Our Lady of the Nile

Scholastique Mukasonga

translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner
Archipelago Books 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014 http://dannyreviews.com/
Nestled high up in the mountains, near a spring which purports to be the source of the Nile, Our Lady of the Nile is a boarding school which caters to the daughters of the Rwandan elite. As ethnic tensions mount nationally in the 1970s, they are mirrored among the twenty girls in the senior year: the two Tutsis Veronica and Virginia, the maximum allowed under the quota system, Gloriosa, daughter of a minister, Modesta, a half-Tutsi, Goretti, daughter of a northern general, and Immaculée, apparently only concerned about her appearance.

As Gloriosa whips up progressively stronger race-hatred, the tension builds and eventually everyone at the school knows what is coming... This provides the underlying menace which drives Our Mother of the Nile; it lacks a sequential plot, otherwise, or any real character development, and is in many ways a series of vignettes.

There are elements of a school novel. Despite their divisions, the students share food from home and preoccupations with skin whiteness, indulge in petty jealousies, have unsuitable posters torn down by the Mother Superior, marvel at a new French teacher with long hair, start menstruating, survive a visit to the school by the queen of Belgium, and so forth. Less innocently, Father Herménégilde takes advantage of the more willing girls, while the Congolese ambassador takes one of them as a fiancée.

Much of the action occurs outside the school. Immaculée and Virginia visit a local rain-maker who dabbles in love magic. Virginia goes home to her family and sneaks away to see a traditional "witch doctor". Gloriosa plots to rework the nose of the shrine Virgin into a more "majority" shape. Veronica visits a nearby expatriate obsessed with the supposed ancient Egyptian origins of the Tutsi (and a visiting priest is an advocate of an alternative origin as lost Israelites). And Immaculée makes a visit to the gorillas.

If thought about too carefully, some of this seems a little contrived, designed to get various aspects of traditional Rwandan culture and colonial history into the story. In the actual reading, however, it all flows naturally enough. The result gives a vivid picture of aspects of Rwanda, conveying something of the background and context of ethnic conflict and violence while only lightly touching on the horrors involved. Perhaps too lightly, but then Our Lady of the Nile is an accessible, easygoing novel and not a chronicle or indictment.

December 2014

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%T Our Lady of the Nile
%A Mukasonga, Scholastique
%M French
%F Mauthner, Melanie
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2014
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780914671039
%P 240pp