Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 13, 2019

Our Lady of the Nile, by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Melanie L. Mauthner

This is a heart-breaking book. Our Lady of the Nile is a prelude to the Rwandan Genocide against the Tsuti, depicting in fiction the divisions in Rwandan society in the microcosm of an elite girls’ school. Scholastique Mukasonga is a Rwandan refugee now living in France, and I have previously read her searing memoir Cockroaches (2006, translated into English in 2016).  This novel (Notre Dame du Nil) followed in 2012 and was translated in 2014.

Our Lady of the Nile draws on the author’s own experience at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Citeaux, which she attended as one of the Tutsi quota. It was because she had fled to Burundi after being attacked by Hutu students at that school, that she did not witness the genocide, and escaped the slaughter of her family.

Like the elusive source of the Nile, the causes of ethnic hatred in Rwanda are hard to identify.  The girls who attend the school are there to be prepared for a role in elite society.  They are insulated from the rest of their community in order to protect their purity, and keep them safe.  But school turns out to be not so safe for the Tutsi girls who are only there on sufferance, a token presence to make it look as if they are treated equally in a society which has been discriminating against them for decades.

Spitefulness is revealed in all sorts of ways.  Virginia wants to save a little sugar for her sisters in the village.  She doesn’t like sugar, but her sisters have never tasted it, so she gathers small quantities of it in an envelope to send to them, though—being Tutsi—she always gets the cup last when there is almost nothing left.  Even so, she is accused of stealing when all she has done is to save what she could have had for herself. Dorothée agrees not to tell only on condition that Virginia writes her essays for her, for the rest of the year.  It is obvious that Virginia merits her place in this elite school because Dorothée’s marks suddenly improve…

The colonial history of Rwanda is evident in the school staff and its curriculum.  There are only two Rwandan teachers, one who teaches the local language Kinyarwanda and the other who teaches history and geography:

History meant Europe, and Geography, Africa.  Sister Lydwine was passionate about the Middle Ages. Her classes were all about castles, keeps, arrow slits, machicolations, drawbridges, and bartizans. Knights set off on crusades, with the Pope’s blessing, to liberate Jerusalem and massacre the Saracens, while others fought duels with lances for the eyes of ladies wearing pointy hats. Sister Lydwine talked of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and Richard the Lionheart. “I’ve seen them in movies!” said Veronica, unable to contain herself.

“Will you please be quiet!” said Sister Lydwine crossly. “They lived a very long time ago, before your ancestors had even set foot in Rwanda.”

Africa had no history, because Africans could neither read nor write before the missionaries opened their schools. Besides, it was the Europeans who had discovered Africa and dragged it into history. And if there had been any kings in Rwanda, it was better to forget them, for the country was now a Republic.  Africa had mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, deserts, forests, and even a few cities. It was just a question of memorizing their names and finding them on the map: Kilimanjaro, Tamanrasset, Karisimbi, Timbuktu, Tanganyika, Muhabura, Fouta Djallon, Kivu, Ouagadougou. (Kindle edition, Loc 402)

Episodes like this show that the Europeans were out of their depth when they redrew lines on a map to suit their colonial ambitions.

But Rwanda’s geography is not just a matter of memorising names on a map:

For many long months, rain becomes the Sovereign of Rwanda, a far greater ruler than the former King or the current President. Her coming is eagerly awaited and entreated. Famine or plenty, it’s Rain who will decide. Rain, the good omen of a fertile marriage. First rains, at the end of the dry season, making children dance as they turn their faces skyward to receive the fat drops for which they’ve longed. Shameless rain, revealing the budding curves of all young women beneath their drenched wraparounds. Violent, capricious, punctilious Mistress, pitter-pattering on every sheet-metal roof, on those sheltering in the banana groves or in the muddy neighbourhoods of the capital. She who casts her net over the lake, and diminishes the volcanoes’ hugeness; she who reigns over the vast forests of the Congo, the very guts of Africa. Rain, endless Rain, unto the ocean that bore her. (Loc 563)

Those of us who’ve grown up on the iconic story of Jane Goodall’s longitudinal study of chimpanzees in Tanzania will be interested to see the other side of the story.  The students resent their (white) teacher’s appropriation of gorillas as his own :

When it came to gorillas, you could never get him to shut up. Monsieur de Decker was the one and only expert. Much to his wife’s despair, he climbed Mount Muhabura every weekend to observe them; this year, he had even sacrificed his trip back to Belgium for the long vacation. It was as if he’d always lived in their midst. He was most at ease with the dominant male who had let him count his females. A mother gorilla whose young he’d tended remained duly grateful. However much the guides might caution prudence, try to hold him back, Monsieur de Decker had no fear of these great apes. He was familiar with the character of each member of the group, could predict their reactions, and was able to communicate with them. Indeed, he no longer even needed a guide. The gorillas, he felt certain, were Rwanda’s future, her treasure, her opportunity. They needed protecting and their habitat needed to be expanded. The whole world had entrusted Rwanda with a sacred mission: to save the gorillas!

Monsieur de Decker’s pronouncements on the gorillas drove Goretti to a fury.

“What!” she exploded. “Again it’s the whites who discovered gorillas, just as they discovered Rwanda, Africa, and the whole planet! What about us Bakiga, haven’t the gorillas always been our neighbours? And our Batwa, were they afraid of the gorillas when they hunted them with their little bows and arrows? You’d think the gorillas only belong to the Bazungu now. They’re the only ones who can see them, or get close to them. They’re in love with the gorillas. The only interesting thing in Rwanda are the gorillas. All Rwandans must be at the service of the gorillas, tending to their every need, caring only for the gorillas, making them the entire focus of their lives. There’s even a white woman living among them. She hates all humans, especially Rwandans. She lives with the monkeys all year round. She built her home among the gorillas. She opened a health center for them. All the whites admire her. She receives a lot of money for the gorillas. I don’t want to leave the gorillas to the whites. They’re Rwandans too. We can’t leave them to foreigners. (Loc 1096-1102)

What follows is an amusing episode, except that it leads to a chilling postscript when one of the girls asks about why there were so many people at the military base…

Knowing what will come, it’s quite heartbreaking to read Leoncia’s dreams for her daughter: she is so real.  She’s loving the one-upmanship of having a really clever daughter, she’s plotting the dowry (not just cows, oh no!) and she’s decided that the husband will have his own Toyota so he could run a trading business. Even the children will have their own mattresses…

Which brings me to the question of how this novel would work for readers who don’t already know about the Rwandan Genocide.  People my age remember it vividly, but I can’t answer for whether the world has ‘moved on’.   Hopefully this book helps to keep it in public memory.

Our Lady of the Nile is a good choice for #WIT Month (Women in Translation) because it’s won an impressive collection of awards.  It won the Prix Renaudot and the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize in 2012, and the French Voices Grand Prize in 2013.  Then in 2015 it was longlisted for the BTBA (Best Translated Book Award) for Fiction and shortlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award Nominee in 2016.

Author: Scholastique Mukasonga
Title: Our Lady of the Nile (Notre Dame du Nil)
Translated from the French by Melanie L Mathner
Published by Archipelago Books, 2012, 240 pages
Source: personal library, purchased reluctantly from Amazon for the Kindle


  1. I’m not sure I’m in the right frame of mind at the moment for such a sad tale – I too remember only too vividly the genocide. My wife tells me I need to read more cheerful novels, but I don’t find them easy to identify: so much modern fiction is far from cheerful…


    • Yes, that’s true, I’d love a good satire of contemporary life to come along, something like Evelyn Waugh or Muriel Spark would be nice.


  2. This sounds really powerful – a book you would need to be ready for.


    • Yes, what seems so chilling is the slow accumulation of what seem like minor discriminations that the Tutsi girls just learn to get used to.


  3. Another one for me, I think!


    • I think you’ll find that even though the violence is mostly offstage, it’s one of those books that take time to read because you need breaks from it, time out in the garden or playing with the dog, to relieve the horror of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Might be one I have waiting in the wings for the right time. Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m much happier reading violence off stage. That doesn’t sound right, does it. What I mean is that I think off stage violence is just as emotionally powerful, if not sometimes moreso, than violence described in detail, but I just don’t like reading or watching it.


        • I know what you mean. I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t exist, and I’m not putting my head in the sand, but I prefer not to have graphic descriptions of blood and gore in my reading fare.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Even though the violence is offstage, I think the cruelty of the girls would be hard to take. I constantly find myself wondering why human beings have to be so vile to each other…


    • The *only* thing I remember about the teenage girls at my last school was how cruel they were. I didn’t care, I must have had a hide like a rhino, but I can remember being vaguely bewildered about why they bothered so much.
      (And isn’t it awful that I can’t remember anything else about them? I would not like to be remembered only for that.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I found this so touching and vivid she really captures the horror of those events


    • Hi STu, thanks for dropping by:)
      Yes, and although it is never said, you can almost sense the author ransacking her memories for all the ‘little’ things that pointed towards what was to come. If only, if only, people had realised in time to prevent it.


  6. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Looks very interesting!


  7. […] Our Lady of the Nile, by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Melanie L. Mauthner […]


  8. […] Our Lady of the Nile […]


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