An excerpt from The Barefoot Woman (Archipelago Books, December 2018)
Maybe the Hutu authorities put in charge of the newly independent Rwanda by the Belgians and the church were hoping the Tutsis of Nyamata would gradually be wiped out by sleeping sickness and famine. In any case, the region they chose to send them to, the Bugesera, seemed inhospitable enough to make those internal exiles’ survival more than unlikely. And yet they survived, for the most part. Their courage and solidarity let them face the hostile wilderness, farm a first little patch of land that didn’t completely spare them from hunger but at least kept them alive. And little by little the displaced families’ makeshift huts became villages – Gitwe, Gitagata, Cyohoha – where people struggled to recapture some semblance of everyday life, which of course did little to soften the crushing sorrow of exile.
But the Tutsis of Nyamata weren’t slow to realize that the tenuous survival they seemed to have been granted was only a temporary reprieve. The soldiers of the Gako Camp, built between the villages and the nearby border with Burundi, were there to remind them that they were no longer exactly human beings but inyenzi, cockroaches, insects it was only right to persecute and eventually to exterminate.
I can still picture the soldiers from Gako bursting into our house, a rifle butt crumpling the piece of sheet metal we used as a door. They claimed they were looking for a photo of King Kigeri or covert letters from exiles in Burundi or Uganda. All that, of course, was pure pretext. Long before, the displaced families of Nyamata had thrown out everything that might possibly incriminate them.
I don’t know how many times the soldiers came to pillage our houses and terrorize the people inside. My memory has compressed all those acts of violence into one single scene. It’s like a film playing over and over. The same images again and again, engraved in my mind by my little-girl fear, later to return in my nightmares.
The scene that unfolds before my memory is peaceful at first. The entire family is gathered in our one room, around the three stones of the hearth. It must be July or August, the dry season, summer vacation, because André and Alexia are there too, back from their school a long way from Nyamata. Night has fallen, but the moon isn’t full, because we aren’t sitting outside behind the house, enjoying its light. Everything seems strangely calm, as if the soldiers had yet to pay us their first sudden, brutal visit. Evidently Mama has taken none of the extraordinary precautions I’ll talk about soon. I see everyone in their usual places. My mother Stefania is squatting on her mat against the outer wall. Alexia is close by the fire, maybe trying to read one of her schoolbooks by the flickering light of the flames, maybe only pretending. I can’t make out my father in the dimness at the far end of the room; I can only hear the continual, monotonous clicks of the rosary he never stops fingering. Julienne, Jeanne, and I are pressed close together near the front door that opens onto the dirt road. Mama has just set down the family plate of sweet potatoes in front of us, but we haven’t yet begun to eat. We hang on André’s every word as he sits in our one chair at the little table built specially for him – the boy, the student, the hope of the family – by our older brother Antoine. André is telling stories from school, and for us they’re like news from a distant world, an amazing, inaccessible world, and they make us laugh, laugh, laugh . . .
And then, all of a sudden, the clang of the sheet metal crashing down: I just have time to snatch up my little sister and roll with her off to one side, dodging the boot that grazes her face, the boot that tramples the sweet potatoes and buckles the metal plate like cardboard. I make myself as small as I can, I wish I could burrow into the ground, I hide Jeanne beneath a fold of my pagne, I stifle her sobs, and when I dare to look up again, I see three soldiers overturning our baskets and urns, throwing the mats we’d hung from the ceiling out into the yard.
One of them has grabbed hold of André, and now he’s dragging him toward the door (I think I can see my brother’s struggling body go past, slowly, slowly, just beside my face) and my father races forward as if he could hold back the soldier, and I hear my mother and Alexia crying out. I squeeze my eyes shut as hard as I can so I won’t have to see. Everything goes dark, I want to burrow deep underground . . .
The silence makes me open my eyes again. My father is helping a wincing André to his feet. My mother and Alexia are cleaning up the beans spilled on the floor. Now, from next door, comes the same sound of boots, the same shrieks, the same sobs, the same crash of breaking urns . . .
—— —— ——
My mother had only one thought in her head, one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving: saving her children. For that she tried every possible tactic, devised every conceivable stratagem. We needed some way to flee, we needed someplace to hide. The best thing, obviously, was to take cover in the dense bramble thickets that bordered our field. But for that we’d need time. Mama was forever on guard, constantly listening for noises. Ever since the day when they burned our house in Magi, when she first heard that dull roar of hatred, like a monstrous beehive’s hum racing toward us, I think she’d developed a sixth sense, the sense of an animal forever on the lookout for predators. She could make out the faintest, most faraway sound of boots on the road. “Listen,” she would say, “they’re back.” We listened intently. We heard only the familiar sounds of the neighbors, the usual rustles of the savannah. “They’re back,” my mother said again. “Quick, run and hide.” Often she only had time to give us a sign. We scrambled under the bushes, and a moment later, peering out from our hiding place, we saw the patrol at the end of the road, and we trembled as we wondered if they’d break into our house, ravage and steal our meager belongings, our few baskets of sorghum or beans, the few ears of corn we’d been foolish enough to put by.
But we had to be ready for anything: sometimes the soldiers were too quick even for my mother’s sharp ear. And so, for those times when we wouldn’t be able to reach the brush, she left armloads of wild grass in the middle of the field, mounds just big enough for her three little girls to slip into when the alarm was sounded. She kept a mental catalog of what she thought would be the safest hiding places in the bush. She discovered the deep burrows dug by the anteaters. She was convinced we could slither into them, and so with Antoine’s help she widened the tunnels and camouflaged the entrances under piles of grasses and branches. Jeanne made herself even tinier than she was to wriggle into the anteater’s lair. For all my mother’s advice and encouragement, she didn’t always succeed. A little concerned, I asked Stefania what would happen when the anteater wanted to come home. I’ve forgotten her answer.
Mama left nothing to chance. Often, as night fell, she called a dress rehearsal. And so we knew exactly how to scurry into the brambles, how to dive under the dried grasses. Even in our panic at hearing the boots on the dirt road, we scurried straight for the thickets or burrows where Mama had taught us to lie low.
The displaced families’ huts had only one door, which opened onto the road. To ease our escape, Mama cut a second way out, opening onto the field and the bush. But soon that back door, more or less concealed like the hiding places she’d made in the brambles, was of no use at all. Once (with helicopters to help them) they’d beaten back the ill-fated Inyenzi offensive launched from Burundi by Tutsi refugees, the soldiers of the Gako camp lost all fear of ambushes and attacks. No more did they stay to the dirt road they’d always carefully followed; now their patrols tramped freely across country, all the way to the Burundi border. Now danger could just as well burst from the bush as come down the road; no more were our thorny hiding places the impregnable refuges my mother found so reassuring. And so she set about making hiding places inside the house itself. Against the mud walls she stacked big bowls and baskets, almost as tall as grain bins, for Julienne and Jeanne to crawl behind if the soldiers burst in. I was already too big to squeeze into the shelter of the bowl’s black bellies or the baskets’ elegant curves. My only recourse was to dive under my parents’ bed. Those hiding places were meant more to comfort us than anything else, because they never fooled anyone, least of all the soldiers, who flushed us out in no time with vigorous kicks, all the while calling us cockroaches or little snakes.
—— —— ——
Mama was never satisfied with her survival strategies. She was forever coming up with improvements to her camouflage, forever finding new refuges for her children. But deep down she knew there was only one sanctuary, only one way we could ensure our survival: crossing the border, leaving for Burundi, as so many Tutsis already had. But she never once thought of taking that way out herself. Neither my father nor my mother ever considered going into exile. I think they’d made up their minds to die in Rwanda. They’d wait there to be killed, they’d let themselves be murdered, but the children had to survive. And so my mother worked out every detail of our escape to Burundi, in case of emergency. She went off alone into the bush, scouting for trails that might lead to the border. She marked out a path, and under her guidance, not quite understanding why, we played that strange game of follow-the-leader.
Everything at home sat ready for the big departure, which might be announced at any moment, set off by rumors of massacres going around Nyamata, rifle shots in the night, the local governor’s threats, a neighbor’s arrest . . . A few sweet potatoes, some bananas, a little calabash of sorghum beer were always left wrapped up in a piece of pagne. We girls were meant to take that bundle along when we slipped away and set out for Burundi. It would accompany us into exile. My sisters and I refused to look at it, because to us it was a dark omen of the miseries awaiting us.
But it was Alexia and André that most worried my mother. They weren’t there with the rest of us. They were at school, and wouldn’t be back until vacation. Mama imagined the worst: one day Alexia and André would come home and find no one there. The house would have been sacked and burned, she and Cosma would have been killed, and at least one of the three girls, or so she hoped, would have managed to escape from the killers and find her way to Burundi. But then what would become of Alexia and André? They’d have to find enough strength after their long walk from school to head straight for the border and face the many dangers they’d find on the way: patrols, elephants, buffalo . . . And so, in pre-arranged places, under a stone, near a stump, she buried provisions – beans, sweet potatoes. I helped her dig the holes, line them with fine grasses, make sure some air could get in. But of course we had to change the supplies regularly, and then we ate the slightly spoiled food buried by a mother’s love.
—— —— ——
You always had to be on your guard, so my mother took great pains to keep up with the goings-on in the area. Especially in Nyamata, home to the local government, the missionaries and their church, the marketplace. She interrogated anyone she saw coming back from Nyamata, trying to detect presages of a coming wave of arrests or murders. Had anyone heard tell of a meeting at the mayor’s, had they seen a big car from Kigali in front of the town hall? Had anyone spotted army trucks crossing the iron bridge over the Nyabarongo? Were there huge crowds at the market, were there fistfights? What were people saying in the bars? And at Mass, in his sermon, did Father Canoni go on a little too long about loving your neighbor? And what was the teacher saying, the only one with a radio? Stefania carefully evaluated the information, decoded the rumors, divined the imminence or absence of a threat.
But you also had to stay abreast of the neighbors’ doings. She suspected them of planning to flee to Burundi without telling her. “One fine morning,” she sometimes sighed, “we’re going to wake up and find ourselves all alone. Everyone will have left for Burundi without a word to us.” Her suspicion was particularly focused on Pancrace, just next door, who she was sure was secretly making all sorts of plans to get out. “That Pancrace,” she would say, “he’s a devious one, I know he’s found some way of saving his family, but he won’t tell a soul.” On the pretext of borrowing some fire (when in fact the first thing she did in the morning was to check that the coals were still glowing under the ash), or a little salt, or a handful of beans, she would hurry next door and discreetly look around for signs of an upcoming departure. Soon she decided that Pancrace was digging a tunnel out into the bush. With the help of Antoine, she set out to do the same, with the entrance under the big parental bed. At the end of the week, as soon he came back from his job as a gardener at the Agronomical Institute in Karama, not even giving him a moment to rest after his twenty-kilometer walk, she handed him the hoe. Crouched at the edge of the hole, she gave Antoine his instructions as he slowly disappeared into the depths. Fortunately for Antoine, Operation Tunnel soon proved unfeasible, and the work was promptly suspended. But Mama remained as sure as ever that wily Pancrace had come up with many other undisclosed plans to save his life and his family’s.
My mother’s watchfulness never waned. It grew doubly sharp in the evening, at dinnertime, since it was most often at nightfall, or sometimes at dawn, that the soldiers burst in to ransack the houses and terrorize their inhabitants. She had no intention of letting our shared plate of beans or bananas distract her, so Stefania never ate with us. Once we were served, she hurried to the far end of the field, at the edge of the savannah. For many long minutes she stared into the tangle of thorn trees, listening for the slightest unusual noise. If she spotted the camouflaged uniforms of the patrolling soldiers, she raced back to the house and told us, “Twajwemo – we’re not alone.” With that we had to keep quiet, not move, be ready to bound into our hiding places, hoping we’d be spared for this evening at least.
If she found everything normal, she would gaze on us for a long while in silence. Nothing pleased her more than watching her children eat. She’d saved them from starvation, working for the Bageseras in exchange for a few sweet potatoes, carving farmland from the inhospitable bush by her tireless labor. Day after day she won out over the implacable destiny we’d been condemned to because we were Tutsis. Again today, her children were still alive at her side. She’d snatched them away from death’s clutches. She looked at the three of us, Julienne, Jeanne, Scholastique. This evening we were alive. There might never be another evening.
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 work in Butare and flee to Burundi. She settled in France in 1992, only two years before the brutal genocide of the Tutsi swept through Rwanda. In the aftermath, Mukasonga learned that 37 of her family members had been massacred. Twelve years later, Gallimard published her autobiographical account Inyenzi ou les Cafards, which marked Mukasonga’s entry into literature. This was followed by the publication of La femme aux pieds nus in 2008 and L’Iguifou in 2010, both widely praised. Her first novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, won the Ahmadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012, as well as the 2013 Océans France Ô prize, and the 2014 French Voices Award, and was shortlisted for the 2016 International Dublin Literary award.