sat 13/07/2024

Scholastique Mukasonga: The Barefoot Woman review - remembering Rwanda before 1994 | reviews, news & interviews

Scholastique Mukasonga: The Barefoot Woman review - remembering Rwanda before 1994

Scholastique Mukasonga: The Barefoot Woman review - remembering Rwanda before 1994

A daughter’s heartrending letter to her mother and her community

The Barefoot Woman returns our gaze to what really mattersCatherine Heelie © Gallimard

To read Scholastique Mukasonga’s memoir, The Barefoot Woman, beautifully translated from the French by Jordan Stump, is to see simultaneously through the eyes of a woman and a child.

The mother, the industrious and ingenious Stefania, watches her children attentively, preparing them for any possible danger that might assail them in or out of the home. Her daughter, the young Mukasonga, is the faithful storyteller of her mama’s one-time magical griot, whose loving and ever-watchful gaze, much like her narrative, never strays from the resilient and resourceful mother before her. Their entwined viewpoints – encapsulating the child and adult, the girl and the woman, the daughter and mother – are what guide our eyes through this enlivening and life-affirming memoir; they return our gaze to the people, relationships and day-to-day exchanges that occurred before the harrowing events of 1994.

Cover, The Barefoot WomanIf you google the Rwandan genocide, images of machete-wielding men and mutilated women flash up in an all-too vivid stream of pixelated colour: crowds of terrified refugees and distraught children, fields of bodies, and mounds of bones. These were the horrifying images the world turned its face from in real time, as the Hutu-led uprising sought to bring a bloody end to all Tutsi life. Such visions freely haunt the internet and scar the memory of those who survived. They are not what Mukasonga wishes to linger on. In obeisance to a command her mother gave her when alive – to cover her dead body with her pagne lest anyone see – Mukasonga tenderly “weaves a shroud” of words around her mother’s memory. Returning again and again to the vibrant spectacle of her mother’s life, Mukasonga pens a commemoration that goes beyond what any photograph, textbook, burial or tombstone could offer. The blazing brilliance of Tutsi life, as seen and experienced through the mothers and daughters of Rwanda, is resurrected and relived in The Barefoot Woman. Echoing the words of a priest in one of her short stories (‘Grief’ from Igifu, 2010), Mukasonga’s memoir insists that the lives of Rwanda’s lost loved ones are not to be found in an ossuary; their memories cannot remain ossified in that historical place and time.

The first massacres of the late 1950s and early ’60s cast the Tutsis out from the fertile hills: displaced, Mukasonga’s family not only survives on the dusty plains of Rwanda’s Bagesera, they thrive under Stefania’s stewardship. The sights and sites of her mother’s resourcefulness are everywhere in evidence: in the construction of their home, a metal "Tripolo" shack which Stefania adapted, and in which she created hiding places for Mukasonga and her siblings in case soldiers stormed their house; in the storing of beans and sweet potatoes under stones and stumps, food prudently saved in case another attack was made; in the constant tilling, hoeing and sowing of the land, barefoot as the title alludes to, so as to produce food for her children while her husband worked for a pittance miles away. Hoe in hand and pagne at the ready, Stefania steadily appears every bit the strong, wise, and prudent woman Mukasonga knew her to be.

In every chapter, Mukasonga demonstrates that her mother was a cultivator of custom and communal tradition, as much as she was of the soil. Complaining about the limitations of the "Tripolo" shack, Stefania has her husband and eldest son, Antoine, build a “small house” behind it; that is, an inzu, a space specifically for the matriarch of the family, and one that Mukasonga explains is “as vital” to her mother “as water to a fish, as oxygen to a human being”. “Woven like a basket”, the inzu becomes one of many acts of reclamation and resistance by Stefania, much like the entirety of The Barefoot Woman. Drawing us in – another sightline between mother and daughter, the present reader and the envisioned past – Mukasonga reconstructs this most female of spaces, a site that affirms and is ruled over by Stefania as elder woman, wife and maternal authority over both home and hearth. Through the inzu, we step back in time, not only to Stefania’s Rwanda, but to a pre-colonial country, one in which the Tutsi and Hutu and Twa lived in greater harmony, where the violence of race science, Christianity and European imperialism had not yet been introduced, and where prayers are uttered to the creator god, Ryangombe, not the Virgin Mary, in the rhythmical tones of Kinyarwanda.

But this is a Rwanda struggling under the oppression of colonialism and hard-line Hutu power. By the light of the fire in the inzu, the most womb-like and ancestrally protective of spaces, Stefania herself prays to both Ryangombe and the Virgin Mary. The keeper of the Tutsi way of life must also accommodate, in this dislocated way of living, the cultural, technological and social changes – or progress, as some see it – that Rwanda is undergoing. Women who succumb to such “progress” – heard in the choral cry of amajyambere throughout the latter half of the text – are viewed narrowly by Stefania. There is Nyirabazungu (or Kilimadame, as the children nickname her): a Tutsi woman who works for a white family and through such “fortunate” employment opens a shop selling Primus beer, Fanta, cigarettes and the much coveted, supposedly medicinal bread that Tutsi families couldn’t afford. There is Félicité, a young woman who, upon returning from secondary school, has her own separate house (not an inzu) and WC built next to her family’s shack. The actions of both women cause a stir – especially for Stefania – but there is a silent curiosity, a quiet appreciation of their visible independence, beneath the more vocal scorn and condemnation. Although she is a staunch cultivator and conservator of the past, Stefania, too, cannot resist certain aspects of innovation. Even she whispers “amajyambere” when Mukasonga returns home with a pair of custom-made undergarments for her.

Displaced women in Rwanda would soon be treated worse than the “cockroaches” Hutu soldiers believed Tutsi to be. In The Barefoot Woman, they rise up: strong, proud, mighty and spirited. Resisting deep adversity through the caring cultivation of all that they loved – their land, their ancestry, their culture, their families and, above all, their children – these barefoot women walk again, seeing “through the eyes of their toes”, as Stefania beautifully expresses to her daughters. By the light of Mukasonga’s own words, these barefoot women speak, laugh, advise; they share mystical stories; they look deep into their surviving daughters’ eyes to give them the strength to go on and tell their tale.

A love letter from a daughter to her mother, The Barefoot Woman returns our gaze to what really matters: the lost generations, families, women and children who, through Mukasonga’s writing, are able to look back at us once again.


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