Back to School

Scholastique Mukasonga


Our Lady of the Nile: how proudly the school stands. The track leading to the lycée from the capital, winds its interminable way through a labyrinth of hills and valleys and ends, quite unexpect­edly, in a twisting climb up the Ikibira Mountains – which geog­raphy textbooks call the Congo-Nile range, for want of any other name. The lycée’s imposing main building comes into view, and it almost feels as if the peaks have eased themselves aside to make room for the school, there on the edge of the opposite slope, at the bottom of which you glimpse the sparkling lake. The lycée sits on the mountaintop, glinting at the schoolgirls, a palace that shines with their impossible dreams.


The construction of the lycée was a spectacle that Nyami­nombe won’t forget in a long time. Not wishing to miss a thing, the normally idle men abandoned their jugs of beer in the bar, the women left their fields of millet and peas earlier than usual, and at the sound of the beating drum that announced the end of class, the mission-school children ran out and scrambled through the small crowd watching and commenting on the work in prog­ress, to be in the front row. The more intrepid pupils had already slipped out of school to line the track, watching for the dust cloud that would announce the arrival of the trucks. As soon as the convoy reached them, they ran behind the vehicles and tried to grab hold. Some succeeded, others fell off and barely missed getting run over by the next truck. The drivers hollered in vain, trying to shoo away the swarm of daredevil kids. Some stopped their vehicles and stepped down, and the kids would scamper off, with the driver pretending to chase them, but as soon as the truck started off again, the game began anew. The women in the fields lifted their hoes to the heavens in a gesture of powerless­ness and desperation.

Everyone was amazed to see no smoking pyramids of baking bricks, no procession of farmers carrying bricks on their heads, as they did when the umupadri asked the faithful to build a new church annex or when the mayor summoned the local people on a Saturday to help with community projects, such as enlarging the clinic or his house. No, this was a real white man’s construction site in Nyaminombe, with real white laborers, fearsome iron-jawed machines that ripped and gouged the earth, trucks carry­ing machines that made an infernal racket and spewed cement, foremen barking orders in Swahili at the masons, and even white overseers who did nothing but look at large sheets of paper they unrolled like bolts of cloth from the Pakistani shop, and who went crazy with rage when they called the black foremen over, as if they were breathing fire.

Of all the lore surrounding the construction site, the most memorable is the story of Gakere. The Gakere Affair. People still recount it today, and it always raises a laugh. The end of each month was payday in Nyaminombe – the thirtieth, a perilous day. Perilous for bookkeepers, subjected to the workers’ often violent complaints. Perilous for the day laborers who knew that the thirtieth was the only date their wives remembered: they’d not be in the fields but waiting in the doorway of the hut to take the banknotes their husband handed them; they’d check the amount, tie a piece of banana fiber around the paltry wad, slip it into a little jug, and hide it under the straw by the bedside table. The thirtieth was marked by all kinds of quarrels and violence.

Tables for the bookkeepers were set up beneath awnings, or under shelters made from straw and bamboo. Gakere was a book­keeper, and it was he who paid the day laborers. He was a former deputy chief of Nyaminombe, who had been purged like so many others by the colonial authorities and replaced by another deputy chief (soon to be mayor), who was a Hutu. Gakere was hired because he knew everyone, all the local hired hands who didn’t speak Swahili. Bookkeepers from the capital were hired to pay the others, the real builders, who’d come from elsewhere and did speak Swahili. Everyone queued at the bookkeepers’ tables – come rain (usually) or shine – and there was always shouting and shoving, complaints, arguments, and recriminations. The heavies who guarded the construction site kept order, whacking the recal­citrant workers into submission with their sticks – the mayor and his two gendarmes didn’t want to get involved, neither did the whites. So Gakere settled beneath his shelter with his cash box under his arm. He sat down, placed the little box on the table, and opened it. The cash box was full of banknotes. Slowly, he unfolded the sheet of paper, a list of names of all the workers he had to pay, workers who’d waited hours. He began the roll call: Bizimana, Habineza . . . The laborer approached the table. Gakere pushed the few notes and coins owed toward him, the laborer pressed an ink-blackened finger next to his name, and Gakere muttered a few words to him as he marked the list with a cross. So for an entire day, Gakere was again the chief he had once been.

Then, one payday he didn’t show up: no Gakere, no cash box. It was soon known that he’d run off with the little box stuffed full of notes. “He’s gone to Burundi,” people said. “Crafty Gakere, he’s fled with the Bazungu’s money, but how will we get paid now?” Gakere was both admired and condemned: “He shouldn’t have taken the money intended for the people of Nyaminombe, he could have figured out how to take the money from some­where else.” But, in the end, the day laborers did get paid, people stopped begrudging Gakere, and no more was heard of him for two months. He’d abandoned his wife and his daughters, who were questioned by the mayor and closely watched by the gendarmes. But Gakere hadn’t told them of his dishonest plans: rumor had it that he planned to use the money to take a new wife in Burundi, a younger, prettier one. And then he returned to Nyaminombe, hands tied behind his back, two soldiers escorting him. He had never reached Burundi. He’d been afraid to cross Nyungwe Forest, because of the leopards, the big monkeys, and even the elephants who hadn’t roamed the forest for years. He’d traveled the entire country with that little cash box under his arm. He’d tried to cross the large swamps in Bugesera, and lost his way. Burundi wasn’t far but he’d wandered in circles through the stands of papyrus sedge, without ever reaching the border, which, it’s true, wasn’t marked. They eventually found him, on the edge of the swamp, thin and exhausted, his legs swollen. The banknotes were noth­ing but a spongy mass floating in his water-filled cash box. They tied him to a post by the site entrance for a whole day, to serve as an example. The workers filing past didn’t curse or spit at him, just lowered their heads and pretended not to notice. His wife and his two daughters sat at his feet. One of them would get up from time to time, wipe his face and give him a drink. Gakere was convicted but didn’t stay in prison very long. He was never seen in Nyaminombe again. It could be that he reached Burundi at last with his wife and daughters, but without his little box. Some wondered whether the Bazungu had cast a spell on the banknotes, whether those wretched notes had made poor Gakere spin like a top, and that was why he never managed to reach Burundi.


OurLadyoftheNileThe lycée is a large four-story building, higher than the govern­ment ministries in the capital. When the new girls first arrive, the ones from the countryside are afraid to get too close to the windows in the fourth-floor dorms. “Are we going to sleep perched like little monkeys?” they ask. The town girls, and the veterans, tease the new arrivals, pushing them toward the windows: “Look down there,” they say. “You’re going to fall into the lake!” Eventu­ally, the new girls get used to it. The chapel, nearly as high as the mission church, is also made of cement, but the gym, bursar’s office, workshops, and Brother Auxile’s garage are all made of brick. They form a courtyard closed off by a wall, with a metal gate that whines when it’s opened in the morning and closed at night, much louder than the wake-up and bedtime bells.

A bit off to the side, there are some small one-story houses, some call them villas, others bungalows, where the foreign teachers live. There’s also a big house, much larger than the others, that everyone calls the Bungalow. It’s reserved for special guests, such as government ministers (should one ever come to stay), or the Bishop, whose visit is anticipated each year. Occasional tour­ists from the capital, or from Europe – who’ve come to see the source of the Nile – are put up there. Between these houses and the lycée, there’s a garden with a lawn, flower beds, bamboo groves, and a vegetable patch, of course. The servants who do the gardening grow cabbages, carrots, potatoes, and strawberries; there’s even a wheat plot. The tomatoes they harvest here are so pompously plump, they put the inyanya – the poor little native tomatoes – to shame. Sister Bursar likes to show visitors around the exotic orchard where the expatriated apricot and peach trees clearly hanker for their native climate. Mother Superior always says that the pupils must get used to civilized food.


A high brick wall was built to discourage intruders and thieves; and at night, guards armed with spears patrol the perimeter and stand watch by the iron gate.


After a while, the people of Nyaminombe stopped noticing the lycée. As far as they’re concerned, it’s like the huge rocks in Rutare – which seem to have rolled down the mountain and stopped there, in Rutare, for no apparent reason. Yet the construction of the lycée changed many things in the district. A flurry of cov­ered stalls appeared by the builders’ campsite, comprising traders who had previously operated close to the mission, and others from goodness knows where. These shops sold the things shops generally sell: individual cigarettes, palm oil, rice, salt, Kraft cheese, margarine, lamp oil, banana beer, Primus lager, Fanta, and sometimes even bread, though not often. There were also bars, referred to as “hotels,” serving goat on skewers with grilled bananas and beans, and there were shacks for the loose women who brought the village into disrepute. When the lycée was com­pleted, most of the traders left, except for three bars, two shops, and a tailor: so a new village sprang up by the path leading to the lycée. Even the market, which moved close to the workers’ shacks, stayed put, just beyond the stalls.


Yet there was one day that still drew Nyaminombe’s idle and curious to the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile, and that was the start of the school year, on a Sunday afternoon in October, at the end of the dry season. They gathered along the side of the track to admire the procession of cars bringing the students to school. There were Mercedes, Range Rovers, and enormous mili­tary jeeps, their impatient drivers hooting and waving their arms about, fierce and threatening, as they tried to overtake taxis, pick­ups, and minibuses so overloaded with young women that they struggled to climb the last slope.


One by one, the lycée girls tumbled out before the small throng, which was held back some way from the main gates by two district gendarmes and the mayor himself. A murmur spread through the crowd when Gloriosa stepped out of the black Mer­cedes with tinted windows, preceded by her mother and followed by Modesta. “She’s the spitting image of her father,” said the mayor, who had met the great man at a Party rally. “She wears the name her father gave her well: Nyiramasuka, ‘She of the Hoe.’” And he repeated this comment loudly enough that the party hacks pressing around him could hear it, sending a swell of admiration through the crowd. Gloriosa certainly did resemble her father, well-built and big-boned: her schoolmates nicknamed her Mast­odon under their breath. She wore a navy-blue skirt, just revealing her muscular calves, and a white blouse buttoned to her neck that barely contained her generous bosom. Large round glasses only served to reinforce the unquestionable authority of her gaze. Father Herménégilde abandoned the new girls, the ones enter­ing tenth grade, whom he had been rounding up and reassuring, then motioned to a couple of young lycée hands to take the bags from the chauffeur (who wore a short-sleeved shirt with gold buttons), and rushed toward the new arrivals, striding past Sister Gertrude on reception duty to greet mother and daughter with the customary embraces, entangling himself in the innumerable expressions of welcome that Rwandan courtesy entails. Gloriosa’s mother quickly cut him off, explaining that she simply had to greet Mother Superior before dashing back to the capital, where she was expected for dinner at the Belgian Ambassador’s, and that she was confident the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile would provide her daughter with the kind of democratic, Christian edu­cation appropriate to the female elite of a country that had under­gone a social revolution, freeing it from the injustices of a feudal system.

Gloriosa announced that she would stand with Sister Gertrude at the gate, beneath the national flag, to greet the other seniors and let them know that the first meeting of the committee she chaired would take place the following day, in the refectory, after their study hour. Modesta said she’d stand guard duty along with her friend.


Soon after, Goretti also made a grand entrance, perched on the back of a huge military vehicle whose six thick tires took the spec­tators’ breath away. Two soldiers in camouflage fatigues helped her down, hailed the lycée hands to carry her luggage, and bade their passenger farewell with a military salute. Goretti brushed aside Gloriosa’s effusive welcome.

“Still prancing about like a minister, I see,” Goretti hissed.

“And you, think you’re Chief of Staff?” Gloriosa piped back. “Come on, move it, through the gate, and remember, we don’t speak anything but French in school: we’ll finally get to know what the Ruhengeri girls are saying.”


As the Peugeot 404 began the final climb to the lycée, Godelive recognized Immaculée, who was swathed in a wraparound and walking along, with an urchin at her heels carrying her case on his head. She immediately told her driver to stop:

“Immaculée! What happened? Get in, quick! Did your father’s car break down? You didn’t walk all the way from the capital, did you?”

Immaculée took her wraparound off and got in next to Gode­live, while the driver put her case in the trunk. The little porter tapped the glass requesting his tip. Immaculée threw him a coin.

“Don’t tell a soul. My boyfriend brought me on his motorbike. He’s got a big one, you know. There’s no bigger bike than his in all Kigali, perhaps in all Rwanda. He’s so proud of it. And I’m so proud to be the girlfriend of the boy with the biggest bike in the country. I get on behind him, and he tears through the streets at full speed, the bike roaring like a lion. Everyone panics and runs for their life, the women all knock over their jugs and baskets. That makes my boyfriend laugh. He promised he’d teach me to ride his bike. Then I’ll go even faster than him. Anyway, he told me: ‘I’ll take you all the way to school on my bike.’ Sure, I tell him. I was a bit scared, though, but it was really exciting. Dad was on a business trip to Brussels. I told my mother I was going with a girlfriend. He dropped me off at the last bend, just like I asked. You can imagine the scandal if Mother Superior saw me arrive on a motorbike! I’d be expelled. But look at the state I’m in now, all red with dust. It’s horrible! They’ll think Dad doesn’t have a car anymore, that I hitched a ride on some Toyota pickup, crushed between goats and bananas, and peasant women with their kids on their backs! The shame!”

“You’ll take a shower, and I’m sure you’ve got enough beauty products in that case of yours to put things right.”

“That’s true. I managed to find some skin-whitening creams, but not that Venus de Milo stuff you get at the market. American ones: tubes of cold cream and green antiseptic soap. My cousin sent me them from the Matonge quarter in Brussels. I’ll give you some.”

“What would I do with them? There are those who are beauti­ful, or think they are, and those who are not.”

“You look so sad, aren’t you glad to be back at school?”

“Why should I be glad to be back at school? I always get the worst grades. The teachers feel sorry for me, but not the rest of you, my dear classmates. It’s my dad who wants me to stay on, in spite of everything. Once I get the diploma, he hopes to marry me off to a banker like him. But I’m sure he’s got other plans too.”

“Cheer up, Godelive. It’s our final year and then you’ll marry a rich banker.”

“Don’t make fun of me. Maybe I’ve got a surprise for you all, a big surprise.”

“And what surprise might that be?”

“If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise.”

Gloriosa welcomed Godelive and Immaculée with disdain, casting a scornful eye over Immaculée’s skintight trousers and plunging neckline. Gloriosa wondered why she was covered in dust but decided against asking her right now. She ignored Gode­live completely.

“I’m counting on you girls to be real militants,” she whispered under her breath. “Not like you were last year. Our Republic requires more than vanity and a banker father.”

Immaculée and Godelive pretended not to have heard a word.


With Father Herménégilde as their shepherd, the shy herd of newcomers passed through the gate under Gloriosa’s searching gaze:

“Did you notice, Modesta?” She sighed. “The old regime still wields influence in the ministry. They’re lax with the quota. If I counted right, and I only counted the girls I know, those I’m sure of, we’re way over the percentage that, unfortunately, they’ve been granted. A fresh invasion! What was the point of our parents’ social revolution if we let them carry on like this? I’ll be reporting this to my father. But I think we’re going to have to take care of things ourselves and get rid of these parasites, once and for all. I told the Bureau of Militant Rwandan Youth about it, and we see eye to eye. They listen to me. It’s not for nothing my father named me Nyiramasuka.”


Ever since the lycée opened, no one in Nyaminombe had seen a car like the one Frida arrived in. It was very long and low-slung, bright red, with a soft top that had been seen to fold and unfold without anyone touching it. There were only two seats. Both driver and passenger reclined in them as if in bed. It made a noise like thunder, leaping forward in a cloud of red dust. For a moment, it looked as if it would ram the gate and knock Sister Gertrude, Gloriosa, and Modesta flying, but it stopped short, with a hellish screech, right at the foot of the flagpole.

Out stepped a man of a certain age, wearing a three-piece suit (with a floral-patterned waistcoat), large dark glasses with gold-tinted frames, and a crocodile-skin belt with matching shoes. He opened the passenger door and helped Frida extricate herself from the seat in which she was half embedded. Frida smoothed out the creases in her dress, which was as red as the car, and it flared like an umbrella. Beneath her little scarf of purple silk, you could see her brutally straightened hair, stiff, starched, and shimmering in the sun like the asphalt used to resurface some of Kigali’s streets not that long ago.

The sports car’s driver addressed Sister Gertrude in Swahili (ignoring Gloriosa and Modesta): “I am His Excellency Jean-Baptiste Balimba, the Ambassador of Zaire. I have an appoint­ment with the Mother Superior. Take me to her immediately.”

Shocked that anyone would speak to her in that tone, and in Swahili no less, Sister Gertrude hesitated for a moment, but see­ing how the man seemed determined to force an entrance, she felt compelled to lead the way.

“Wait for me in the hall,” she told Frida. “I’ll sort this out, I won’t be long.”

Gloriosa had pointedly marched out of the gate to greet the nine seniors who were just getting out of a minibus.

“There’s our quota,” she said, watching as a small truck pulled up, sagging beneath the weight of a wobbly pyramid of barrels and badly stacked cardboard boxes. “See, Modesta, nothing will ever stop the Tutsi from their trafficking: even when they take their daughters back to school, they need to make it worth their while. They unload the goods at the Nyaminombe store, but whose store is it? A Tutsi’s, of course; apparently some distant relative of Veronica’s father, who himself has a business in Kigali. Oh, she’s something, that Veronica; believes she’s so beautiful, she’ll end up selling herself. And Virginia, her friend, who thinks she’s the most intelligent girl in the lycée, simply because all the white teachers dote on her. You know what she’s called? Mutamuriza, ‘Don’t Make Her Cry’! Well, I certainly know how to make her do exactly that. Two Tutsi for twenty pupils is the quota, and because of that I know some real Rwandan girls of the majority people, the people of the hoe, friends of mine, who didn’t get a place in high school. As my father likes to tell me, we’ll really have to get rid of these quotas one day, it’s a Belgian thing!”

Gloriosa’s rant was accompanied by little coughs of approval on the part of Modesta, but when she started to lavish overly affec­tionate hugs of courtesy on the two Tutsi, Modesta moved away.

“The tighter you embrace those snakes,” said Gloriosa, once Veronica and Virginia had walked off, “the more you suffocate them, but you, Modesta, you’re scared to be mistaken for your half sisters; you sure look like them, and yet I have to put up with you hanging around with me.”

“You know I’m your friend.”

“Better for you, then, that you always stay my friend,” said Gloriosa, hooting with laughter.


At sundown, the clanging bell and the creaking of the closing gates solemnly ushered in the start of the new school year. The monitors had already led the girls to their various dormitories. The seniors were entitled to certain privileges. Their dormitory was divided into alcoves to give each girl some privacy – all relative, since the only thing that separated them from the corridor, where the monitor did her rounds, was a thin green curtain that the sister could pull open at any moment. And although this partitioning of beds, which they called “rooms,” was presented by Mother Superior as an example of the progress and emancipation the girls could enjoy thanks to the education provided by the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile, not everyone appreciated it. Late-night gossip and whispers were hushed. Above all, how could a girl sleep on her own? At home, the mothers made sure the younger girls shared a bed or a mat with the older girls. Are sisters really sisters if they don’t fall asleep all squashed together? And how can true friendships form without the exchange of confidences on a shared mat? The lycée girls had a hard time falling asleep in their solitary alcoves. They’d listen out for their neighbors’ breathing behind the partition, and that reassured them a little. In the tenth-grade dormitory, Sister Gertrude refused to let the boarders move their beds together. “We’re at the lycée, here, not at home,” she said. “We sleep alone, each in her own bed, like civilized folk.”

The girls were asked to put on their uniforms and walk to the chapel two-by-two for Mother Superior and Father Herméné­gilde’s welcome speeches. They sat on the chapel pews, and those girls who didn’t yet have uniforms, or had forgotten them, were relegated to the last pews at the back.

Mother Superior and Father Herménégilde appeared suddenly from behind the altar, bowed before the tabernacle and turned to face the pupils. They stood in silence for a while. Father Her­ménégilde’s paternal smile fell on each new face – they’d seated the newcomers in the front row.

Finally, Mother Superior spoke. She welcomed all the pupils, especially those attending the lycée for the first time. She reminded everyone that the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile was founded to train the country’s female elite, that those fortunate enough to be there, seated before her, had a duty to become role models for all Rwandan women: not simply to be good wives and mothers, but also good citizens and good Christians – the one not being possible without the other. Women also had a great role to play in the emancipation of the Rwandan people, and it was the girls of the lycée of Our Lady of the Nile who had been chosen to spearhead women’s advancement. But she firmly reminded the lycée girls that in the meantime, before they became drivers of change, they must obey the lycée’s rules to the letter, with the slightest infringement being severely punished. She also made one thing clear: the only language permitted within the grounds of the lycée was French, except in Kinyarwanda classes of course, but only in class, and nowhere else. Once they married men in positions of high office (and why shouldn’t some of the girls end up holding such positions too?), they would be required to use French as their main language. And above all, it was forbidden to utter a single word of Swahili in the lycée, which had been placed under the patronage of the Virgin Mary, for it was a deplorable language, that of the followers of Muhammad. She then wished all the girls a good and studious year, and called on Our Lady of the Nile to bless them.

Father Herménégilde made a long and rambling speech, in which he posited that the people of the hoe who had cleared the huge and hitherto impenetrable forests that covered Rwanda had finally freed themselves from nine hundred years of Hamitic domination. As a humble priest of the indigenous clergy, he him­self had contributed, albeit modestly (though he was prepared to share this confidence with them that evening), to the social revolution that had abolished serfdom and drudgery. He may not have been a signatory to the 1957 Bahutu Manifesto, but he had been one of its principal instigators (although he didn’t wish to boast): the ideas and demands laid out within it were his. And so he called upon his audience of beautiful young women, so full of promise, who would one day grow into great ladies, to always remember the race they belonged to, the majority race, the sole native one that . . .

Mother Superior, who was rather frightened by this outpouring of eloquence, cut off the orator with a single look.

“And. And now,” stammered Father Herménégilde, “I will bless you, and may you receive the protection of Our Lady of the Nile, she who watches over us from so close to our lycée, at the birth­place of that great river.”

Image courtesy Archipelago Books
Image courtesy Archipelago Books

Born in Rwanda in 1956, SCHOLASTIQUE MUKASONGA experienced from childhood the violence and humiliation of 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 leave the school of social assistance in Butare and flee to Burundi. She settled in France in 1992, two years before the brutal genocide of the Tutsi swept through Rwanda. In the aftermath, Mukasonga learned that 27 of her family members had been massacred. Twelve years later, Gallimard published her autobiographical account Inyenzi ou les Cafards, followed La femme aux pieds nus in 2008 and L’Iguifou in 2010, all widely praised. Her first novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, won the Ahamadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012, as well as the Océans France Ô prize in 2013 and the French Voices Grand Prize in 2014.

MELANIE MAUTHNER studied Modern Languages at Wadham College, Oxford, and worked as a sociology lecturer before becoming a translator. Her poems and short fiction have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies. She performs as part of the London writers’ collective, Malika’s Poetry Kitchen.

Excerpted from Our Lady of the Nile Copyright 2012 by Scholastique Mukasonga, English Translation Copyright 2014 Melanie Mauthner. All rights reserved. Reprinted with arrangement with Archipelago Books.