockets of her uniform as quickly as possible. She emptied her pocket every night, and by the end of term she’d managed to fill half an envelope. But Dorothée, who sat next to her, saw what she was up to, and just before breaking for vacation, she said:
‘You’re a thief. I’m going to tell on you.’
‘Me, a thief?’
‘Yes, you steal sugar every morning. You think I don’t notice. You want to sell it back home in the countryside, at the market, during vacation.’
‘It’s for my little sisters. There’s no sugar in the countryside. Don’t tell on me.’
‘Perhaps we can make a deal. You’re top of the class in French. If you write my next essay, I won’t say a thing.’
‘Let me take the sugar for my little sisters.’
‘If you write my essays for the rest of the year.’
‘I’ll do it, I swear, for the rest of the year.’
The teacher was amazed at Dorothée’s sudden progress. He suspected some kind of cheating was going on but didn’t care to find out more. From then on, Dorothée’s grades in French were the best in the class.
The bell clanged again. Lessons were about to start: French, Math, Religion, Health and Hygiene, History, Geography, Physics, Physical Education, English, Kinyarwanda, Sewing, French, Cooking, History, Geography, Physics, Health and Hygiene, Math, Religion, Cooking, English, Sewing, French, Religion, Physical Education, French …
The days wore on.
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. Sister Lydwine was passionate about the Middle Ages. Her classes were all about castles, keeps, arrow slits, machicolations, drawbridges, and bartizans. Knights set off on crusades, with the Pope’s blessing, to liberate Jerusalem and massacre the Saracens, while others fought duels with lances for the eyes of ladies wearing pointy hats. Sister Lydwine talked of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and Richard the Lionheart. ‘I’ve seen them in movies!’ said Veronica, unable to contain herself.
‘Will you please be quiet!’ said Sister Lydwine crossly. ‘They lived a very long time ago, before your ancestors had even set foot in Rwanda.’
Africa had no history, because Africans could neither read nor write before the missionaries opened their schools. Besides, it was the Europeans who had discovered Africa and dragged it into history. And if there had been any kings in Rwanda, it was better to forget them, for the country was now a Republic. Africa had mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, deserts, forests, and even a few cities. It was just a question of memorising their names and finding them on the map: Kilimanjaro, Tamanrasset, Karisimbi, Timbuktu, Tanganyika, Muhabura, Fouta Djallon, Kivu, Ouagadougou. But there was a kind of large lizard in the middle. Sister Lydwine lowered her voice and, casting suspicious glances at the hallway, explained that Africa was breaking in two, and that one day Rwanda would find itself by the sea, though on which side of the continent, left or right, she really couldn’t say. To her chagrin, the whole class erupted into laughter. Clearly the whites never stopped coming up with far-fetched tales to scare the poor Africans.
- Scholastique Mukasonga is a Rwandan author living in France. She was born in Gikongoro Province in 1956. Mukasonga left Rwanda before the Rwandan genocide, which killed 37 members of her family, her mother being one of them.
‘There’s so much brilliance in this book my breath is taken away’—Tsitsi Dangarembga
Parents send their daughters to Our Lady of the Nile to be moulded into respectable citizens, and to protect them from the dangers of the outside world. The young ladies are expected to learn, eat, and live together, presided over by the colonial white nuns.
‘There is no better lycée than Our Lady of the Nile. Nor is there any higher. Twenty-five hundred metres, the white teachers proudly proclaim.’
It is fifteen years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and a quota permits only two Tutsi students for every twenty pupils. As Gloriosa, the school’s Hutu queen bee, tries on her parents’ preconceptions and prejudices, Veronica and Virginia, both Tutsis, are determined to find a place for themselves and their history. In the struggle for power and acceptance, the lycée is transformed into a microcosm of the country’s mounting racial tensions and violence. During the interminable rainy season, everything slowly unfolds behind the school’s closed doors: friendship, curiosity, fear, deceit, and persecution.
Our Lady of the Nile is a landmark novel about a country divided and a society hurtling towards horror. In gorgeous and devastating prose, Mukasonga captures the dreams, ambitions and prejudices of young women growing up as their country falls apart.