Senegal’s most celebrated writer, Boubacar Boris Diop and award-winning Rwandan writer, Scholastique Mukasonga agreed to meet online for an unprecedented and insightful conversation about the challenges of writing, memory and history with regards to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Mukasonga’s novel Notre Dame du Nil recently won the Ahmadou Kouroma Prize that is presented at the Geneva Book Fair. Here, the author brings to life the daily routines of an all girls’ school called Notre Dame du Nil (Our Lady of the Nile) which is situated in a remote region on the banks of the river Congo-Nile. In this microcosm that mirrors Rwanda, the racial, religious and ethnic imprints left behind by a colonial legacy manifest themselves unabashedly. The massacre of the Tutsi population soon catches up with this school leaving the young girls to fight for survival. Mukasonga’s personal experience of the genocide where 800,000 Tutsis were systematically massacred and left 27 members of her family dead informs all her works. Her first novel, Inyenzi (translated as Cockroaches, as the Tutsis were referred to during the build up to the conflict) recounts the memories of her difficult youth as a Rwandan Tutsi. She has since published three novels, all of which highlight the need for writers to stand testimony to the suffering that surrounds them.
Boubacar Boris Diop’s work has consistently addressed political and cultural issues of contemporary African society. In 1998, four years after the Rwandan tragedy, Diop was one of ten prominent African writers who participated in a fest Africa workshop titled, Rwanda : écrire par devoir de mémoire (Rwanda: Writing out of duty towards memory). All writers visited the Rwandan capital, Kigali where they were asked to reflect, analyze and write about the genocide. Out of the nine published works that emerged from this unique Pan-African initiative, Diop’s novel Murambi: The Book of Bones (buy on Amazon) about interlocking characters who experience as well as participate in the genocide, went on to be named one of the 100 best African novels of the 20th century by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Diop’s prolific career thus far includes six novels in French (Le Cavalier et son ombre, Les Tambours de la mémoire, Kaveena, Les Temps de Tamango…and one in Wolof (Doomi Golo), screenplays, plays, several essays and an opera, Leena, which was staged in Bordeaux last year.
Boris Boubacar Diop: First of all, hello Scholastique. We were about to meet each other through a mutual friend, and I strongly hope that that will happen soon. I have wanted to meet you even more since reading Notre-Dame du Nil! Here’s a question that people must ask about all of your books: what part of Notre-Dame du Nil is autobiographical and how much of it is invented?
Scholastique Mukasonga: Hello Boris. I actually met another friend of yours, Myriam Senghor-Ba. I was very moved because she looks astonishingly like my sister Alexia, and I don’t need to remind you that unfortunately she was one of the members of my family taken by the genocide. To answer your question…like all novels, its partly autobiographical. The high school, Notre Dame du Nil could be the high school Notre Dame des Cîteaux in Kigali. I could have stayed close to the daily life of the one of the characters, Gloriosa but the novel opened up fictional space that allowed me to express what I wouldn’t have been able to say as a victim.
BBD: What is impressive to me is that through a high school one discovers the entire history of Rwanda. I believe that all those who ask themselves “Why?” when it comes to genocide should read this book. However, I cannot resist asking you this: are you Virginia or Veronica? Could we say that you are one as well as the other? The survivor and the victim?
SM: We’re in fiction. I am neither one nor the other, but both Virginia and Veronica draw from my story in some way. I wanted to zoom in on the history of Rwanda behind the closed doors of a high school during an academic year and during a season of rain.
BBD: When they arrive at the crossroads, Veronica and Virginia make different choices: one dies horribly in the home of the delirious Fontenaille, and the other survives not only due to the generosity of the Virgin but by a return to her native culture and this time, without foreign mediation. According to you is that the lesson to be learnt from the history of Rwanda?
SM: Rwandan civilization was eclipsed by two factors: the Christian, particularly Catholic religion and by the Hutu republic’s rejection of all that concerned traditional culture which they falsely considered as uniquely Tutsi and attributed to the sacred traditional royalty. Rwanda is now working towards reconnecting with its roots. This forms an integral part of the current Rwandan approach toward reconciliation.
BBD: Yes, this emerges very clearly and thus the importance of the question of memory in your fiction…
SM: The keepers of memory, the ritualists like Rubanga were persecuted as sorcerers by colonial authority and clerics. Rwanda, even before the genocide of its people, was a people cut from its roots. Western anthropologists created a diversion through a distorted interpretation of the history of Rwanda. Right there is one of the origins of the Rwandan tragedy.
BBD: Today, the mechanisms that you are describing and which made monsters like Gloriosa possible are better understood. Could we say that the catastrophe of ’94 will not happen again, even on a small scale?
SM: Boris…what can I say…it is difficult to predict human behavior. I dare to hope and it is for that reason that we write. As part of Fest Africa’s Écrire par devoir de mémoire (Writing as duty towards memory), your novel, Murambi: The Book of Bones was one of the books that greatly touched me. You were at Nyamata in 2000. The marks of the massacres in the churches of Nyamata were still very fresh. How did you live these moments as an African?
BBD: You see that each time there occurs a large-scale tragedy on the continent, with this orgy of cruelty, like in Rwanda, in Sierra Leone, in Liberia, or during the war of Biafra, every African experiences it in an ambiguous manner. It is at once too close and very removed, as if it were happening on another planet. All of that comes from a total absence of information. In a country like Senegal, it was the Western media, especially French ones that made us experience the genocide. I should say, that they misinformed us…Three days ago, a student at the University of Gaston Berger who is writing a thesis on the genocide told me, “It was only in 2009 that I knew that there was a genocide in Rwanda!” She could not get over it. I, too, in ’98 was discovering the genocide of the Tutsi, four years after, and it changed my way of looking at the world. I certainly no longer think in the same way but I especially understood, through Rwanda, that I had a purely bookish vision of the realities of the African continent, of our relationship with the outside world, of an often-proclaimed shared destiny, and the urgency to live for the truth. Yes, it is for that reason that we write, and the films and novels, especially those of Rwandans, contribute to a greatest understanding of the difference in moral status between the killers and the victims.
SM: Yes it is more than time to take destiny into our own hands. And to have direct access to those who observe us. This is why the example of Fest Africa is so important!
BBD: Ah yes, Fest Africa was a turning point for all those who participated in it. It allowed us to bring ourselves back to Rwanda and to view our country and also our singularity as human beings in the mirror of this tragedy. I would like to add this: what has always interested me in your literary work is that while witnessing the horrors of ’94 and the earlier period as a survivor, you present the rhythms of daily life in your books - the life of ordinary people, often forgotten by historians. In Notre-Dame du Nil, this wise and intelligent choice is pushed to its climax because we find ourselves in the murderous fantasies of colonial ethnology. It is important that the entire world know that science without conscience can only be the ruin of oppressed nations, and exactly one century later, it can produce a genocide. And sometimes I tell myself that it would be good to teach, in the form of a reminder, what the 19th century missionaries, explorers, and ethnologists were saying about Rwanda. Is this a crazy idea? Don’t you think that this would be a good idea for Rwandan society to know from what fantasies it was, in part, born?
SM: There are Africanists who have demystified the charlatans who invented a Hamitic race that would belong to the Tutsis. Unfortunately, they have hardly had an audience. In contrast, “ethnographic novels” like Les Derniers rois mages by Paul Del Perugia were received like gospel truth. Rwandans know that they are…we are all the sons and daughters of Gihanga, the common ancestor of the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. Such is our founding myth…and we stick to it.
BBD: Yes, Del Perugia’s absolutely insane book is referenced by supposedly serious authors and also by some encyclopedias!
SM: You have seen it Boris, it’s crazy!
BBD: So two questions in one go: what are you working on now and how are your books being received by your compatriots?
SM: Boris, it is difficult for a survivor to break with survivor’s guilt. Of course, it is less painful for me to use the novel as a form of writing. My writing space remains Rwanda. There is so much to say…
My books were received with a lot of enthusiasm in Rwanda. When I went to Kigali, many students and survivors had a lot of questions for me and wanted to tell me how much my books had touched them: “This isn’t your book, it’s our book," they told me when speaking about Inyenzi. Young Hutus told me about having discovered the refugee camp at Nyamata thanks to my novel, Inyenzi. They also want to know what has been hidden from them. Rwanda, it is necessary to remember, is not a former French colony. It was ignored in French-African literature. Rwandan intellectuals — they were rare — claimed to be historians, philosophers, even theologians, but certainly not writers. My books will awaken, I hope, some vocations. Rwanda, for as many economic reasons as political, has become officially Anglophone. But French has maintained its place, particularly in higher education. We will see one day a bilingual French-English Rwandan literature, without forgetting Kinyarwanda, the national language spoken by all Rwandans. It is for this reason, among others, that I would like to see some of my books translated into English.
And you Boris, I know that you stay in contact with Rwanda. Thank you for your loyalty. We need it.
BBD: See you very soon, Scholastique. I am sure that our paths will cross in Kigali, where I often go, in Europe, and especially here in St. Louis in Senegal where we would be truly delighted to have you for a conference that we are preparing on the representation of genocide in film and in the novel. Thank you for this just and deeply moving book.
SM: With pleasure, Boris ! I am honored by your invitation. I remember with strong emotion my visit to Gorée in 1996. To our meeting, then…
Translation from French by Liz Jacob.