I heard about this memoir of the 1994 Rwandan genocide last year via Shoshi’s Book Blog, and she’s right, books like this are hard to review because of the weight of tragedy they contain. Shoshi acknowledges that she reads mostly for entertainment, enjoyment and escapism, yet still she would recommend Cockroaches because of its value as a survivor testimony.
I think it’s important to try to know the stories of our multicultural society. There are refugees from the Rwandan genocide living among us, with memories of the horror described in this book. Because I’d seen the film Hotel Rwanda, and I remember the reports of the genocide in the news of the day – I knew this would not be an easy book to read. But I thought I owed it to them, at least, to read it.
Goodreads provides a brief bio about the author:
Born in Rwanda in 1956, Scholastique Mukasonga experienced from childhood the violence and humiliation of the ethnic conflicts that shook her country. In 1960, her family was displaced into the under-developed Nyamata. In 1973, she was forced to leave the school of social assistance in Butare and flee to Burundi. She settled in France in 1992. The genocide of the Tutsi swept through Rwanda 2 years later. Mukasonga learned that 27 of her family members had been massacred. Twelve years later, Gallimard published her autobiographical account Inyenzi ou les Cafards, which marked Mukasonga’s entry into literature. Her first novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, won the Ahamadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012.
Cockroaches begins as Mukasonga – safe in France – wakes from the nightmare of her murdered family:
Where are they now? In the memorial crypt of the church in Nyamata, nameless skulls among all the other bones? In the bush, beneath the brambles, in some mass grave that has yet to be found? Over and over, I write and rewrite their names in the blue-covered notebook, trying to prove to myself that they existed; I speak their names one by one, in the dark and the silence. I have to fix a face on each name, hang some shred of a memory. I don’t want to cry, I feel tears running down my cheeks. I close my eyes. This will be another sleepless night. I have so many dead to sit up with. (Kindle Locations 59-63).
The book then retraces her childhood which began in a rainforest in the southwest of Rwanda, in Gikongoro province. The first pogroms against the Tutsis broke out in 1959, and the family was deported to Nyamata, in Bugesera. Despite the constant fear of more outbreaks of violence, she and her siblings had a mostly happy childhood in a loving family, but they always knew that they were on borrowed time because they were so aware of the hatred of the Hutus.
Those peaceful days were a rare thing in Nyamata. The soldiers of Gako camp were always there to remind us what we were: snakes, Inyenzi, cockroaches. Nothing human about us. One day, we’d have to be got rid of. In the meantime, the terror was systematic. (Kindle Locations 609-611).
The soldiers amused themselves by terrorising schoolchildren:
From Gitagata to the school in Nyamata, the dirt road joined up with the highway that went on to the Burundi border. All the children were in a hurry to reach school before the drum sounded. But they had an even more pressing concern: they had to listen for engines. If they heard the tiniest sound, they had just time enough to dive under the coffee plants, leap into the bush, or take cover in the first house they could find. The road to Nyamata was also the road to Gako camp. Military trucks often went by, and the soldiers fired or threw grenades to terrorize any child foolish enough to walk by the side of the road. Nothing the soldiers did on the Nyamata road was a scandal, since no one ever walked it but Tutsis.
One day there were four of us on the way to school: Jacqueline, Kayisharaza, Candida, and me. A truck suddenly appeared behind us. We hadn’t heard it coming. All we could do was dive into the coffee plants. Too late! The soldiers had seen us, and they’d thrown a grenade. Kayisharaza’s leg was shredded. She had to give up on school. She couldn’t drag her dead leg all the way to Nyamata. She was the oldest girl in her family, and she became a burden for them, for her brothers and sisters. I don’t know how many schoolchildren were wounded like that on the road to Nyamata. (Kindle Locations 613-623).
In 1967 the violence became institutionalised. Hutus were lured to attend forbidden meetings and butchered with machetes, with child soldiers of the ‘revolutionary youth brigade’ left to guard victims slowly dying in the lake that was their water supply, so that families could not retrieve their bodies for burial.
There is more of this, and it is distressing to read, especially when we read that having made it safely to France Scholastique feels guilt about her survival. Because she did not witness the genocide she hopes that if she returns she might one day find some trace of her family, but feels that she should spend her money helping other refugees rather than on what she knows will be a fruitless journey.
It is hard to comprehend the numbers killed in this genocide: Scholastique’s family, all wiped out in 1994, is emblematic of its extent:
André and I could only call the roll of our dead: my father Cosma, 79 years old; my mother Stefania, maybe 74; my older sister Judith, her four children, and I’m no longer sure how many grandchildren; my brother Antoine and his wife, with nine children, the oldest twenty, the youngest five; Alexia and her husband Pierre Ntereye, and four of their children, between two and ten years of age; Jeanne, my younger sister, her four children, Douce, eight, Nella, seven, Christian, five, Nénette, one, and the baby she was eight months pregnant with. (Kindle Locations 1200-1205).
What is left is the duty to remember her loss while somehow enduring and making a new life.
There’s a World Vision group helping with recovery projects and although there is a very long way to go, you can see some of the remarkable progress they have made at Rwandan Stories.
I also have a copy of Mukasonga’s second book, a novel called Our Lady of the Nile, (Notre-Dame du Nil) published in 2014.
Author: Scholastique Mukasonga
Title: Cockroaches (Inyenzi ou les cafards)
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
Publisher: Archipelago, 2014, first published in 2006
ASN (Kindle edition): B01AEPR4TK
Personal copy. Purchased from Amazon.
the southwest of Rwanda, in Gikongoro province, at the edge of Nyungwe forest,