Scholastique Mukasonga: Cockroaches and Our Lady of the Nile

It is and it isn’t Kafkaesque. 

It is; because, not too long ago, the Tutsi woke up as inyenzi — cockroaches.

It isn’t; because it is no longer allegory, no longer fiction. 

“The soldiers… were always there to remind us what we were… cockroaches. Nothing human about us. One day we’d have to be got rid of.”

Mukasonga, who lost a family, a clan, and an entire people in the Rwandan genocide, chronicles life as a Tutsi in Hutu-dominated Rwanda in Cockroaches. As a child, she and her family were forced to relocate to a camp during the first pogroms against the Tutsi; and from then on, they knew what awaited them.

“Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide.”

In this exceptional albeit disturbing account, we become witnesses to how hatred and prejudice crescendoed from the 1950s into what erupted as the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

“And I alone preserve the memory of it. That’s why I’m writing this.”

This book is, indeed, a paper grave; written by someone who, in Mukasonga’s words, has the sorrow of surviving.

_ _ _

In two chapters of Cockroaches, she gives an account of being unexpectedly accepted to the prestigious Lycée Notre Dame de Citeaux, a Catholic boarding school in Kigali. What was a mere couple of chapters in Cockroaches becomes a fictionalized novel in Our Lady of the Nile.

The elite boarding school for young women perched on the ridge of the Nile remarkably becomes a microcosm of Rwandan society. Corruption, ethnopolitical conflict, history, their myths, Rwanda’s relationship with the west, orientalists, disinformation and lies that fuel prejudice — “It’s not lies,” justifies one of the girls, “it’s politics” — the complexities of government and society; how Mukasonga proficiently mirrors these through the lives of the young women makes it one of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read.

I found myself wanting for not having read her sooner, and these works make me believe that an African section of a library would be inadequate without Mukasonga.

These are essentials in world literature. The word essential has been abused, but there are times when essential is appropriate.

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