Welcome back dear famous feminists! I had a restful August break listening to fabulous baroque music in France with hubby DK and toy poodle Arthur (who especially loved the opera Titon et l’Aurore, which features many sheep) and re-connecting with beloved friends.
During my July trip to Rwanda, I discovered the extraordinarily powerful writing of Scholastique Mukasonga. Mukasonga was born in 1956 in rural Rwanda, into a modest cow-herding Tutsi household on one of the many breezy collines (hills) that are so typical of Rwanda’s stunning landscape. Mukasonga, the first name given to her by her father—as is customary—became her surname abroad. It means: “Another girl!” (she was the third in a row, and two more were to come) but also “The woman at the top of the colline.” Her mother Stefania, who didn’t read or write, tilled the fields, while her father Cosma worked as an accountant-clerk to a local official in South-West Rwanda. Stefania and Cosma were determined that their seven children receive an education.
Mukasonga’s idyllic early childhood was shattered by the Hutu pogroms against Tutsis that began in November 1959, when Belgium was still the colonial ruler. A year later, Mukasonga’s family, like many others, was forcibly resettled near Nyamata, in the marshy and tsetse-fly infested Bugesera plain in eastern Rwanda. Hunger and disease were daily realities. Their cows had been killed, so they had to eke out a meager living growing sorghum, sweet potatoes, beans, peanuts and bananas in poor soil. “My father spent his days leading his phantom cows into the fields of memory and regret,” writes Mukasonga in The Glorious Cow, a semi-autobiographical short story in her book Igifu.
Soldiers and militias often raided their home, destroying pots, bedding, and food. Arbitrary attacks on Tutsis were commonplace. Still, against all odds, Mukasonga and several of her siblings managed to attend secondary school under the 10 percent quota assigned to Tutsi children, and Mukasonga was admitted to the school of social work in Butare.
In 1973, when Tutsi students were suddenly forced out of higher education across the country and Hutu students attacked their Tutsi peers, Mukasonga fled on foot to Burundi in the dead of night with her older brother André. In Inyenzi, she notes with dark humor the only thing she thought to take with her were her prized high-heeled shoes; they predictably quickly fell apart on the trail. She was 16 and destitute, but thanks to Burundi’s openness to Rwandan refugees and André's support, she completed her studies in Bujumbura. André eventually became a physician in Senegal. She has worked as a social worker her entire career. She married a French development expert, had two children, and moved to France in 1992. In April 1994, 37 members of Mukasonga’s family, including her parents and her five remaining siblings and their children, were massacred in and around Nyamata by neighbors and Hutu militias.
The overwhelming horror of these events is at the core of Mukasonga’s writing, but her storytelling is also full of the beauty of Rwanda, the comforting rhythms and comical moments of village life, the pleasures of study, the discovery of the world beyond, and the solidarity and friendship ties that allowed her family to survive the hardships of internal exile (Igifu means stomach in Kinyarwandan, and there is plenty of hunger to go around). Some of her books are memoirs: Inyenzi [in English, Cockroaches], La femme aux pieds nus [The Barefoot Woman], and Un si beau diplôme! [Such a Beautiful Diploma!], but she also writes novels, notably Notre-Dame du Nil [Our Lady of the Nile] and Kibogo est monté au ciel [Kibogo], as well as collections of short stories: Ce que murmurent les collines and L’Iguifou [Igifu]. Most have been translated into English, and Mukasonga has won several literary prizes, including the prestigious Renaudot for Our Lady of the Nile, which was made into a movie in 2019. I highly recommend all of them, but I especially loved The Barefoot Woman, a tender tribute to the loving and wise Stefania.
In a fascinating 2020 interview, Mukasonga describes the feeling of constant dread that characterized her childhood as the “certainty that Tutsis were meant to be exterminated.” In Inyenzi, Mukasonga writes that when she heard of the first massacres of Tutsis immediately following the death of Habyarimana [the President of Rwanda, whose plane was shot down on April 6, 1994], “a morbid satisfaction crossed my mind: in Nyamata, for such a long time, we knew!”
The 1994 genocide did not happen suddenly but was instigated by colonial powers over decades. Pre-colonial Rwanda was a highly centralized and organized society, she notes in the interview, with oral traditions going back to the 17th century and archeological remains dated to the 10th century. Tutsis, Hutus and Twas spoke the same language, shared a similar culture and lived in the same communities: the division, such as it existed, was fluid and mostly related to economic activity: Tutsis raised cattle, while Hutus (the majority of the population) focused on agriculture and Twas on pottery-making. Royalty was Tutsi, and some of these aristocrats enjoyed considerable wealth and certain privileges over Hutus, but Mukasonga makes clear that most Tutsis lived just like every other Rwandan: very modestly.
Colonial powers, first Germany, then Belgium, came to Rwanda in the 19th century to look for the source of the Nile. They spread the idea that Tutsis hailed from Ethiopia or Egypt, or might be a lost tribe of Israel. How could such a centralized and organized society emerge in Rwanda, if not because of outside influence? Colonialists became fascinated with the religious and economic particularities of Tutsis, measured skulls and bodies to bolster their racial theories, and issued ID cards that cemented these differences.
Tutsi girls and women featured prominently in these fabulations. In Our Lady of the Nile, Fontenaille, a creepy and washed-out Belgian coffee planter, embodies that fetish as he lures Tutsi girls from the nearby school to paint their portraits as Egyptian goddesses: “I’m placing your portrait next to this photo I took in Meroe [Egypt]. This is Isis, the great goddess, unfolding her wings to protect her realm. Her breasts are bare. Look carefully at her face, it’s yours, exactly yours. They did your portrait three thousand years ago in Meroe. This is the proof.”
Colonial and Hutu obsession with female Tutsi beauty was often deadly. In The Misfortune of Being Beautiful in Igifu, Mukasonga writes: “There was no greater misfortune than to be a Tutsi beauty in Rwanda. And Helena was without doubt the most beautiful of all; her beauty was the curse and torment of her poor existence.” When Helena is hired as a secretary in a Belgian import-export business in Kigali, she is hounded out of her job and eventually has to flee to Burundi: “A wave of protests had in fact reached all the [Hutu] party’s units; relayed by the wives of the ministers, it had reached the government. What was going on, especially in Kigali, was intolerable. Why did we have a glorious social revolution? The serpents were still there, or rather their daughters, these temptress and perverted serpents, who worked their way into white society, stole the highly desirable jobs that should have gone, as of right, to authentic Rwandan women, and spread lies on the pillow to destabilize the Republic.”
The Belgians had elevated Tutsi chiefs and cast aside Hutu leaders. They were shocked when these same Tutsis demanded immediate independence in the late 1950s. Suddenly, Hutus were in favor and the Tutsis—the Inyenzi or cockroaches—had to be stamped out. Hutu leaders led Rwanda to independence, and the eradication of Tutsis became a fixture of their political program. In 1967, five years after independence, the Young Revolutionaries wing of the Parmehutu, the Hutu Party in power, was founded: its young militants sowed terror in the regions where Tutsis had been exiled. “The engine of genocide had begun turning. It would never stop. It would not stop until the final solution,” writes Mukasonga in Inyenzi. Close to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu militias and civilians in the spring of 1994.
In The Barefoot Woman, Mukasonga recounts how Stefania was always on the lookout for Hutu attackers. She would hide food in various places at some distance from the village to help any potential escapees, and even had her son Antoine try to dig a tunnel below her bed. Stefania would suddenly stop tilling her field or cooking a meal, and vehemently ask her youngest daughters to remember to cover her body with a traditional cloth if she died: “The dead body of a mother cannot be seen. It’s up to you my daughters to cover my body, it’s a duty that is solely yours.” This left the girls confused, deeply frightened and constantly on the alert, ready to throw a cloth on their mother at any moment.
However, in a devastating introduction to the book, Mukasonga laments that, “I did not cover my mother’s body. No one was there to cover it. The murderers were able to take their time to look at the body their machetes had hacked. Maman, I wasn’t there to cover you and I only have words—words in a language you didn’t understand—to accomplish the task. I’m alone with my poor words. My sentences, on the page of a notebook, weave and re-weave the shroud for your missing body.” I wonder how Mukasonga found the strength to write these words.
The traditional society of women in Rwanda and its particular customs feature prominently in The Barefoot Woman. In Mukasonga’s childhood, rural women would get together at least once a week to eat, smoke their pipe, and make decisions for the community. Women were in charge of education, health, economic matters and marriage strategies, while men dealt with justice, foreign affairs, and local officials. As soon as possible after their exile to Bugesera, women helped organize primary schooling for their children by enlisting displaced Tutsi teachers, and Stefania even persuaded a neighbor who wasn’t sending his daughters to school to do so.
When it came to female sexual matters, women would not teach their own daughters; when they were about ten years old, they would send them to an aunt or an older girl to be told the basics. “Sex, the topic, was absolutely taboo. The [Kinyarwandan] words for sex were never uttered. We knew those words, of course, and yet we had never heard them. I wonder how everyone ended up learning them. Yet the sex of girls was the subject of grave preoccupations.” A fearsome local woman, Suzanne, was in charge of examining girls’ sexual characteristics before marriage to ensure they were “in conformity.”
As for Stefania, she was a renowned matchmaker, a trusted adviser to the mothers of young men in search of a wife. Matchmaking reinforced traditional gender stereotypes, but Stefania performed her role with kindness: “Was she from a respectable family? Did her manners and attitude denote a good education? Was she a hard worker, never hesitating to grab her hoe? Did she bear the signs of a happy fertility? Her beauty, of course, was examined in careful detail: was her bearing, as the song says, as graceful as that of cattle? Were her eyes as impossibly charming as those of the young cow? Did she swing her behind with sufficient majesty? Could one hear as she walked by, the soft swish-swish of her thighs rubbing against each other? Were her legs covered in a fine network of stretch marks? [Stretch marks? I’m ready to promote Rwandan beauty standards!] The qualities and flaws of the candidates were aligned, especially the flaws. This is called in Kinyarwandan kunegurana [criticism of others] and it is the subject of much laughter. Stefania, as an impartial judge, would nevertheless always mention the progress she had seen some of them make. No one would ever be definitely cast aside; it was always possible to be chosen.”
The increasing violence against Tutsi communities by Hutu militants caused a major shift in gender norms in Mukasonga’s village. Rape was also a taboo topic, and if a girl became pregnant before marriage as a result of rape, she was traditionally sent away to give birth. She could come back after a time, but her child, born outside the customs that regulated Rwandan life, would always have to deal with community fears and mistrust. “But custom, what does it say, custom, when your daughters are preyed upon by the youth of the [Hutu] party, who’ve been taught that the rape of young Tutsi girls is a revolutionary act, an earned right of the majority people?”
Viviane, a very young village girl, was brutally raped by Hutu militants while collecting water at a nearby lake. When she was brought back to the village, bleeding and unconscious, she was not sent away, and her family was not put in quarantine. Stefania and a few other women came to treat her wounds. When it became clear that Viviane was pregnant, she was cared for and gave birth to a baby boy in her family home. But worried that these events might still bring misfortune to the village, Stefania and the women devised a new ceremony to cleanse away the potential spell. Using water from the auspicious Rwakibirizi spring, they carefully washed Viviane and her baby before dawn at a spot in the bush where spirits were thought to reside. Her baby was named Umutoni (“He is with us”) and fully integrated into the village, while Viviane was given the honorable status of widow.
Mass rape became a prime weapon of genocide in 1994: up to 500,000 women and girls were raped that spring. “All the water of the Rwakibirizi and of all the springs in Rwanda wouldn't have been enough to wash the victims of the shame of the perversions they were subjected to, and of the rumor that they were carrying death [AIDS] that led so many to reject them. But it was in themselves, in themselves and in the children of rape, that they found the true spring of courage, the strength to survive, to defy the plans of the assassins. Today’s Rwanda is the country of Mothers Courage.”
In 2011, I was on a jury that awarded a $500,000 award to Avega Agahozo, the Association of Widows of Genocide, founded by survivors in 1995 to help Rwandan widows and their families rebuild their lives through legal aid, health care and advocacy. Among other actions, Avega had counselled survivors to testify against perpetrators before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; in 1998, the Tribunal went on to recognize rape as an act of genocide for the first time in international law. I met Avega members at the time of the award and was deeply moved by their dignity and determination. They told me that Agahozo means: "to dry one's tears."
In deep solidarity with Rwandan widows, survivors and their families,