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Scholastique Mukasonga: Notre-Dame du Nil (Our Lady of the Nile)

If you read a Rwandan novel from the last forty or so years, there is a good chance that it will be about the Hutus and Tutsis and this one certainly is. It is partly autobiographical – one of the characters, Virginia, is based, at least in part, on Mukasonga. Virginia has an aunt called Skolastika and is the only character whose real (i.e. Rwandan) name is given, Mutamuriza (meaning Don’t make her cry).

While the Hutu-Tutsi theme runs throughout the book, the book also tells the story of a girls’ school, located in the Rwandan highlands. The school has been set up there to give a good education to the daughters of the better-off Rwandans and, essentially, train them for marriage and motherhood or, as Queen Fabiola of Belgium will later say, one of three professions: midwife, nurse or social worker.

As the title shows the school is located near the Nile or, rather, it isn’t. Not far from the school is a river and, above it, a sign sayingSource of the Nile. Cock Mission 1924. This is entirely fictitious. Traditionally, John Speke identified Lake Victoria as the source of the Nile. However, the source of the source of the Nile has been indeed identified as being in Rwanda but not necessarily where Mukasonga located it.

Getting back to the story, there is a statue of the Madonna overlooking the site, set up in 1953, well before the school was built. The Madonna is the conventional European Madonna, except that she is painted black. Every year, the school (a very Catholic school) has what it calls a pilgrimage to this site.

Though, as mentioned, the Tutsi-Hutu theme runs through the book, much of it consists of individual chapters, each one with its own story related to the school. We start with the construction of the school, which has its own problems.

The Tutsi-Hutu theme comes early when one of the senior girls, Gloriosa Nyiramasuka, Hutu, daughter of a powerful father, comments on the fact that a local shop is inevitably run by a Tutsi. Gloriosa will essentially become the leader of the anti-Tutsi faction.

We follow some of the girls. There is Frida who is having an affair with the Zairean ambassador and, indeed, he transports her to the school. He later comes for a visit and insists that his fiancée spends the nights with him. The Mother Superior and priest are horrified but also pragmatic and accept it, even when Frida is clearly pregnant.

The two Tutsis we follow are Veronica and Virginia. They meet M. de Fontenaille, a Belgian artist who had come out to grow coffee and has apparently made a lot of money doing so. However, he has now abandoned coffee planting in favour of an anthropological theory, namely that the Tutsis are the descendants of the Egyptian pharaohs. However, having seen Veronica, he has decided that she is just like the Black Madonna and is, therefore, a resurrected queen, as is Virginia. He tries to get the two girls involved in a project he has. Virginia later consults an old sorcerer on this and follows his advice.

We also learn something of the teachers. There are only two Rwandan teachers, the one who teaches Kinyarwanda, the local language (Swahili is banned as being a deplorable language) and the history/geography teacher. French is taught by French coopérants (roughly equivalent to VSO in the UK and the Peace Corps in the US) who tend to be a bit casual for the Mother Superior.

Science is taught by Mr de Decker, the only man who has his wife with him. He is very keen on gorillas and often spends his time tracking them down. One of the girls points out that gorillas, though Rwandan, seem to belong to the whites, as there is a white woman studying them (presumably Dian Fossey) who only lets whites see them. She is bitter about this and persuades her powerful father to take her and a friend to see them. She claims that they did see them, though there is some doubt about this.

Finally, English is taught by Miss South, a very stereotypical English woman (dowdy, plain, short hair) who is the only teacher who seems unable to control her class, not least because the pupils do not see why they should learn English. Her behaviour leads them to think that she is blind, mad or drunk.

Other issues we follow include the weather. The rainy season starts as school starts and it does pose a problem, not least for vehicles coming up from Kigali. The priest does not behave in a priestly manner and sexually harasses the girls. Dealing with menstruation, clearly a taboo subject in Rwanda which mothers do not seem to discuss with their daughters, takes up an entire chapter as does the visit of Queen Fabiola, not least because of the odd story that the President of Rwanda apparently planned to give the Queen and her husband, King Baudouin, one of his daughters, as the King and Queen did not have any children.

However, gradually, the Tutsi-Hutu issue creeps in. It is fomented by Gloriosa in the school but is clearly happening elsewhere in Rwanda. We know full well what happened, though we only see the beginning here. Violence breaks out and the Tutsis face considerable danger. Mukasonga herself had to flee the country while many of her family were killed.

There are not many Rwandan novels and even fewer available in English so it is good to have this one. Mukasonga writes well and while the Tutsi-Hutu issue does not really become threatening till near the end, there is clearly an undercurrent all the time which Gloriosa does her best to promote. Much of the novel, of course, is the story of an elite girls’ school and the problems faced by having such a school in a remote part of the country with girls used to being spoiled and being taught how to be future good wives and mothers. It is clear that the school does not make a success of this.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Gallimard
First published in English 2014 by Archipelago Books