“You know we Tutsi never reveal our secrets, Veronica. We’re taught to keep our mouths shut. We have to, if we want to stay alive. You know what our parents tell us: ‘Your tongue is your enemy.’ If you think you’ve got a secret to share, you can trust me. I can keep a secret.”
Welcome to the world of the Tutsi and a book which reveals their secrets.
The Tutsi, from Rwanda, a race where in 1994 an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 Rwandans were killed – 20% of the population and 70% of Rwandan Tutsi’s were killed in a planned genocide. And now we have the novel “Our Lady of the Nile” exploring the situation in Rwanda at the time, and giving the Tutsi a literary voice. Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956, being displaced at four years of age to the polluted and under-developed Bugesera district of Rwanda. She fled to Burundi and in 1992 settled in France. In the aftermath of the genocide of the Tutsi she learned that 27 of her family members had been massacred. This book is her first novel, following on from her autobiographical “Inyenzi ou les Cafards”. A winner of the Renaudot Prize, the Ahamadou Kourouma Award and the French Voices Grand Prize this is a novel you should read to expand your horizons and learn more about a secret tribe.
Our story takes place in the all-girls school (or lycee) of “Our Lady of the Nile” a school high in the mountains where the source of the Nile can be found.
It’s a girls’ lycee. The boys stay down in the capital. The reason for building the lycee so high up was to protect the girls, by keeping them far away from the temptations and evils of the big city. Good marriages await these young lycee ladies, you see. And they must be virgins when they wed – or at least not get pregnant beforehand. Staying a virgin is better, for marriage is a serious business. The lycee’s boarders are daughters of ministers, high-ranking army officers, businessmen, and rich merchants. Their daughters’ weddings are the stuff of politics, and the girls are proud of this – they know what they are worth. Gone are the days when beauty was all that mattered. Their families will receive far more than cattle or the traditional jugs of beer for their dowry, they’ll get suitcases stuffed full of banknotes, or a healthy account with the Banque Belgolaise in Nairobi or Brussels. Thanks to their daughters, these families will grow wealthy, the power of their clans will be strengthened, and the influence of the lineage will spread far and wide. The young ladies of Our Lady of the Nile know just how much they are worth.
This is also a place where the Tutsi attend, and we have stories of the school photos being taken down as the portraits have been slashed or marked with question marks, the people either dead or missing. Our story follows a group of the school girls, Gloriosa and Modesta, girls of non-Tutsi influence and Virginia and Veronica Tutsi and Immaculee a friend but not Tutsi. Whilst the plot is a simple tale of girls attending school and their daily tribulations (and brushes with extreme situations) it is the under lying story of the exploitation and fear of the Tutsi which is our plot here.
We may have situations where French volunteer teachers, sent by the military, who have long hair “He’s a hippie,…the young people in America are all like that now”, but it is the discussions amongst the students where the real revelations occur, the Rwandan culture, for example the various ways their families cook bananas, the myth of rain: “No need to fetch water because we make banana-leaf gutters to catch the rain. We can shower and do our washing at home. We spend our time roasting corn as we roast our feet. But be careful, if the cob bursts and the kernels fly that attracts lightning.”
We also have the mysterious Fontenaille, who lives high in the mountains, a European entranced by the history of the Tutsi, the tribe who “had kept their cows, their sacred bulls, and their noble bearing, their daughters had kept their beauty. But they had lost their memory.”
This is a simple tale but an amazing revelation, as each page is turned we are hearing the memory of the Tutsi, we are learning more and more of the people who were subjected to genocide, however it is all set in a simple location of a girl’s boarding school. We have the day to day tribulations, the young girls starting the menstrual cycle, what it is to be female in Rwanda:
“That’s my blood. It’s how you become a woman. Every month I’ll be shut up in my room. Mommy told me that’s how it is for women. She takes the straw I’ve soiled, and at night she burns it, secretly. Then she buries the ashes in a deep hole. She’s scared a witch doctor might steal it for his evil spells, and our fields will wither, and my sisters and I will become infertile because my first menstrual blood that could put the whole family at risk.”
We also have the history of Rwanda as told through the tales of young girls:
“Now, listen to me. I went to the swamp, the great endless swamp of Nyabarongo, on your behalf and for the Queen’s umuzimu. There’s no path; if you step into it and sink, you’ll be walking forever and never get out. But I know how to reach this little hut, not just any hut, even though it looks like a hunter’s shelter, it’s the House of the Drum. You can’t see the Drum when you enter the hut, for it’s buried, deep down in the earth beneath you. It’s Karinga, the Drum of the kings, the Drum of Rwanda, the Root of Rwanda: it holds all of Rwanda in its entrails. Have you ever heard Karinga roar? Now, when Karinga rumbled – for Karinga wasn’t beaten like any other drum, Karinga rumbled of its own accord – the whole of Rwanda heard it, they said that everything under the sun heard it, women suddenly stood still, leaning on their hoes, men’s hands froze above their beer jug, unable to plunge the straw in, the hunter pulling back the string of his bow couldn’t release his arrow, the shephers playing his flute lost his breath, cows forgot to graze, and mothers to breastfeed their babies. When Karinga ceased rumbling, it was as if the country awoke from some great bewitchment. No one could say for how long Karinga had thundered. Karinga’s enemies pursued him and sought to burn him, so Karinga buried himself in the earth. His enemies looked for him but never found him. Perhaps Karinga will surge forth from the earth one day. Nobody knows when. But buried in the ground, he still watches over Rwanda, for no one has been able to expose the contents of the drum’s belly. Even I don’t know. Nobody has seen Karinga’s heart. It’s the secret of secrets.”
There is so much more in this innocent tale of high school girls, Rwanda’s history, the fables, the fate of the Tutsi, visits from the Queen of Belgium to the school (colonialism gone rife) and tales of the Rwandan President giving up his daughter to the childless royals from Belgium, stories of witches, fortune tellers, potions and poisons, gorillas being looked after by a mysterious white woman.
An amazingly simple tale but one which opens up the heart of Rwanda, the humanising of the genocidal tale, the political angst and the mythology surrounding the families. Thanks to Archipelago Books for bringing this novel into English, a new audience has been found to ensure the forgotten Tutsi of Rwanda still have a voice, and a rightful place. Part of their secrets are revealed, and what a multi-layered complex set of secrets we are fortunate enough to take part in.