“Don’t bear any children, because when you bring them into this world you’re giving them death. You’re not bearers of life anymore, you’re bearers of death.” (p22)
Reports vary on the extent of the Rwandan genocide that occurred in 1994, depending upon the source the numbers fall between 500,000 and one million deaths. An estimated 70% of the Tutsi population were slaughtered, along with 30% of the Pygmy Batwa people. Tutsi writer Scholastique Mukasonga had settled in France two years prior to the genocide, later leaning that twenty seven of her family members had been massacred.
Prior to fleeing to Burindi and then onto France, Scholastique Mukasonga and her family were displaced, along with a large number of other Tutsi people, to the Bugesera district of Rwanda, an underdeveloped and harsh region. It is the experiences of this life in exile that is the subject of her latest work to be translated in English, ‘The Barefoot Woman’ (tr. Jordan Stump). These tales form an homage to her slain mother, the central driver of each of the ten chapters.
Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words – words in a language you didn’t understand – to do as you asked. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body. (p9)
A powerful, moving and heartbreaking opening to a book that shakes you on almost every page, this is a story of exile, survival, of extremely inhumane acts against the Tutsi. The simple things in life become something to celebrate, to share with her readers, celebration for things we take for granted, like the home;
An inzu (and I’ll keep its name in Kinyarwanda, because the only words French gives me to describe it sounds contemptuous: hut, shanty, shack…). There are precious few houses life Stefania’s left in Rwanda today. Now they’re in museums, life the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life, of children’s laughter, of the young girls’ lively chatter, the quiet singsong of storytelling, the scrape of the grinding stone on the sorghum grains, the bubbling of the jugs full of fermenting beer, and just by the front door, the rhythmic pounding of the pestle in the mortar. How I wish the lines I write on this page could be the path that leads me back to Stefania’s house! (pg 30-31)
A simple foodstuff, like bread, has a raft of associated rituals, memories and actions, a whole chapter alone is dedicated to ‘bread’. And there is the sharing of traditions;
Sorghum is harvested in July, at the start of the dry season. But before that, when the heads have already formed but the grains aren’t quite dry yet, my mother celebrated Umuganura. Umuganura is the name of the festival and also of the sorghum paste you have to eat for the occasion. There was no question of harvesting before the whole family had eaten the first sorghum paste, in accordance with the ritual. No ethnologist had told us that what we were doing was celebrating the first fruits of the harvest, but we knew that Umuganura marked the start of a new year, that this was the time to make wishes so the year ushered in by the sorghum would bring us good fortune. Back then, we knew nothing of the white people’s New Year’s Day. (pgs 43-44)
Colonisation, and the role of the Belgians, their introduced customs, plants, the fact that the Huta authorities were put in charge by the Belgians are also peppered throughout the work;
In the Rwanda of the Belgians or President Kayibanda, joining the church was the surest, smoothest path to “civilization.” In seminaries and convent schools, the clothes, the food, the bedding, everything – or almost – was just like the white people’s. If you were properly fervent in your obedience to the rules of conduct and piety that were imposed on you, then without too much effort you could enter the much-envied ranks of the evolved people. (pgs 90-91)
This collection of what it means to be ostracised, exiled, highlighting numerous small details of not only colonisation, but also the humiliation of extradition in your own country. Details such as the state of one’s feet, the Tutsi in exile worked barefoot, therefore their feet were worn, damaged, cracked. In school they were branded lesser citizens due to the state of their feet! (Hence the book’s title).
Scholastique Mukasonga’s first novel to be translated into English, ‘Our Lady of the Nile’ (tr. Melanie Mauther), was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award in 2016 and made the longlist of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. And instead of a fictionalised account of life as a Tutsi exile, here is a collection on memories, but memories that are not only brutal or shocking, such as the horrific incidents of rape, but also delicate stories of pride, resistance and survival.
A moving and educational work from a voice that has rightfully been published in numerous languages, this is another poignant work from Scholastique Mukasonga and one that should be more widely read. If only the stories of the horrors that exiled people suffered under their original country’s regimes, or more stories of the brutality of colonisation were published, maybe a little more compassion from our world leaders would be forthcoming.
Review copy supplied to me courtesy of the publisher.