Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2017

Cockroaches, by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump

cockroaches

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,

 


Responses

  1. I rated your post excellent because it prompted me to put the book on my wish list. I love world lit – contemporary or classic – fiction or non – and African lit is so interesting. I’ve read quite a few Egyptian and South African and Nigerian novels but only a couple from Rwanda – what was it … “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families” by Philip Gourevitch (had to look that up!) This sounds very interesting – informative. Now to find the time! lol

    • Thanks:)
      There was also A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche, did you read that one? But your comment prompted me to check: both Courtemanche (US) and Gourevitch (France) were journalists, looking from the outside in, and they are male too. Cockroaches is by a Rwandan woman, which makes it different in perspective.
      Not long ago I read a Holocaust memoir by a woman (Sister, Sister by Anna Blay) and also If this is a Woman by Sarah Helm and I realised that most of what I’d read had been about men’s experience of the Holocaust. So I think that realisation informed my experience of reading this book too.

  2. One that falls into the category of books you can appreciate rather than enjoy. I often marvel at how strong some people must be to endure a horrific event like this and not completely crumble

    • Yes, I did get a strong sense from this book about how hard it is to go on and yet be determined to do so. At the moment our ABCTV is advertising a program about Year 12 students and “the most dramatic year of their lives” and my response is twofold: firstly at the ignorance that many of our Year 12s (and not just our refugee students) have lived through real drama and secondly that only in a rich complacent country like ours could we overdramatise the final year of schooling in this ludicrous way.

      • Im afraid that exaggeration abounds here too. I am so tired of people in interviews saying that a particular event left them ‘devastated’

        • LOL Don’t get me started!

  3. I’m so pleased you’ve sought out this book and that you share my feelings of humility and distress on reading it. Your review has brought back many of the emotions I felt when I read ‘Cockroaches’ last year and it’s been good to be able to share views of this impressive memoir.

    • I’d like to thank you for bringing it to my attention:) I discovered your blog through my interest in Russian Lit but you have introduced me to some other great books as well:)

  4. So, you are still reading and reviewing! I’ve been checking my emails and nothing from you since that book of stories about 5 days ago. I decided to come to your blog to investigate and discover about 3 posts since! Wha! So, I clicked on the “Manage” link under “You are following this blog” and find that according to WordPress I’d blocked emails from ALL the blogs I’m following! No wonder it was looking quiet! I’ve been so busy wiht family I hadn’t notice it had been THAT quiet – just that YOU’D been quiet! Anyhow, hopefully it’s all fixed now.

    This sounds like a very worthwhile book. It’s horrific – overwhelming – to contemplate how many stories there are like this all around the world.

    • Well, that’s interesting… I’ve been wondering why things have been quiet too, but for different reasons. I think Telstra has been playing up…
      I’ve been getting only a quarter of the email traffic I usually get, and some have been MIA: The Spouse sent me two emails on Wednesday which arrived on Friday, and his brother (who got the same email) had the same problem. And then there was an Urgent Action from PEN which referred to a previous one that I’ve never received at all.
      This morning there was the usual flood of emails in the inbox but not the missing PEN one. And this makes me wonder if there are other things missing too…
      The internet has been slow too. I mean, it’s always slow because *sigh* we **still** haven’t got the NBN here, but it’s been really slow, as in dial-up slow.

      • Actually, yes I’m aware of at least one email that didn’t get where it was supposed to in the last week, which caused some problems for my parents. Funnily though, emails I’ve unsubscribed to are still coming!

        As for NBN, we can kiss that goodbye. We have underground cables in our suburb and are not even on the list. We don’t talk about it in our house!

        • It’s ridiculous. It’s when you travel overseas to somewhere like Russia and experience the speeds they have there that you realise just how 3rd world our system is…

          • I know. It’s pretty awful isn’t it?


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