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No Calm Before the Storm in Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga

“Rwanda is the land of Death. You remember what they used to tell us in catechism: God roams the world, all day long, but every evening He returns home to Rwanda. Well, while God was traveling, Death took his place, and when He returned, She slammed the door in his face. Death established her reign over our poor Rwanda. She has a plan: she’s determined to see it through to the end. I’ll return when the sunshine of life beams over our Rwanda once more. I hope I’ll see you there again.”

I love a good book (let’s have a conversation about what makes a good book one day) and sometimes I like swaying out of my reading list to read books on other readers’ lists. I am quite the adventurer when it comes to reading. This week I decided to pick a book from a fellow Zimbabwean reader’s list, Chido Nyaruwata. Chido is a travel, lifestyle and book blogger who has curated a reading list entitled ‘African Wom?nhood Reading List’ on her blog Stories From A Reforming Salala (you can check out the reading list here). I randomly picked ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ from that list and I do not regret it. This book reminded me of my time in a mission boarding school. It also built upon the growing knowledge of Rwanda that I have, turning it into an educative text too. The importance of passing down stories cannot be understated. Be it oral narration or written text and other means, it is crucial that the stories continue to breathe.

‘Our Lady of the Nile’ is a novel originally written in French by Scholastique Mukasonga and is translated into English by Melanie Mauthner. While from the outset it looks like just a novel about the life of young girls in an all girls’ boarding school, it is more than that. The girls are chosen to attend this school as the elite of the nation and the future of the development of Rwanda. The lycee is meant to be a shelter for the girls, their protection from the outside society and all its bad influence. What I enjoyed about this book is that within that context of the school we see the truth that it is also a melting pot containing that discrimination, misogynistic socialization, sexual harassment, the white superiority complex, colonialism and fear of the unknown which runs deep. No fence or separation from the whole of society can take it away unless it is uprooted from the systems that create it. There are some beautiful friendships in this book too which put to light the value of communion and companionship despite the system. Made up of twelve Chapters this book takes you from girlish love, gossip, to tribal wars, gorillas and history.

The discrimination of the Tutsi by the Hutu is evident from the beginning. The book starts on the first day of school of a new term, the reader sees that a school that is meant to be the backbone of the development and future of Rwanda promotes discrimination. A school meant to shine light, ‘Our Lady of the Nile would provide her daughter with the kind of democratic, Christian education appropriate to the female elite of a country that had undergone a social revolution, freeing it from the injustices of a feudal system,’ has a quota system; two Tutsi for twenty Hutu pupils. The animosity on the outside of the school of the Hutu towards the Tutsi is evident among the pupils, the majority vs the minority (bearing in mind that this is a situation intentionally created by a school and the government of the day to make the Tutsi a minority). A few weeks ago I read an autobiography by a survivor of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide and I found some reinforcement of the truth in this text. The dehumanizing terms which Yolande Mukagasana draws attention to in her autobiography ‘Not My Time To Die’ (you can read my review here) are scattered in the language of the young girls at Our Lady of the Nile. Like those on the outside, they refuse to name the Tutsi, to see them as humans, to see them as worthy of even the slightest respect or decency by choosing to refer to them as serpents, cockroaches and parasites. What is in a name? Everything. Cockroaches and serpents can be squashed and destroyed, that means that to them the Tutsi are worthless, harmful, a nuisance and disposable. The importance of this picture of tribal discrimination in this book is that it shows how the harmful words were put into action. In this school based on the tenets of Christianity and democracy, Tutsi students are among other things, served last in the refectory (so that they get the scraps and crumbs), they are harassed and humiliated. How sheltered are these girls from the evil of the world, just how progressive is the school and for whose benefit? It allows us to question how sheltered/progressive we are if we bear the hate in our hearts.

Another important theme in the book is femininity and the meaning of womanhood. This review would be lacking if I do not highlight this seeing that the reading list which inspired the reading of this text centers and aims to explore the depiction of womanhood in literature by various African women. While it seems that it is seen as a possibility that these young girls can advance and develop Rwanda through the education that they receive at Our Lady of The Nile, there are some views and actions from the superiors that perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women. Women are shown to be powerful and the harmful expectations placed on them is also shown. This is a true reflection of society, we see the gains and acknowledge them but we can not ignore what still stands to be changed. The significance attached to menstruation is too great a burden for young girls to bear, “Don’t cry,” said Immaculée, “it happens to every girl. Surely you didn’t expect to escape it. You’re a real woman now. You’ll have children.” For them to live in fear of not being women enough until they have started their menstruation, and after that to live in fear of not being women enough until they have had children and further the fear of not being women enough until they have had sons is unfair. The conversations among the girls in the school show that they have internalized and sort of accepted their ‘fate.’ ‘“When they marry you o, that’s what they expect of you. You’re nothing to your new family, or to your husband, if you don’t have children. You must have children, boys, above all boys. It’s when you bear sons that you become a real woman, a mother, worthy of respect.” It was really interesting to see the shame attached to a girl’s body and blood in this book. (Allow me to recommend ‘Period Pain’ by Kopano Matlwa, a very good fiction book which highlights this as well). The shame attached to this natural process and the weight put on young girls in this story and in reality not to put the family to shame, not to risk the family by failing to dispose off the first menstrual blood is something quite common. The weight placed on young girls is the real curse, as if menstruation is the true test for womanhood. The mystery and stigma attached to menstruation haunts girls until they are adults. Talking about it is a taboo, experiencing it is a lonely and mysterious event. It is true that even today there is so much shame attached to the experience. When Modesta experiences her first period, instead of getting comfort, assistance and care from her peers and superiors she gets a warning of that experience being a curse that she can no longer run away from. ‘The Blood of Shame.’ I read this with the current efforts to destigmatize menstruation in mind, platforms like the The Bleed Read have been doing so well in initiating important conversations.

Lastly, this book shows that it is not by birth that young girls feel inferior but it is taught. If it is taught, then certainly it can be untaught. One of the girls says, ‘Their gaze was focused on my chest when I danced. And as soon as my mother noticed there were these little buds sprouting, she told me to cover them up, and not to show them to any men, not even my father. She gave me one of my brother’s old shirts, showed me how to sit, and especially how to lower my eyes when people spoke to me. ‘It’s only girls with no shame, and the broad-minded women of Kigali, who look a man in the face.’ Girls are brought up to be ashamed to look at people straight in the eye. Taught to cower and not maintain eye contact yet we all know the power of body language, shyness like all other things attributed as ‘natural’ to women are taught and necessitated by a patriarchal society for its benefit. Looking down can serve as a sign of guilt and/or submission in the face of the perceived power and domination ‘naturally’ handed to men. Why are girls taught to be guilty for existing? It is in this ‘progressive’ school that girls are sexually harassed by superiors (e.g the teacher and the priest who specifically targets the Tutsi girls because they are ‘beautiful’ and I also think because they are a minority). All the girls speak the same language of silence and they cannot help each other or warn each other about this priest who is a predator. This is happening out there and we need new languages that protect and fight for young girls and women.

The writing in this book is brilliant, it took me some time to warm up to it but once you get the hang of it, it flows. If the plot of this book is what was happening before 1994 and a prelude to the genocide, then there was no calm before the storm. The language is simple making the book accessible. There are so many other important themes in this book and I hope you pick it for your next read. I kept snapping my fingers as if I were at a spoken word event! With everything that happened I loved the glimmer of hope at the end, ‘Of course we will see each other again.’ You can also read Chido’s review here. I highly recommend this raw, sobering and educative book.


Book Details

Title: Our Lady of the Nile

Author: Scholastique Mukasonga

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 220

Publisher: First Archipelago Books Edition (2014)

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