Scholastique Mukasonga, trans. by Jordan Stump

September 16, 2020 
Scholastique Mukasonga is the author of Our Lady of the Nile, Cockroaches, The Barefoot Woman, and Igifu. Our Lady Of The Nile won the Ahamadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012. In 2019, The Barefoot Woman was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature. She lives in France.

In Nyamata, the displaced Tutsis’ shadow, their true shadow, the shadow that never left them, that ignored the sun’s course through the sky, that clung to them even deep in the night, was fear. And even today, so far from Rwanda, in this familiar boulevard whose storefronts and faces have taken on the tranquil patina of habit, it’s still the same fear that makes me jump when I think I hear strange footsteps behind me, it’s still the same fear that makes me hurry across the street to take refuge in the first shop I find, to go back the way I came, then turn down a street that will take me on a long, pointless detour. And if I spot my presumed pursuer’s reflection in a shop window—a lady being dragged along by her dog, boisterous middle schoolers, a young man on roller skates zigzagging through the crowd—then I can laugh at the fear I feel in this city that’s become my own, where no one, among all these busy people, would ever think of asking me where I come from, who I am, where no one, among all these people striding past, has ever for one second told himself he could or should kill me, and then I find myself studying those strangers’ faces, because how can I be sure that one of them—that elegant, dark-suited African man, say—isn’t there precisely to keep an eye on me, conspiring with others who will soon materialize and lead me into who knows what sort of trap, because he can tell who I am, where I come from, and when he gives me a smile because I must have been staring at him I hurry away, ashamed, cursing the fear that trails its long shadow behind me.

“In Nyamata,” my mother used to say, “you must never forget: we’re Inyenzi, we’re cockroaches, snakes, vermin. Whenever you meet a soldier or a militiaman or a stranger, remember: he’s planning to kill you, and he knows he will, one day or another, him or someone else. And if not today, then soon, in fact he’s wondering why you’re still alive at all. But he’s not in a hurry. He knows you won’t get away. He knows killing you is his duty. He thinks it’s him or you. That’s what he’s been taught. That’s what he hears on the radio. It’s in all the songs he sings. He even wears a rosary around his neck so the abapadris’ god will be with him when he comes to kill you. Never let down your guard. Don’t believe anyone’s kind words, even if he means them, because his plan to kill you is still coiled up deep in his heart. Keep your eyes open. Death is lurking everywhere, waiting for its chance. You have to be quicker than death, like the gazelle that flees at the slightest rustle in the tall grass. You have to admire the fly: it can see on every side at once. In front and behind, too. You need the eyes of the fly. Tell yourself you’re a fly. And the dog: take the dog as your model. You think he’s asleep, with his muzzle between his paws, so sound asleep that not even thunder could wake him. But let one leaf fall and he leaps to his feet! You have to learn to sleep like a dog. It’s good to be afraid. Fear keeps us awake. Fear lets us hear what carefree people never do. You know what the abapadris say at catechism, how everyone has a guardian angel looking after them? Well, our guardian angel is fear.”

There was the everyday fear, the fear we felt every minute. It walked with us on the road to school. That was where we could have used the eyes of the fly and the ears of the gazelle. The Gitagata girls who went to the big school in Nyamata all went off together. But they didn’t talk, didn’t laugh, didn’t sing as all little girls do on the way to school, they didn’t recite their lessons. They listened, they looked—in front of them and behind—up and down the dirt road, as far as they could see. If they heard an engine, if they saw a cloud of dust, then they dove into the brambles, huddled behind the greenery, hid their faces in their hands, they would have burrowed into the dirt if they could, like a snake in its hole, like a mole in its tunnels. The truck went by. The soldiers hadn’t seen them, hadn’t fired as they often did when they saw schoolchildren by the side of the road. They didn’t always aim, they fired more or less blindly, or else they aimed at the ground beneath the children’s feet. They only wanted to scare them, have a little fun. It made them laugh to see the terrified children scatter, staggering, falling, then getting up and limping on, jumping into the thorn bushes. And then, as the truck drove off, a soldier in the back might toss out a grenade that exploded in the middle of the road with a terrifying blast. Sometimes there were casualties. So we preferred to make a long detour instead of taking the road from the Gako camp to Nyamata. But we couldn’t avoid going back to that road before we reached the first houses of Nyamata. So we ran, we ran. We were breathless when we got to the schoolyard. The principal was singing the national anthem, and we all joined in together, then headed into the classroom. We were entering another world, and we hoped fear might stay behind, outside the door.

But fear was still with us on the benches of the classroom. Félicien was a strict teacher. His long, flexible stick could suddenly dart away from the blackboard to lash the fingers of anyone talking or daydreaming. In unison, at the top of our lungs, we repeated the French words he’d written on the blackboard before we came in. We opened our mouths wide to show him our eagerness to learn, and also to be spared that vicious stick, so quick to encourage any laggard or drowser. From his podium, Félicien endlessly exhorted us to pay attention, we who were the most studious, best behaved children a teacher could ask for: “Everyone look at the blackboard, read the words after me so they’ll sink into your little heads. If you look out the window, then the words will fly away, you can’t hold them back, they’ll disappear forever. Now, these French words aren’t for Nyamata. Just keep them in your little heads, even if most of you have an empty jug for a head (‘a leaky barrel,’ he added in French). Maybe one or two of you will use all this someday, but the others . . . ”

But we watched Félicien intently—taking care to be discreet about it, since you’re not supposed to look a teacher in the eye—and we saw that at every opportunity, hoping we wouldn’t notice, he anxiously peered out at the mission’s big orchard, the nearby brush, all the unpredictable threats hiding out there. He kept a particularly close eye on the path that ran past the school buildings from the church to the market square, behind a curtain of eucalyptus. We seized that chance to glance toward the window, and immediately our fear erased all those French words we’d been droning so earnestly. Félicien was right: our heads were just empty jugs.

As if he’d been caught doing wrong, he hurriedly turned back to his blackboard and the lesson of the day. But his heart was no longer in it. His stick left us alone for minutes at a time. He couldn’t stop looking out the window. He never once turned his back to it as he strolled among the desks, and sometimes, as if he’d forgotten his pupils existed, he stopped and stared at the empty schoolyard, at the orange and papaya trees in the missionaries’ garden, at a little crowd of machete-carrying men on the path, coming home from their banana groves, at the dense greenery that hid the horizon. And until he finally went back to his podium, it seemed to us that fear had taken the teacher’s place.

More than once, fear drove us out of the classroom. Félicien kept his eyes glued to the window. Again and again, he stepped out to consult with the teachers from the neighboring classrooms, who also sometimes came out to quietly seek his advice or warn him of some coming danger. We felt a little abandoned there on our benches, and we hurried to the window, trying like the teacher to make out where our killers would come from. We thought we could hear a sort of hum of voices from the orchard, we thought we could see the undergrowth in the bush shaking in a worrisome way, we were surprised to see no one out walking on the path. Finally Félicien would give us the order: “Come, children, we’re going to pray.” We left the classroom without a word, without a sound. The church was close by. But we didn’t go in through the front, we went around back, to the little door of the sacristy. We sat shoulder to shoulder in the apse, behind the altar. There was no lock on the door. The teachers stood leaning against it, hoping they could keep it shut. The fear would fade a little. We were convinced nothing could happen to us in the church. I don’t know how long we sat that way, not moving, not speaking. It was as if time had stopped. Somewhere between life and death. A missionary appeared in the church. He seemed a little surprised to see us behind the altar. Félicien and the other teachers talked with him for a time. He tried to persuade them the danger had passed, or had never been real. Finally Félicien and his colleagues were convinced. The umupadri headed out of the church first, through the sacristy door, while we followed behind, protected by his white cassock and the big rosary that hung against his chest. Once we were out in the schoolyard and sure there was no threat, Félicien would say, “My children, go home to your villages. Don’t dawdle on the road. Run, run! That’s what I’ve been trying so hard to teach you in gym class every day: to run. Jumping high won’t do you any good, and it doesn’t matter how nimble you are with a soccer ball: what you need to know is how to run. Even you girls, especially you girls who are so proud of your big bottoms, now you have to be faster than the gazelle. Run, run, that’s the only thing that can save you.” And we ran, we ran, as if to outrun the fear.

We mostly hid in the church when we hadn’t quite recovered from a day of great fear. Those days of great fear! We didn’t know why fear suddenly gripped the whole village. “They’re coming! They’re coming!” They meant the soldiers, the Party youth, the bands of pillagers and murderers who were always about to burst out of the mostly Hutu villages around us. Everyone’s head filled with images from the1959 or 1963 massacres: burned enclosures, cows shot dead, tall men “shortened” with slices to their tendons before they were finished off with machetes, women and children massacred to wipe out “the race of snakes,” rivers clogged with dead bodies . . . The slightest rumor foretold the return of those horror-filled days: a minister’s speech heard by the teacher on the one radio in the village, the Party cell leaders summoned to the town hall, a secret militant meeting in the middle of the night, a convoy of army trucks on the Gako road, arrests among the shopkeepers around the market square, beatings of students home from school, ever more frequent and more violent military raids on the displaced people’s houses . . .

You always had to stay on your guard: any incident could be a prelude to the final massacre, every word spoken by a high-placed official could hide a coded call for murder.

The rumor had spread from house to house. “They’re coming! They’re coming!” Soon we didn’t know who or what had sounded the alarm: Anselme coming home from the Nyamata market, the teacher who listened to the news on the radio and talked it over with the men in the evening, the children who thought they’d seen soldiers in camouflage patrolling the bush. We knew what had to be done, we didn’t have to come up with a plan. We’d been through this before. The watchmen hurried off to a place where they could see the assailants from far away. Meanwhile, others put up flimsy barricades, imaginary defenses where they hoped to hold off the attackers long enough for the women and children to flee into the bush, even if it cost them their own lives.

The women and children gathered at Athanase’s as soon as the alarm was sounded. His house was the last one on the Lake Cyohoha side. The hope was that the killers would enter the village from the other end, the Nyamata side, leaving us time to hide in the brambles or the papyrus at the edge of the lake. For us children, those days of great fear were above all days of great excitement: nothing was the same as usual, everything was topsy-turvy! We were all together in the same house, Athanase’s house! The schoolchildren didn’t go off to class, the girls were excused from their chores, we didn’t have to fetch water (we laughed to see the men heading for the lake with our calabashes). We were all one big family, with many children and many mamas!

The mamas were all with us in Athanase’s back courtyard, even Mukanyonga, the pagan, ordinarily shunned by all. Everyone had come with provisions. We would never have thought there were so many things to eat in Gitagata, where no one could remember having a full stomach, and so many good things: perfect beans, igisukaribananas, white, mealy gahungezi sweet potatoes (which back home in Rwanda were never served without milk), even peanuts! All those things our mothers set aside to sell at the market—because we have to buy salt, said Mama, and oil for the lamp, and fabric for our school uniforms, not to mention saving up what we could for rainless days. And now the mamas were cooking up all those forbidden foods in Athanase’s back courtyard and serving them to us in overflowing calabashes—and it was Margarita, Margarita who was widely suspected of being a poisoner, Margarita who we weren’t allowed to ask for water, it was Margarita watching over the beans! “Eat, eat,” the cooks insisted, “we can’t leave anything for them, and we might soon have a long way to walk with nothing in our stomachs.” But our stomachs had got used to famine, and all too soon refused to let the feasting go on.

The mamas were like the hen that gathers her chicks under her wings the moment she spots Sakabaka the vulture. Alas, we couldn’t shelter beneath their pagnes, but they did all they could to outwit our fear. They invented things for us to do, since we couldn’t run or kick the ball back and forth on the road or play hide-and-seek in the sorghum. “Study your lessons,” they would say to the children who went to school. We opened the treasured notebooks we always kept with us. But we couldn’t lose ourselves in our work. We began to hate those foreign words, to suspect them of having some vague connection with the misery hanging over us. The big girls who’d set out to weave baskets soon lost heart and gave up. The mamas came up with games for the littlest ones. They had them make dolls out of sorghum, they showed them how to shape little platters for their straw-and-twig figures to eat from. We asked riddles, but only in a whisper, as if we were trading secrets. And that was what frightened us most, because all of this happened in silence: the mothers forbade us to speak out loud, and at the slightest sound everything came to a stop, frozen in awful anticipation.

Night fell. The watchmen and scouts hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. But there was no question of going home. Our enemies were probably waiting to launch their attack in the dark. The men’s vigilance doubled. They came into Athanase’s back courtyard for a little food and rest, then went off again when their turn came to keep watch.

The children settled in to sleep in the little house, squeezed all together, which brought us some comfort. There weren’t enough mats for us all, so the oldest ones slept on the floor. But the strangest thing was that we slept fully clothed. The mamas had told us: “Whatever you do, don’t get undressed!” That morning, they’d had us put on our finest things, our Sunday mass clothes. They had the schoolchildren put on their uniforms. And the women too had dressed in their fanciest pagnes, bought at the price of many privations, worn with pride on wedding days. Maybe they hoped they could still save all that if they had to flee, all those humble belongings, their most prized possessions. But more than anything I believe their concern for elegance was an act of defiance against the killers and against death.

It wasn’t easy falling asleep. We were all listening for noises, the men in the back courtyard, footfalls on the dirt road. “You think they’re going to come?” the girls asked each other over and over. Finally, just as the night was ending, sleep overcame us, but only to plunge us into a whirlwind of nightmares: it was a deliverance to wake up.

When dawn came, we were greatly surprised to find ourselves lying fully clothed side by side. The women were already at work in the back courtyard. There was no one to stop us from running out to the dirt road. We found the village and all its houses still there, no different from what they were the day before. We still suspected our persecutors of trying to trick us. We didn’t dare go any further, out to the empty houses. But little by little came reassuring news. A few of the men had ventured as far as Nyamata. They’d seen no soldiers or militiamen on the road. The Nyamata market was bus- tling as always. At noon, the alarm was lifted. The days ahead would be hard, because we’d used up all our provisions to face the great fear. Now we would go back to a life lived on borrowed time, back to the everyday fear. They hadn’t come this time, but we knew one day they would.


Excerpted from Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Archipelago Books.

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