Our Lady of the Nile
Notre-Dame du Nil
We know little about the etiology of childhood prejudice, but we know that its biological seat is the amygdala, the center of the brain that governs fear. Experiments at the University of Oxford in 2012 found that respondents to a quiz about racial beliefs scored significantly higher in matters of tolerance after they had been given a beta-blocker drug that tamps down the flight response. People are primed to hate The Other, in other words, not because they dislike them but because they fear them.
Mounting fright pervades the atmosphere at an elite girl’s school in rural Rwanda, the setting for Our Lady of the Nile, a quietly devastating first novel from the memoirist Scholastique Mukasonga and translated from French into English by Melanie Mauthner. In a structural sense, it is a “school novel” in the tradition of those sentimental ensemble tales of British upper-class roughhousing and character-building. While those novels are about growing up strong, this novel is about growing up afraid and prepared for murder.
The action takes place in the years after 1962 in which the majority ethnic group called the Hutus seized power from the Tutsis, a taller and thinner minority who had been cultivated by Belgian colonists to be the “superior” class. The Catholic lycee on a hill is supposed to be a place where the children of rich Tutsis and Hutus can mingle free of the resentments of the outside world.
Lovingly described by Mukasonga as wrapped in clouds and high above a lake, this school also happens to be near to the source of the Nile River. Despite its idyllic setting — and perhaps functioning as a governing metaphor for childhood itself — it also grows to be a hothouse of prejudice, especially for two Tutsi girls named Virginia and Veronica.
The novel starts out too preoccupied with stage-setting, but finds its pacing in the middle sections during the girl’s encounters with three creepy men: a history teacher with strange mythic obsessions, a molesting priest and a visiting Congolese ambassador who impregnates and abandons one of the girls. The really climactic plot thread emerges late in the novel as the daughter of a radical Hutu politician makes up a story that throws the whole lycee into panic. “It is not lies,” insists the provocateur, “it’s politics.”
That is a finely wrought line, but Mukasonga’s strength is generally not in dialogue. Her characters occasionally lapse into stentorian proclamations that no self-respecting adolescent girl would attempt. “As you know,” one says ominously, “we Rwandans are quite fearful of the spirits of the dead: they can turn evil if we offend them.” Another screenwriter line gone sour: “I’ll return when the sunshine of life beams over Rwanda once more.”
Her expository speeches may be clunky, but in almost every other aspect, Mukasonga is dead on target about Rwanda: the portraits of the president hanging in the shady bars, the pungent banana beer, the physical loveliness of the countryside, the loyalty oaths, the bizarre conspiracy theories and the mounting McCarthyistic sense of “us or them – and you might be them” which culminated in the wretched genocide of 1994 in which slightly under a million Tutsis and moderate Hutu were hacked to death with machetes and knives.
The rest of the world now comprehends Rwanda as a post-genocide state alongside Germany — the very worst expressions of mankind’s fear-virus — but the basic causes of the violence are too-often left as a matter of conjecture as to how otherwise decent people can be reprogrammed to kill their neighbors. This luminous novel never mentions the genocide but deals with it sternly nonetheless. It explores terrain that previous characterizations of the violence have skirted: the “peaceful” slow boil right up to the moment of the first drawing of the knife, the time when fear of internal traitors germinated so gradually and under the cover of normal political jingoism that almost nobody outside Rwanda grew alarmed.
Mukasonga made a noteworthy authorial choice in having some of the worst brutality of the novel take place off-screen, as it were, and described later on by a disgusted onlooker. Such is the role of this outstanding work of African fiction — it offers no direct view of the killings, but gives valuable coverage of the shadows.
Tom Zoellner is an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University in California. He is the author of The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desireco-author, with Paul Rusesabagina, of An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography. His most recent work is Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World–from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.