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Our Lady of the Nile (2012)

by Scholastique Mukasonga

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2138100,003 (3.77)36
For her most recent work and first novel - Notre-Dame du Nil, originally published in March 2012 with Gallimard in French - Mukasonga immerses us in a school for young girls, called "Notre-Dame du Nil." The girls are sent to this high school perched on the ridge of the Nile in order to become the feminine elite of the country and to escape the dangers of the outside world. The book is a prelude to the Rwandan genocide and unfolds behind the closed doors of the school, in the interminable rainy season. Friendships, desires, hatred, political fights, incitation to racial violence, persecutions... The school soon becomes a fascinating existential microcosm of the true 1970s Rwanda.… (more)
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» See also 36 mentions

English (4)  French (3)  Italian (1)  All languages (8)
Showing 4 of 4
I've always thought that choosing a good topic was a important skill for non-fiction writers. And implicitly, at least, I've thought the same thing for novelists and poets--I'm much less likely to read books that just mull over the same material.

Well, Mukasonga chose a topic that's both very appealing to me (nunsploitation) and objectively worthwhile (colonialism, politics, their awful effects on each other). But I feel uncomfortable saying that this counts in the book's favor. Mukasonga, I gather, lives in France in exile from Rwanda, which she fled due to the 1997 genocide there. Her previous works have been autobiographies (incomprehensibly, they haven't been translated). So it's not like she chose her topic. Apologies for the cliche, but it chose her.

Having almost settled this discomfort, I was free to notice the way Our Lady uses French school literature's forms and modes, while showing up the comparative unimportance of its traditional topic (viz., white Frenchmen). Like Larbaud, Mukasonga's book is a series of stories which aren't linked together narratively, but do give us a nice panorama of the school. She has the same wistful, distant tone as, for instance, Alain-Fournier. This is doubly smart: her book might look completely alien, but she can draw European (and now American or British) readers in with these comforting forms.

And then one of the students invites militiamen in to beat, rape and kill Tutsi girls. So, less comforting.

Unfortunately, the book also feels like a first novel (which it is). The characters are forever reminding each other, in dialogue, of things they obviously already know; the dialogue is often stilted; there's a bit too much anthropology.

And then my white guilt kicks in, and I wonder, is this a convention in Great Lakes narrative that I'm just too ignorant to understand? And then the guilt kicks in again, because why should I have to judge Mukasonga's work according to different standards, just because she's from Rwanda? And then I cycle back to my ignorance, which makes it important for her to explain how important cows are in that society. But shouldn't I know that already? Isn't it unfair that we expect writers from Africa and Asia to explain their worlds to us *and* write well about those worlds, while American authors can focus entirely on the writing well? And so on and so on.

But this circle of thoughts aside, this is a charming book which takes an entirely justified shocking turn, and even before that turn, it's very smart on colonialism, the ambiguities of 'imported' religions, and the horrors of a girl's school. All of this comes together wonderfully well in the symbol of Our Lady. On the other hand, most people will find the dialogue grating, and the anthropologising might require more of an apology than I can give it.

Now, if only someone would translate her autobiographical works... or I should get better at French. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
This debut novel by Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga is an excellent vehicle for some Rwandan history. Set in an elite girls boarding school, Our Lady of The Nile, a group of seniors navigate their final year at school, a year leading up to the beginning of Hutu massacre of the Tutsis. Events include betrothal to older prominent politicians, deaths, development of militant stances, and the slow but steady erosion of the worship of the Virgin Mary which the Belgians had imposed on Rwandans. A lot jammed into a relatively short novel. Best as a history lesson rather than a literary experience. ( )
  hemlokgang | Jun 14, 2020 |
This is a heart-breaking book. Our Lady of the Nile is a prelude to the Rwandan Genocide against the Tsuti, depicting in fiction the divisions in Rwandan society in the microcosm of an elite girls' school. Scholastique Mukasonga is a Rwandan refugee now living in France, and I have previously read her searing memoir Cockroaches (2006, translated into English in 2016). This novel (Notre Dame du Nil) followed in 2012 and was translated in 2014.

Our Lady of the Nile draws on the author's own experience at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Citeaux, which she attended as one of the Tutsi quota. It was because she had fled to Burundi after being attacked by Hutu students at that school, that she did not witness the genocide, and escaped the slaughter of her family.

Like the elusive source of the Nile, the causes of ethnic hatred in Rwanda are hard to identify. The girls who attend the school are there to be prepared for a role in elite society. They are insulated from the rest of their community in order to protect their purity, and keep them safe. But school turns out to be not so safe for the Tutsi girls who are only there on sufferance, a token presence to make it look as if they are treated equally in a society which has been discriminating against them for decades.

Spitefulness is revealed in all sorts of ways. Virginia wants to save a little sugar for her sisters in the village. She doesn't like sugar, but her sisters have never tasted it, so she gathers small quantities of it in an envelope to send to them, though—being Tutsi—she always gets the cup last when there is almost nothing left. Even so, she is accused of stealing when all she has done is to save what she could have had for herself. Dorothée agrees not to tell only on condition that Virginia writes her essays for her, for the rest of the year. It is obvious that Virginia merits her place in this elite school because Dorothée’s marks suddenly improve...

The colonial history of Rwanda is evident in the school staff and its curriculum. There are only two Rwandan teachers, one who teaches the local language Kinyarwanda and the other who teaches history and geography:
History meant Europe, and Geography, Africa. Sister Lydwine was passionate about the Middle Ages. Her classes were all about castles, keeps, arrow slits, machicolations, drawbridges, and bartizans. Knights set off on crusades, with the Pope’s blessing, to liberate Jerusalem and massacre the Saracens, while others fought duels with lances for the eyes of ladies wearing pointy hats. Sister Lydwine talked of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and Richard the Lionheart. “I’ve seen them in movies!” said Veronica, unable to contain herself.

“Will you please be quiet!” said Sister Lydwine crossly. “They lived a very long time ago, before your ancestors had even set foot in Rwanda.”

Africa had no history, because Africans could neither read nor write before the missionaries opened their schools. Besides, it was the Europeans who had discovered Africa and dragged it into history. And if there had been any kings in Rwanda, it was better to forget them, for the country was now a Republic. Africa had mountains, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, deserts, forests, and even a few cities. It was just a question of memorizing their names and finding them on the map: Kilimanjaro, Tamanrasset, Karisimbi, Timbuktu, Tanganyika, Muhabura, Fouta Djallon, Kivu, Ouagadougou. (Kindle edition, Loc 402)
Episodes like this show that the Europeans were out of their depth when they redrew lines on a map to suit their colonial ambitions.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2019/08/13/our-lady-of-the-nile-by-scholastique-mukason... ( )
  anzlitlovers | Aug 13, 2019 |
Set in Rwanda in 1979, this is the story of a girls' school set high in the mountains near the supposed source of the River Nile. Written and translated beautifully, it begins as a light and amusing tale of girls from different backgrounds, all (or almost all) members of the political elite, jockeying for position among classmates, dreaming of boys, laughing at their teachers, and otherwise moving restlessly through adolescence. But the story turns dark and then it turns brutal. Mukasonga holds a mirror up to her country's history of civil strife, warfare, and genocide. That teenage girls could so completely absorb and reify their country's ethnic hatreds is not really surprising; we humans overtly and implicitly teach our children to love and hate as we do. What is surprising is how effectively a writer can use this phenomenon to tell part of a country's story. Beautiful. ( )
4 vote EBT1002 | Dec 22, 2014 |
Showing 4 of 4
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Scholastique Mukasongaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Jandl, AndreasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mauthner, MelanieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wussow, IndraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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For her most recent work and first novel - Notre-Dame du Nil, originally published in March 2012 with Gallimard in French - Mukasonga immerses us in a school for young girls, called "Notre-Dame du Nil." The girls are sent to this high school perched on the ridge of the Nile in order to become the feminine elite of the country and to escape the dangers of the outside world. The book is a prelude to the Rwandan genocide and unfolds behind the closed doors of the school, in the interminable rainy season. Friendships, desires, hatred, political fights, incitation to racial violence, persecutions... The school soon becomes a fascinating existential microcosm of the true 1970s Rwanda.

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