An old woman named Mukamwezi—a virgin bride turned widow after her husband, Kibogo, martyred himself to a lightning bolt so the people living on the hillside could have rain—lives in exile from her Rwandan community.
This is the gist of a salvation counternarrative secretly passed down by generations in Kibogo, the latest from French Rwandan writer Scholastique Mukasonga. The story, considered blasphemous by the Belgian characters, is shared at night during the colonial era and kept underground until the Ruzagayura famine of the early 1940s, when the starving residents of a hillside seek a miracle that the village’s Christian priests can’t deliver.
On its own, Kibogo is powerful and playful, a book whose four parts contain four different versions of the same story, just like the Christian gospel. The renditions swell from quiet to bombastic with the ranging cadence of legend and scripture, seeded throughout with luminous poetic moments and copious Kinyarwanda vocabulary, all captured brilliantly by poet and critic Mark Polizzotti’s translation. But the book takes on even greater resonance in the context of Mukasonga’s previous work, which has dealt with the postcolonial waves of pogroms and genocide that, as a Tutsi, made her a refugee in the 1960s and 70s, destroyed her family, and eventually led to her fleeing to France in 1992.
In a 2014 interview with Julie Buntin for Publishers Weekly, published on the occasion of Mukasonga’s English-language debut, Our Lady of the Nile (translated by Melanie Mauthner), Mukasonga called her three earlier books, which she began publishing with Gallimard in 2006, a “tombeau de papier” (tomb of paper). Asked by Buntin why she writes, Mukasonga described a vanished everyday life of “women crushing sorghum under a stone,” “men squabbling around a jug of banana beer,” and “little girls dragging their dolls by a string,” and said, “if I close my eyes, I walk endlessly down that ill-trod path that’s no longer taken by anyone . . .. They have fallen to the machete, they don’t even have gravestones . . .. So when I close my eyes, I know why I write.”
That “tombeau de papier” has all since been translated into English—the memoirs Cockroaches and The Barefoot Woman and the collection Igifu—by Jordan Stump, who accompanied the author on her 2019 appearance at PEN World Voices. It’s a remarkable body of work, by turns playful and harrowing, in which Mukasonga offers both an elegy for a vanished way of life and an unflinching look at her native country’s legacy of brutality. In this context arrives Kibogo, first published in French in 2020, which, while set mostly in the 1940s, is narrated in a first-person plural that looks back on the community’s salvation myth with a sort of timeless distance. Though the narration never explicitly addresses the postcolonial period, there are plenty of wry observations on the fear and mistrust sewn among the Rwandans which presages the catastrophic sectarian conflicts that will arrive after the events described in this book.
Kibogo’s first part, “Ruzagayuram,” chronicles the famine, an atrocity Mukasonga attributes to both man and nature. Her descriptions evoke the uncompromising brutality of her previous work. There’s a vivid scene of starving Rwandans walking in single file on a path to a barn rumored to contain stores of food. Many die, and the others reach the barn only to find it empty. Mukasonga implies that the famine, which was worsened by a drought, began with Belgian interference that ruined many crops. The authorities trained and appointed by the “Bazungu” (white people) offer empty promises and scarce supplies, and the priests blame Rwandans for their suffering (“if you sincerely promise to renounce all of Satan’s heathen practices,” a padri says in his fiery sermon, “then the rains will return”). Like the high priests in the Christian gospel who denounce the teachings of Jesus and cry blasphemy over stories of his miracles, the Belgians admonish the Rwandans for their “maledictions” and “spells.” These interactions establish palpable tension early in the narrative, while laying the building blocks for both Mukasonga’s anticolonial critique and her wry approach to the villagers’ superstitions—a testament to the author’s ability to accomplish a lot with a little.
The second part, “Akayezu,” tracks the rise of a new Christ-like prophet whose name means “little Jesus.” Akayezu was plucked from the hillside to attend a Belgian-run seminary after demonstrating a curiosity about books. Back with his people, Akayezu resurrects a stillborn girl and acquires a group of women disciples who spread the news of his miracles. The women who follow Akayezu, including those who have returned in disgrace from sex work in the capital city, Kigali, elicit misogyny from Rwandans and Bazungu (white people) alike, as Akayezu becomes convinced that the Bible’s story is not about Jews, but about Rwandans. According to the narration: “The padri had obscured everything to fool the hillside populations, the ones who lived at the center of the world. They had rushed to convert them to their lies as fast as possible, for fear the people would discover the truth and become all-powerful.” Here the colonial critique comes into sharper relief, and Akayezu is revealed as protagonist.
In the third section, “Mukamwezi,” Akayezu visits the old woman of the myth, described as living alone in an isolated hut, and invites his disciples to join him there. Mukamwezi has convinced Akayezu that he must join her on a journey into the sky and lead Kibogo back to earth, a mission that would amount to Akayezu sacrificing himself to a bolt of lightning as Kibogo himself once did. What follows is nothing short of miraculous. Later, Mukamwezi’s “umuzimu,” or ghost, relates the events to three curious boys who stumble across her walking skeleton. The boys rush home to report on what they saw and heard, adding their stories to the stew of the evolving legend.
Mukasonga permeates the narrative with a variety of stunning images, and Polizzotti preserves their variations and repetition. Here’s the first description of Mukamwezi when her spirit is encountered by the elders in “Ruzagayuram”: “Mukamwezi’s silhouette floated and undulated in the grain of the dusty fog like a reflection in the flowing water of a river. At times her pale face seemed to drift away from the rest of her body and hover on the swirls of mist.” Later, Mukamwezi is seen to take on the body of a lion, or to become a wispy presence with red embers for eyes, but in all the versions she is at once a woman and an umuzimu. “It’s her umuzimu, her ghost,” one of the elders says. Sometimes the Kinyarwanda words are defined like this, in dialogue. Elsewhere, they’re not, and the reader is left to puzzle them out or look them up. For example, a passage on the Belgian-appointed Rwandan clerks, who become feared for their association with the draconian ruling class, explains how the clerks are plied with port wine, “the ubuki of the Bazungu.” A reader without any Kinyarwanda will store this phrase and can, if they wish, later figure out that it translates roughly to “white people’s honey.” This quality of defining words here but not there effectively reflects the characters’ colonial identities, which regularly prompt them to express themselves in a mix of their own language and French.
The final section, the longest in the book, takes on a Rashomon mode as the narration encapsulates the succeeding waves of missionaries, aid workers, and researchers that descend upon the hillside near the end of the colonial era. The little boys who encountered Mukamwezi in the previous section are now young men. One of them, Kabwa, has been expelled from school for his blasphemous interest in the “witch” he encountered as a boy, and for his accounts of trips to Mukamwezi’s mountaintop where he believed he saw lights from a UFO. When a European professor arrives to interview residents of the hillside as part of his study of human sacrifices, the accounts of Akayezu, Mukamwezi, and Kibogo vary based on what each interviewee saw, heard, remembers, or fabricates in hope of receiving a reward. Kabwa’s ostracization from the community heightens after he gains favor from the professor in hope of landing a fellowship to study in Europe. At this point, readers of Mukasonga’s past work—or anyone familiar with Rwanda’s recent history—will find it impossible not to consider the tragedies to come after Rwanda gains independence, when the ruling Hutus’ anticolonial attitudes would lead to persecution and genocide against anyone believed to be associated with a European influence. Here Mukasonga shines brightest by again adopting a spare approach that manages to speak volumes.
As the book concludes, Mukasonga offers insights on Rwanda’s colonial era, showing how the country’s divisions complicate the stories it tells about itself, and how its people were alternately defiant, ambivalent, and pliable. As the characters narrate early on in Kibogo, while weighing their options for salvation amid the famine: “everyone knew perfectly well that those who consulted witch doctors would still go see them, that those who were initiated into Kubandwa would still get up in the small hours of the night to celebrate their worship. Regardless, we religiously followed the missionary’s pious directives, which after all just might prove effective at triggering rain.”
Generally, the individuals who comprise a group believe a lot of different things, and their beliefs change over time. When pressed by a leader to believe one thing over something else, the whole will ultimately resist or cave. Or both. Church on Sunday and the devil at night. Salvation messages are usually simple at first. Things get complicated once they’re spread to larger groups and interpreted by leaders. In illustrating this phenomenon, Mukasonga adds a new layer to the canvas containing her vanished culture. Amid destruction there’s confusion and manipulation, but there’s also the power of myth and human resilience. With this book, Mukasonga looks into a very dark night and imagines distant stars containing beautiful possibilities.
© 2022 by David Varno. All rights reserved.