The Barefoot Woman: Scholastique Mukasonga

★★★★★

Scholastique Mukasonga’s mother used to tell her daughters that it was their duty to cover her when she died. By shrouding her body in a pagne, the colourful wrapper worn by both women and men, they could preserve decency and allow her soul to safely move on to the next stage of its journey. But Mukasonga was living far away in France when her mother was horrifically murdered, alongside her sisters, brothers, neighbours and friends, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Unable to fulfil her mother’s wish, Mukasonga instead pays tribute to her with this extraordinary memoir. It is a celebration of one remarkable woman, but also of all the women whom Mukasonga knew as a girl: the energetic, creative, passionate, devout neighbours who helped an exiled community to maintain its dignity in the face of racial hatred, and who fought to give their children as normal a life as possible in a world where nothing was normal any more. Blessed with a lyrical and eminently readable translation by Jordan Stump, this little slice of vanished Rwandan life might just end up being one of my books of the year.

Mukasonga’s family were among the Tutsi who were displaced internally within Rwanda by the Hutu authorities. They relocated in 1959 to Gitagata, a village near the town of Nyamata in southern Rwanda. If the name ‘Nyamata’ sounds familiar, it’s because this is where one of the worst atrocities of the genocide would take place in 1994, when 10,000 people were massacred inside the church where they had taken safety. Thousands more were slaughtered afterwards in the local area. The church is now one of Rwanda’s six genocide memorials, where around 45,000 people are buried. But, although the horror of the future is omnipresent in Mukasonga’s work, it is subtle, only occasionally flickering beneath her memories of her childhood and coming to the fore more rarely still. The book is on a very intimate scale (a ‘child’s eye view’), rarely making its way outside Gitagata and focusing on the lives of women and children in the village. Men rarely appear: if they are fathers of families, they are off busy doing whatever it is men do when the pride of herding their own cows has been taken away from them – and if they are younger, they are often the object of matrimonial scheming among the village women. Mukasonga’s mother Stefania holds a position of great power within the community, as one of its matchmakers, and so the neighbourhood women often seem to congregate in her back yard to debate the issues, problems and challenges of the day.

There is a very clear divide between men and women in this world. Men seem to be in charge of external relations – with other communities; with the authorities; and, perhaps most significantly, with the Fathers who run the Church. It’s the Church who offer baptised children the chance to attend their school and enjoy the fruits of what Mukasonga calls – never without irony – ‘civilisation’. Men, including Mukasonga’s own father, seem to be more interested in progress and in adopting new ways of doing things. Women, on the other hand, seem to be in a constant battle to remember, and to preserve their traditions. Stefania is a devout church-goer, but maintains an elegant dual devotion both to the Christian God and the spirits of her ancestral world. She is the one who oversees rituals; who brings up the children to know who they are and where they came from; who practises traditional medicine as a way to keep her family safe. She oversees the tending of the sorghum field behind their house and manages the production of sorghum paste, porridge and beer. And she is the one who insists on a traditional Rwandan house, an inzu, being built in the yard behind the ugly prefabricated Western-style houses given to the exiles on their arrival in Gitagata.

The inzu is not simply a shelter. It means that the family can live as they are supposed to live; as their ancestors lived before them. Constructed with the aid of the community, its round shape and woven roof is at the heart of Rwandan culture and tradition. It is a woman’s job to keep her inzu in order, and Mukasonga describes Stefania’s commitment to doing things properly. She would be up first thing in the morning to check that the glowing embers of the central fire hadn’t gone out (‘it’s shameful for sunrise to find a mother still in bed‘, reports Mukasonga), and to borrow fire from neighbours if it needed to be lit again. But not too often, for ‘a woman who comes asking for fire from her neighbors too often is soon criticized. People say: “That woman can’t even manage to keep a fire going, she’s a bad wife!”). Stefania’s determination to uphold tradition even baffles her son Andre, who asks why she goes round to neighbours to borrow fire when they own a perfectly good box of matches. His mother’s response is characteristic: ‘the white people have given us so many gifts, and look where it’s gotten us! So, when I have to, let me go looking for fire just as we’ve always done here. At least that’s one thing we have left.

That’s the most endearing thing about Stefania, in my eyes: her desire to preserve the traditions of her people in a place that would have made it so easy to give up. But this focused, smart, determined woman sets out to make sure that her children have the traditional rites of passage and that they are well trained. In one chapter, she tries to understand why Mukasonga and her sister can’t manage to get home without cutting their feet to shreds (everyone goes barefoot). Deciding that their toes must be taught to open their eyes, she devotes long hours to shining a torch in front of their feet, hoping to educate their toes – but with no success; Mukasonga’s toes, at least, keep their eyes resolutely closed. In another, she and her neighbours decide to help out Claudia, a deserving girl with no husband, by resorting to a gleeful mixture of trickery and public shaming in order to make sure that things go the way they want. Yet Stefania doesn’t insist on traditions in order to keep her daughters down. On the contrary, she is determined that they will be properly educated (‘evolved’ is the world Mukasonga uses to describe someone who can read and write). And, when they come home from school talking about the benefits of wearing underwear, or using indoor latrines, Stefania listens, thinks about it and – if she thinks it worthy – adopts the practise. She is a wise, pragmatic woman for all her insistence on tradition. Mukasonga writes of her with great affection and often with humour, but never, never makes fun of any of the traditions. These things are precious, to be preserved: such is the purpose of this book.

Normally I would try to include some highlighted passages, but there are far too many here and most of my highlights encompass entire pages, where Mukasonga conjures up the compelling flavour of traditional Rwandan life. I was warmed by descriptions of Rwandan beauty standards, which celebrate sturdy thighs, rounded limbs and a gait like a cow (I can definitely have a shot at the latter). And I loved the dignity and authority with which Stefania and her friends make sure that the community is working as it should. Whole pages can go by in a charming nostalgic haze, like Cider With Rosie or perhaps one of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, helped along by Stump’s gloriously readable translation. Then, with a jolt, you’ll be reminded of the horrific realities of the situation. There’s an opportunistic raid by soldiers, or a young woman is raped, and you remember that Stefania and her children are living a life in which they’re encouraged to see themselves as the lowest of the low, less than human, the rightful targets of hatred and abuse. Fortunately, this marvellous woman doesn’t listen to a word of it. With grace, strength and obstinacy she raises her children as best she can in an unsympathetic world; and you love her for it. With this compassionate and beautiful memoir, Mukasonga has done her mother and the rest of her community proud.

I don’t think I’ve ever read about Rwanda before and was utterly captivated by Mukasonga’s descriptions of traditional life; she’s a superb guide. I now really want to read her other works, which delve more deeply into her childhood and the horrific circumstances of the Rwandan genocide: Cockroaches, which describes the racial suppression of the Tutsi people (also translated by Stump); and Our Lady of the Nile, a novel based on her experiences at a Catholic girls’ school (translated by Melanie Mauthner). Both are also published by Archipelago.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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