Close to the source of the Nile in the Rwandan district of Nyambinombe, is the fictitious Catholic boarding school Our Lady of the Nile established by Belgian nuns for the “advancement of women through education in the Christian faith” and the setting of Scholastique Mukasonga’s novel of the same name. Originally published in France in 2012 it is one of the four translated books on a shortlist of ten for the International Dublin Literary award – with a prize money of 100,000 Euros for a single work of fiction, one of the richest literary awards globally.
The boarding school is a colonial relic, far removed from post-independence ethnic politics with its Hutu Power Movement and growing radical youth militias in the capital Kigali. It is a shelter for the daughters of high-ranking government officials and a small number of Tutsi scholarship students admitted under a quota system; a place where students are made to shed their African names in favour of old-fashioned Catholic ones like Gloriosa, Modesta or Immaculee.
There is a long tradition of placing narratives in boarding schools, mostly in books for younger readers, as the setting can serve both as a microcosm of the society outside the school walls and a laboratory of social change away from the prying eyes and authority of parents. Mukasonga masterfully plays with the tropes of her plot device and with a gentle and dry wit reveals the fault lines of ethnic divisions, exemplified by Hutu student Gloriosa, the daughter of an army commander, bullying her Tutsi class mate Virginia.
The story of Our Lady of the Nile unfolds in the years leading up to the genocide in 1994 in which over three bloody months up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered. Mukasonga, a Tutsi herself, managed to flee in the early 1990s, first to neighbouring Burundi and then to France, but 27 members of her extended family perished. She has published four books of autobiographical nonfiction and this is her first novel.
It seems uncouth to question the aesthetic choices of an author with her background, yet the fundamental artistic dilemma of whether it is at all possible to adequately convey the sheer terror of a genocide in the written word is also at the core of Our Lady of the Nile. Does the way the story is told deepens our knowledge and more importantly our emotional understanding of the events from 1994?
Mukasanga’s cleverly circumvents the pitfalls of directly describing the genocide by concentrating on the time leading up to it and so illuminating the conditions which enabled these events. The tension driving the narrative is not so much inherent in the plot itself but is to a large extent created by the contrast between the whimsy on the page and the reader’s knowledge of the real horrors that await.
The portrayal of European culture looms large in this context, both as a focus of desire and rejection. The girls dream of studying in Belgium, coyly lust after the young French volunteer teacher with his long hair and decorate the walls with cut-outs from old copies of Marie Claire and Vogue. At the same time, the old Belgian plantation owner pursues Virginia, projecting onto her his colonial fantasies of Tutsis as descendants of Egyptian pharaohs or Moses’ lost tribe – a travesty which led the colonial administration to favour Tutsis, thus greatly contributing to the ethnic tensions.
The ambivalent relationship with Europe culminates in the high farce of a school visit by the then Belgian queen Fabiola which highlights the inability and unwillingness of Rwanda’s former colonial masters to understand the political, cultural and racial complexities of the colony they once ruled.
Both Virginia and Gloriosa respond by asserting African values in their different ways. Virginia seeks refuge in half-forgotten shamanic traditions in search of a genuine Tutsi identity, while Gloriosa tries to strengthen her power base among her posse of school mates. In a darkly ironic final twist, her ill-fated attempt at surreptitiously giving the stature of the Mary, Holy Mother after which the school is named a more Hutu appearance cause an eruption of racial tensions. By then, the faux naiveté of the narrator’s voice has lulled the reader into a false sense of security which renders the sudden violence that ends the narrative all the more shocking and provides a premonition of the impending carnage.
Scholastique Mukasonga. Our Lady of the Nile (translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner). Archipelago Books.