Our lady of the Nile by Scolastique Mukasonga
Original title – Notre Dame du Nil
Translator – Melaine Mauther
Source – Library book
I was rather shocked when last week I popped into the main branch of our Library in Chesterfield and saw this on a stand as last time I looked for an archipelago book my library hadn’t any so this was a real shock as it was on my to get list after earlier this year I reviewed Cockroaches by Mukasonga left me with a sense I had to get to this book at some point . Scholastique Mukasonga has lived in france since 1992 and worked as a social worker in Caen .
There were only two Rwandans on the entire teaching staff of the Lycee of Our Lady of the Nile: Sister Lydwine, and the Kinyarwanda teacher ,naturally. Sister Lydwine taught History and Geography, but she made a clear distinction between the two subjects: History meant Europe , and Geography, Africa.
Maybe they should have been Taught their own history !!
Now I for one am not a huge reader of boarding school books , even back when I was young they never grabbed me . But this is a school story that shows that a place can reflect the country it is part of the school in the book Our lady of the Nile is on the high on a hill by the origins of the Mighty Nile river and is a private school the sort where young girls are sent to become women , where the staff are nearly all from outside Rwanda Nuns and fathers from the Catholic church . The book unfolds with each chapter about a particular girl but as the book progress like the year in the school we are following the life of the girls in the school turns darker. The problems start with a limiting on the number of Tutsi . This leads to tension in the school where some girls start to accuse people of being Tutsi due to their nose ,even the virgin Mary statue is a Tutsi statue. This slice of Rwanda in the 1980’s when the book is set a number of years before the genocide that the writer herself lost 27 members of her family.
“Modesta” said Glorisoa . “Have you taken a good look at the Virgin’s face ”
“Which one ?”
“Our lady of the Nile, the statue .”
“Yes and ?Sure it’s not like the other Marys . It’s Black the whites put black makeup on her . Probably to please us Rwandans , but her son in the chapel remains white ”
“But did you notice the nose? It’s a straight little nose, a Tutsi nose ”
“They took a white virgin , painted it black and kept that white nose ”
“Yes but now she’s black , it’s a Tutsi nose ”
The Tutsi nose that cause a spilt and fights in the school !!
I enjoyed this as much if not more so than Cockroaches there is almost a freedom Mukasonga found in the fiction of the event that lead up to the Genocide and using the school with its catholic nuns and priest teaching the elite who are all from the outside Rwanda barring two maybe don’t see what happens just under the nose where bullying and the inequality in even getting to the school all point to the undercurrents that lead to the uprising . The translation has kept a number of french words in place like Lycee (french for high school ), for me it kept a sense of place as most of the nuns seem to be from French-speaking Belgium , which was the country that ran Rwanda before Independence . This capture the sense of a place boiling under those racial tensions that had been simmering til the country boiled over in 1994. I was reminded of the Ulster of my youth in some ways where the tension between the sides came out in painting things and murals and of course the violence of the troubles but also a story my late step mother told me of a friend hers where he was stopped in Belfast in the seventies one evening as asked was he protestant or catholic , he said Jewish at which point he was as Protestant Jewish or Catholic Jewish , the point is that like Gloriosa the Bully in this book is like all bullys will be violent what ever like the Nose in the book sometimes you have to be on one side or another even if you are not !!