Remembering dark times in our world history is important.
In these times, when political partisanship around the world grows ever more fierce, it behooves us to remember what happens when all that bluster and virtual rage escapes the realm of the abstract and turns into actual, bloody violence. Slogans and banners and virtual chest-thumping is attractive to many short-sighted, small-minded people who lack the imagination, insight, or experience to understand what it’s like to face actual, real-life persecution. We see all around us in today’s world the evidence of bitter, angry folks who love to toy with the idea of violence: dishing out threats on social media, posting images of guns and sharing nostalgia for the most repellent, sordid historical spaces of violence.
It is at times like these that memoirs from actual genocides become more urgent. Knowledge is important, but empathy is even more important. There’s no shortage of research out there which demonstrates that reading is vital for constructing empathy, for allowing us to realistically put ourselves in others’ shoes.
The Rwandan genocide — especially its most well-known iteration, the 1994 slaughter of Tutsis and other minorities directed by militants from the country’s Hutu majority — continues to generate important works of both fact and fiction, and among its greatest chroniclers is Scholastique Mukasonga. Originally published in French (and translated to English by Jordan Stump), the past few years have seen English translations of a loose trilogy of her books on the theme, the most recent of which is a stirring tribute to one of its victims: her mother.
The Barefoot Woman has a very different tone than Mukasonga’s previous books. Cockroaches (2006; English edition 2016) is her own memoir, a dark tale of growing up as an internally displaced refugee within Rwanda (her entire Tutsi village was forcibly relocated) amid the growing violence and sense of menace in the ’60s and ’70s. She excelled at school and managed to win scholarships that took her out of her village for secondary and then post-secondary studies; however, in 1973 she had to flee to Burundi following a wave of attacks on Tutsi students at her college. This allowed her to escape the horrific 1994 genocide, during which most of her family were murdered. Cockroaches tells all of this in harrowing and vivid detail.
Our Lady of the Nile (2012; English edition 2014) ostensibly a novel, follows the experience of a group of girls at an elite high school in Rwanda in the years immediately prior to the genocide. It’s a compelling and masterful story which portrays how the country’s increasingly divisive and violent politics is absorbed and manifested by the young girls in their interactions with each other. One can tell, however, that Mukasonga drew on elements from her own experience as a Tutsi student at a Hutu-dominated secondary school. At moments sweet, at others horrifying, the pace of this book — which won multiple awards — also quickens as the story proceeds toward its harrowing, breathtaking conclusion.
The Barefoot Woman (2008; English edition 2018) is profoundly different in tone and pacing from her previous books. It’s a tribute to Mukasonga’s mother, Stefania, whose story is told in briefer detail in Cockroaches. The Barefoot Woman tells of her mother’s life in much greater depth, but also depicts the routines of daily life in their village of Nyamata as she and the other displaced Tutsi families struggle to rebuild their lives in this difficult new home (they, like many other Tutsis, were driven out of their traditional lands and trucked across the country to be forcibly resettled in a refugee camp located in a much less desirable and less arable part of the country).
The book is a combination of memoir and ethnographic reportage drawn from Mukasonga’s own memory and experience. Although no longer able to carry on all of their traditions (historically cattle-herders for whom cows played a fundamentally important role in culture and tradition, they were forced to pursue other ways of surviving after their herds were slaughtered by Hutu militants), the village struggles to adapt its traditions and ways of life as best it can. At times this means consciously changing cultural mores: Mukasonga recounts how victims of sexual violence would traditionally be ostracized; however, as sexual attacks became a more commonly enacted form of violence by the majority Hutus against the Tutsis, her mother and other women consciously revised their traditions and developed new ways of ritually cleansing and caring for women who had been assaulted.
The memoir spans a broad gamut of daily village life: from her mother’s efforts to build a traditional Tutsi home, or inzu, on their new land, to methods of cultivating and using sorghum and other crops. Marriage and courting rituals; ways of treating illness and more are outlined in a style which alternates between ethnographic observation and deeply personal, subjective narrative. She laments not having paid enough attention growing up to some of the minutiae of daily life – the stories her mother told them as children while they were drifting to sleep, for instance – but she excavates from her memory as much as she can.
The narrative has a gentle, peaceful cadence despite the persistent underlying menace of ethnic violence. The reader is able to catch glimpses of what life must have been like before violence became an everyday reality; glimpses of the sort of peaceful life Stefania and the other villagers aspired to. At times, despite the circumstances, these peaceful spaces emerge: long, leisurely afternoons sitting in the fields gossiping with neighbours while running their hands through their children’s hair to delouse them; endless treks home from the fields punctuated by necessary social visits at each and every house one passed by. The calm of everyday village life contrasts profoundly with the adaptations necessitated by the violence: the need to stay off the main road to avoid encounters with Hutu militias (which brought an end to those neighbourly visits); fetching water only at the must brutally hot times of the day, and only in groups, after the construction of a Hutu youth camp by the lake whose militants harass, rape and murder Tutsis who venture there alone.
Mukasonga offers a stirring tribute to her mother, and to her mother’s difficult task of trying to offer her children a safe and comforting childhood, and all above a hopeful future amid the oppression and repeated rounds of violence. When Mukasonga comes back from her studies to visit her mother, sporting previously unheard of big-city trends – a new hairdo; a set of underwear; brioches from a European-style bakery – her bemused mother responds in accepting, loving fashion, embracing these bizarre manifestations of “progress”. Her mother’s exploits as a legendary matchmaker are also recounted in sometimes hilarious detail.
When she was growing up her mother, foreseeing her own death, constantly reminded the children of the proper rituals for handling her body. “I never did cover my mother’s body with her pagne,” Mukasonga writes in the book’s poignant introduction. “Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words… on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.”
The Barefoot Woman is important on a personal level for Mukasonga, who never had a chance to see her mother’s body following her murder during the 1994 genocide. But it’s important for the broad public as well. Out of the mass violence of the genocide, Mukasonga gives a very personal identity to one of its victims. This allows readers to see and understand her mother not as one of hundreds of thousands of nameless victims of genocide, but as a hopeful, wise, caring, often funny human being who worked hard to pursue her hopes and build a future for her family despite the unthinkable hardships they endured. Her mother’s adaptation of traditions, her accommodation to the brutal realities of their displaced village, and her unstinting struggle to build a better life for her children help give shape and humanity to a woman who might otherwise appear to us simply as another tragic statistic.
The genocide and the violence always lurks at the edges of this tale, but by forcing it to the margins and concentrating on the ways in which life and hope emerged through and despite that violence, Mukasonga makes a critically important contribution to the literature of Rwanda and of humanity alike. The Barefoot Woman is an important complement to Mukasonga’s body of work on Rwanda, and shows how literature has the power not just to hold violence and brutality to account, but also to give tangible shape to those whom history would otherwise deprive of identity. Where there is identity, where there is humanity, there is hope.