1968 – 1971: A Humiliated Student

Scholastique Mukasonga


From the memoir Cockroaches, out next week from our friends at Archipelago Books.


Arriving at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux with the little card-board suitcase once used by my brother André, and then by Alexia, I was filled with hope and apprehension at the same time. My apprehensions were more than justified, but I never lost hope.

I’d seen violent and even deadly persecution in Nyamata, but the solidarity of the ghetto gave us the strength to endure it. At school, I would know the solitude of humiliation and rejection.


I hadn’t shed my Tutsi status when I crossed the Nyabarongo – anything but. And in any case, there was no way to hide it. Every student was issued an ID card marked with their so-called ethnic group, like a brand on a cow. When I was forced to show it to one of the sisters, her look and her attitude changed immediately: wariness, disdain, or hatred? I didn’t want to know. They also discovered that I came from Nyamata. I wasn’t only a Tutsi: I was an Inyenzi, one of those cockroaches they’d expelled from the livable part of Rwanda, and perhaps from the human race. Among my schoolmates, too, I soon came to feel different. Or rather, it was they who made that dif-ference cruelly clear to me. They made me ashamed of the color of my skin (not dark enough for their tastes), of my nose (too straight, they said), and of my hair (too much of it). It was my hair that caused me the most trouble. Evidently it was Ethiopian hair, irende, the sup-posed mark of the Inyenzi. I spent my time putting water on that Inyenzi hair so it would shrink down to a little ball, tight as a sponge. Most often, I resigned myself to shaving it off. That hurt me: in spite of the mockery, I was fond of my hair.


They divided us up into teams, and we took turns doing the dishes, cleaning the refectory or the dormitories. The team leader was always a third-year girl. My leader was named Pascasie. I was the only Tutsi on the team. Pascasie and the rest took an immediate dislike to me. The hardest chores always fell to me. In fact, I soon realized it wasn’t my place to wait for orders. I always volunteered. As the mayor of Nyamata had said, the Tutsis had lost the right to be proud.


The teams all ate at the same table. Mealtimes were the hardest part of the day for me. A thousand times, I wished I didn’t have to eat. My throat went tight with terror whenever a meal was near. We walked into the refectory in silence. We prayed, and then sat down in silence. A bell signaled that it was time to begin eating, and we had permission to talk. The room filled with the sound of conversation, but no one ever spoke to me. I could feel them staring at me, telling me I wasn’t supposed to be there, that my presence disgusted them, that it wasn’t by choice that they were living – and, even worse, eat-ing – with an Inyenzi, a cockroach. I grew used to serving myself after all the others. When there were bananas or sweet potatoes, there was nothing left in the dish by the time it came to me, and I had to make do with the maggot-ridden beans no one would touch. And I grew used to peeling the sweet potatoes in the others’ place, doing the dishes, cleaning the toilets. I never rebelled, even if I wept when no one was looking. I found all this almost normal. A strange curse hung over me. I was a Tutsi. Worse yet, I was from Nyamata, I was an Inyenzi. I wasn’t supposed to be there at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux. It was a mistake, an oversight on the part of those who’d expelled us from the Rwandan community, the people of the majority. For that reason, I made myself a paragon of zeal. I was always on the front bench at Mass, I was first in line for confession. I wanted to be beyond reproach. I was convinced that good grades alone could protect me.


Sometimes I think I never slept in all those three years at the school. At home the nights were short, but at school there was no such thing as night. The few other Tutsi students knew as well as I did that they had to be among the best, and so they worked night and day, particularly night. When dinner was done, a bell rang. We headed off to the dormitories. We washed our feet as we entered, then took our places by the bunk beds. A bell rang. We knelt. We prayed. A bell rang. We turned back our bedspreads. We got into bed. I slipped very carefully under the covers, letting no one see that I had only one sheet. The monitor made a few more rounds to silence the chatter, and then the lights were turned out.

But we Tutsis were waiting for our moment. We waited until everyone was sound asleep, until no one was getting up to go to the bathroom, until the sisters had gone off for the night. Then Agnès, who was in her third year, shook the piece of green canvas that was our standard-issue bedspread: this was the signal. We quietly got out of bed, wrapped ourselves in our bedspreads to ward off the nighttime cold, and followed after Agnès. She was a tiny girl, and her bedspread dragged behind her on the ground: we called her Monseigneur. The silent parade ended in the bathroom, the only place where a nightlight stayed on all through the night. We gen-tly closed the door, and one of us sat down with her back pressed against it, in case someone came along. We had our study room for the night. Often we studied our lessons and did our homework until morning. Everything I learned at Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux I learned in the toilet.


The teachers seemed to be completely faithful to the regime and the system. Most of them were Belgian, except the French teacher, who was French, and the English teacher, who was English. The only Rwandan was the Kinyarwanda teacher, Victoria, a Tutsi. In any case, we had to beware of the teachers. The older girls had warned us of that as soon as we got there by telling us the story of Sylvia. Sylvia was from Nyamata. In a composition – I never found out what the subject was – she made the mistake of alluding to the displaced people of Nyamata and calling for fairer treatment. They said the paper was immediately sent on to the Mother Superior, Sister Béatrice. And Sylvia was expelled. You were supposed to say that Rwanda was a country blessed by God, as the priests claimed. That Kayibanda had created a little paradise in the heart of Africa. A waiting room for heaven. Before he came along, there was only dark-ness and barbarity. I memorized the islands and the cities of Japan: Hokkaido, Nagasaki, Yokohama . . . It sounded like Kinyarwanda.


• • •

The first year was the worst, but in time my quarantine turned a little less harsh. A third-year girl, Immaculée Nyirabyago, who later married a minister in the Habyarimana government, took me under her wing. She was from Kigali, a real city girl! They said her father was a Tutsi (her mother was Hutu), but she was, if I can put it like this, a “fashionable girl.” Everyone was drawn to her, her schoolmates and teachers alike. A little clique had formed around her, made up of all the daughters of ministers, company directors, important people. There was also Assumpta, President Kayibanda’s daughter.


It must be said that I spared no effort to gain Immaculée’s pro-tection, if not her friendship. I offered her my services: risking expulsion, I used to sneak out of the school to go and buy sugar for her at the market.


At breakfast, the very watery milk furnished by the WFP was not sugared. If you wanted sugar, you had to get it for yourself, so anyone who had money used the free time between a meal and the next class to slip out to the market and buy some. Immaculée promised she’d give me a little if I went in her place. Off I went, then, not so much to buy sugar as to safeguard her “friendship.”

At that time, which must have been 1971, there was major road-work being done between the school and the market. There were huge piles of dirt everywhere. All you had to do was climb up a pile and slide down the other side, and you were in the middle of the mar-ket. Just like a playground slide! I brought back the sugar, terrified that sister Kisito, the pitiless monitor, might catch me, but also proud of my exploit, which strengthened my bonds with my protectress.


Having found a place under Immaculée’s wing, I was sometimes allowed into the little clique of privileged girls. I wasn’t really a part of it, of course, and I never felt at ease in their midst. We all wore the same uniform, but still there was no bridging the distance between us. They left the school whenever they pleased, they were never in a hurry to get back to the classroom, they never hesitated to chal-lenge the teachers. No one ever rebuked them. But above all, they had shoes – some of them with high heels! I myself went barefoot. It wasn’t until the end of my third year, by cheating on the minerval, that I was able to buy a pair of kambambili, what I believe are called flip-flops in English, my first shoes!


Immaculée’s friends’ attitude toward me was deeply ambiguous. Many of them had Tutsi mothers, women forced to marry men in power. The girls were Hutu, of course, since their fathers were. But it seemed as if they felt a need to shake off the hereditary stain of hav-ing a Tutsi for a mother. And so they often tried to top each other in their scorn and cruelty toward their Tutsi schoolmates. Sometimes, on the other hand, they seemed to want to befriend them, and to forge mysteriously cordial bonds. That was how I went one day to eat manioc paste at the Kayibanda house.


On Sunday afternoons, we were allowed to leave the school. I generally didn’t take advantage of that freedom, and stayed behind to work. But sometimes, at Immaculée’s urging, I went with the little clique to one of the girls’ houses for a meal of manioc paste. Manioc paste was considered the “civilized” dish par excellence, some-thing reserved for city-dwellers, a little like champagne in France. Like all the others, Assumpta sometimes invited her friends to her house – the President’s house! I still wonder why Immaculée and her friends brought me along. Did they think it would be funny? Was it a dare? Were they trying to humiliate me? I had a knot in my stomach when we came to the military checkpoints around the presidential residence. There was no way to distinguish me from the others by my size or my face, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my hair. I was sure it would give me away, that the soldiers would seize me because of my hair. Nevertheless, I walked straight through the checkpoint with the other girls, to whom the soldiers gave a friendly greeting, and found myself in the kitchen of the President of the Republic. “Stay right here,” my schoolmates said, “and whatever you do, don’t go into the living room. The President mustn’t see you.” I ate my manioc paste in the kitchen. If the President’s wife Viridi-ana happened to come in, there was nothing to worry about: she was a Tutsi.


• • •


And then there were the vacations, the joy of going back home to my family, the party Gitagata would throw for the return of its “intellectuals.” I would dance with the girls who’d stayed in the vil-lage—how I loved to dance! Laughing, they would tell me all the village gossip, and I would tell them the news from the city. I would pick up the mattock again, alongside my mother. I wouldn’t miss the sorghum harvest. But before all that, there was a terrible ordeal to endure: crossing the big bridge over the Nyabarongo.


And so, on the first day of vacation, the three or four girls from Nyamata all set off together. We ran, we had to be there before dark. Sometimes we weren’t let out of school until after lunch, so instead of the main road home, through Kicukiro, we took a short cut that went straight to Gahanga. But for that we had to walk past the camp. We didn’t know what might happen if the soldiers asked for our ID cards. We took a thousand precautions to get by without being seen. Then we plunged into the valley, we climbed up Mburabuturo hill, we ran, we ran, we barreled down the slopes of the Gahanga sector toward the valley of the Nyabarongo, and we saw the big iron bridge, the reddish water, the papyrus plants in the swamps. We also saw the barricade at the bridge’s entrance, and the soldiers slumped in their chairs, the rifles between their legs, the beer bottles scattered at their feet.


They’d seen us coming. They knew who we were: we were Inyenzi from Nyamata. There was no point trying to hide our hair, trying to make ourselves inconspicuous: they were waiting for us. We scarcely dared to go on, but we had to cross the bridge. The sol-diers were already snickering as they saw us timidly inching toward them. They shouted at us, “Inyenzis, lower your heads, don’t show your faces, don’t show your noses, we don’t want to see that, what-ever you do don’t look us in the eye, come forward but keep your heads down, never forget, you’re Inyenzi.” We held out our papers, and the humiliations began. Depending on their mood or their fan-cies, they might spit in our faces, or kick us with their heavy boots, or strike us with their rifle butts. They dragged us to the bank of the Nyabarongo and forced us to look down into the muddy water, as red as if it had been tainted with blood: “Look closely,” they cried, “that’s where you’re going to end up, all you cockroaches, you Inyenzi, one day you’ll all be thrown into that water.”


Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956 into the ethnic conflicts that shook her country. In 1960, her family was displaced to the polluted and under-developed Bugesera district of Rwanda. Mukasonga was later forced to flee with her family to Burundi. She settled in France in 1992, only two years before genocide swept through Rwanda, killing twenty-seven of her Tutsi relatives. She is the author of three critically acclaimed autobiographical accounts: Cockroaches, Barefoot Woman (Archipelago 2017), and L’Iguifou. Her first novel, Our Lady of the Nile (Archipelago 2014), won the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize and the Prix Renaudot in 2012, the 2013 Prix Océans France Ô, and the 2014 French Voices Award. It was shortlisted for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award.

Jordan Stump received the 2001 French-American Foundation’s Translation Prize for his translation of Le Jardin des Plantes by Nobel Prize winner Claude Simon. In 2006, Stump was named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has translated the work of Eric Chevillard, Marie Redonnet, Patrick Modiano, Honoré de Balzac, and Jules Verne, among others. He is a professor of French literature at the University of Nebraska.