Originally published eighteen years after the Rwandan genocide, Our Lady of the Nile takes place at a prestigious all-girls boarding school fifteen years before the atrocities, where it portrays the genocide’s future victims and perpetrators. Scholastique Mukasonga—a Rwandan author who lost her mother and thirty-six other family members during the hundred day massacre—stages the eponymous boarding school as a microcosm of Rwanda at the end of the 1970’s, and she illustrates the ideological climate that propelled the nation toward the carnage of 1994.
The novel opens with a general description of the school and the girls who attend it. The girls are “daughters of ministers, high-ranking officers, businessmen, and rich merchants,” and they “know just how much they’re worth.” The differences between the ethnicities are never far from the girls’ minds, and references to individuals’ race clutter the opening pages. From the first paragraph, the narrator distinguishes between the races as it points out how the white teachers declare the school’s elevation to be 2,500 meters while the Rwandan geography teacher states it is 2,493 meters. At the school, such minor differences between races merit notice.
In the early pages, as the novel establishes the school’s politics, it has the Rwandan teacher declare “History means Europe and Geography, Africa” for “Africa had no history…before the missionaries.” Along with many hushed actions throughout the novel, the teacher’s conscious forgetting emphasizes that even before the genocide, there had been “many things not discussed in Rwanda,” and the novel most opposes this tendency to silence and forget
The novel meanders through detailed vignettes for much of its earlier chapters. The first few chapters establish the setting and the girls’ daily routine and describe many of the girls in detail, such as Virginia (one of only two Tutsi students), Gloriosa (an emboldened Hutu), and Immaculée (a Hutu with few political concerns). For much of the book, the various chapters’ plots appear unconnected. One involves a girl’s first period and the various reactions she receives. Another is of the visit from the Belgian royalty. Still another regards one of the student’s scandalous romantic relationship.
Rather than thread together via plot, the individual chapters interlock through their shared characters and themes. The narrative’s pace occasionally drags, but the specificity and abundant detail establish the inescapable politics of the time, and the novel develops the characters’ distinct personalities and motivations. With the politics and characters already firmly rooted, the last fifty pages wind the various strands around a single plot, and without the need to explain the actions’ motivations or significance the narrative is free to race toward its tragic climax.
In a scene typifying of many of the novel’s early vignettes, various girls argue over the proper way to cook bananas. Godelive, a Hutu, complains of the food the whites serve at the school and says that once she returns home she and her mother “will prepare real bananas.” Gloriosa snaps at Godelive and proclaims she knows nothing. While Gloriosa describes the proper way to cook bananas, Modesta, whose mother is Tutsi and father is Hutu, interrupts Gloriosa with her own mother’s method, which she describes as the “real recipe.”
The argument continues when Goretti instructs Modesta on how to prepare bananas for “true Rwandans.” Finally, Virginia says none of the girls have had the best bananas, for bananas have to be eaten in the fields and the girls are all from the city. The conversation quickly turns vicious as Gloriosa reproaches Virginia and says she should have “stayed in the sticks munching bananas in the fields” to make room at the school for a “real Rwandan from the majority people.” For the girls, even bananas carry important political connotations. Importantly, the novel consistently roots the political discussions to the girls’ everyday affairs, such as bananas, and rarely has them discuss the national situation, thereby preventing the novel from becoming a just a polemic on the politics that led to the genocide.
Through these sudden twists toward the political, the novel emphasizes the contentious ideologies that frame the girls’ thoughts and actions, and it foreshadows what’s to come. If the novel had only focused on the politics of the era, it might have served as an interesting anthropological illustration of the ethnic and cultural divisions that contributed to the genocide, but failed as a novel. However, even as Mukasonga crafts characters who appear to be archetypes, she does not lose sight of their individuality, and she molds them into believable and complex persons. When the novel displays Modesta’s first period or one of girl’s encounter with a pedophile, it displays the girls’ vulnerability. The students often pepper their arguments with proclamations about what their parents have said, since for them the voice of an adult automatically lends authority, so even as they make high-minded speeches the girls remain naïve adolescents attempting to make sense of their world. Their vulnerability and naivety allow for a sympathetic portrayal of even the worst of them and show future perpetrators of unfathomable crimes as humans rather than as simple personifications of evil.
Through the constant references to ethnicity, Our Lady of the Nile never flees the genocide’s shadow. Instead, the narrative argues against the idea that Africa is only a continent without a history. Rather than shield herself from the genocide of the characters’ future and her past, Mukasonga has the novel intrepidly march toward the oncoming tragedy. Though it serves as a reminder of the divisive culture that led to the genocide, through its vibrant and believable characters the novel establishes itself as a work that merits its own discussion and remembrance.
About the reviewer:
Sebastian Sarti is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. He currently lives in New York.