Read an excerpt from Our Lady of the Nile by award-winning Rwandan debut novelist Scholastique Mukasonga
For today’s Sunday Read, read an excerpt from Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, which has just been shortlisted for the world’s most valuable literary prize.
Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956, and from childhood experienced the violence of the ethnic conflicts that shook her country. She left for France in 1992, just two years before the Rwandan genocide during which 27 members of her family, including her mother, were killed. 12 years after the genocide, she published her autobiographical account, Inyenzi ou les Cafards, which was followed by two more non-fiction works: La femme aux pieds nus in 2008 and L’Iguifou in 2010, both widely praised.
Our Lady of the Nile is her first novel. It was first published in French in 2012 as Notre-Dame du Nil, winning the Ahamadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012, as well as the Océans France Ô prize in 2013 and the French Voices Award in 2014.
The English translation was a finalist for the 2015 FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Award, and was this week shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award.
About the book
In her first novel, Our Lady of the Nile originally published in 2012 by Gallimard, Scholastique Mukasonga drops us into an elite Catholic boarding school for young women perched on the ridge of the Nile. Parents send their daughters to Our Lady of the Nile to be molded into respectable citizens … and to escape the dangers of the outside world. Fifteen years prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, we watch as these girls try on their parents’ preconceptions and attitudes, transforming the lycée into a microcosm of the country’s mounting racial tensions and violence. In the midst of the interminable rainy season, everything unfolds behind the closed doors of the school: friendship, curiosity, fear, deceit, prejudice, and persecution. With a masterful prose that is at once subtle and penetrating, Mukasonga captures a society hurtling toward horror.
Read an excerpt from Chapter 1. of Our Lady of the Nile:
There is no better lycée than Our Lady of the Nile. Nor is there any higher. Twenty-five hundred meters, the white teachers proudly proclaim. “Two thousand four hundred ninety-three meters,” points out Sister Lydwine, our geography teacher. “We’re so close to heaven,” whispers Mother Superior, clasping her hands together.
The school year coincides with the rainy season, so the lycée is often wrapped in clouds. Sometimes, not often, the sun peaks through and you can see as far as the big lake, that shiny blue puddle down in the valley.
It’s a girls’ lycée. The boys stay down in the capital. The reason for building the lycée so high up was to protect the girls, by keep- ing them far away from the temptations and evils of the big city. Good marriages await these young lycée ladies, you see. And they must be virgins when they wed – or at least not get pregnant beforehand. Staying a virgin is better, for marriage is a serious business. The lycée’s boarders are daughters of ministers, high- ranking army officers, businessmen, and rich merchants. Their daughters’ weddings are the stuff of politics, and the girls are proud of this – they know what they’re worth. Gone are the days when beauty was all that mattered. Their families will receive far more than cattle or the traditional jugs of beer for their dowry, they’ll get suitcases stuffed full of banknotes, or a healthy account with the Banque Belgolaise in Nairobi or Brussels. Thanks to their daughters, these families will grow wealthy, the power of their clans will be strengthened, and the influence of their lineage will spread far and wide. The young ladies of Our Lady of the Nile know just how much they are worth.
The lycée is very close to the Nile, to its source, in fact. To get there, you follow a rocky trail along the ridgeline. It leads to a flat parking area for the few tourist Land Rovers venturing that far. A sign reads: source of the nile ➙ 200 m. A steep path brings you to a heap of rocks where the rivulet spurts between two stones. The water pools in a cement basin, then dribbles over in a thin cascade and along a little channel, before disappearing down the grassy hillside into the tree ferns of the valley. To the right, a pyramid has been erected, bearing the inscription: source of the nile. cock mission, 1924. It’s not a very tall pyramid: the girls from the lycée can easily touch the broken tip – they say it brings good luck. Yet it’s not the pyramid that draws them to the source. They’re not here to explore; they’re on a pilgrimage. The statue of Our Lady of the Nile looms among the large rocks overhanging the spring. It’s not quite a grotto, although a sheet-metal shelter protects her from the elements. our lady of the nile, 1953, reads the engraved pedestal. It was Monsignor the Vicar Apostolic who decided to erect the statue, in order to consecrate the Nile to the Virgin Mary, despite the King of Belgium persuading the Sovereign Pontiff to consecrate the whole country to Christ the King.
Some people still remember the unveiling ceremony. Sister Kizito, the old, somewhat frail cook, was there that day. Every year she describes the occasion to the new pupils. “Oh, it was a beautiful ceremony, similar to those you see in church, in Kigali, at Christmas, or in the stadium, on Rwanda’s National Day.
“The King’s official representative sent an envoy, but the colonial administrator was there too, flanked by an escort of ten soldiers. One held a bugle, another carried the Belgian flag. Various chiefs and deputy chiefs were in attendance, along with those from neighboring chiefdoms. They brought their wives and daughters, who wore their hair piled high and pinned with pearls, they brought their dancers, who shook their manes like valiant lions,and of course they brought their herds of long-horned inyambo cattle decked with flower garlands. The hillside was thronged with farmers. Naturally, the whites from the capital didn’t dare venture onto the rough path that led to the spring. But Monsieur de Fontenaille, the coffee planter who lived next door to the lycée, was there, sitting beside the administrator. It was the dry season. The sky was clear. No haze wreathed the mountain peaks.
- Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga
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