Ther first novel by French-Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga, originally published in 2012 and the first of her books to be published in the UK, could have been titled Privilege and Prejudice. Translated by Melanie Mauthner, it is a school story like no other, set in the late 1970s in a high school located in the mountains of Rwanda, near the source of the Nile (“’We are so close to heaven,’ whispers Mother Superior, putting hands together ”), where the students, daughters of the rich, are taught a little about God and a lot about how to maintain the status quo.
Theoretically, the school is part of the government’s efforts to promote female education in Rwanda, but within limits: the lyceum is a white intrusion into Africa, built under the direction of “white supervisors who did nothing but look great. Sheets of paper that they unrolled like rolls of cloth from the Pakistani tent, and that went mad with rage when the black foremen were called, as if they were spitting fire. ”Girls must be the drivers of change, while strictly following the rules: they must speak French (Swahili is forbidden) and they are taught that “History means Europe and Geography, Africa. Africa had no history … it was the Europeans who discovered Africa and dragged it into history.”
The novel focuses on different girls, their individual but linked stories, flashing like the scales of a fish. They have great personalities, forged from their privileged beginning in life, Gloriosa being the greatest of all, an expert in the ways of governing the world, of manipulating others: “They are not lies, it is politics,” she says, when she pretends to have been attacked by the militia to get out of trouble and escape (“I’m sure they wanted to rape us, probably even kill us”).
Our Lady of the Nile It is driven by tensions. Sometimes these are hilarious, like when the girls argue over the best banana recipe – a Monty Python-worthy superiority. Yorkshire Four Men Sketch – or when teachers fight students over posters of pop culture figures like Brigitte Bardot and Johnny hallyday. “Satan,” warns the school chaplain, “takes all the forms available.”
But bubbling under, then simmering, is the ethnic divide between Hutu and Tutsi, which in 1994 led to the slaughter of more than half a million Tutsis in three months. Mukasonga, a Tutsi, was exiled from Rwanda before settling in France in 1992; 37 members of his family died in the genocide. It is not surprising that his early books focused on this, but the wonder of Our Lady of the Nile it is in its bright and light touch.
The ethnic conflict is handled comically at first: Gloriosa, a Hutu, wants to destroy the nose of the school’s Virgin Mary statue because her white features make her look like a Tutsi, and satirically: girls are teaches that at school, “It’s like you’re no longer Hutu or Tutsi [but] what the Belgians used to call civilized ”. But the old hatreds do not collapse: the two Tutsi girls from the high school, Virginia and Veronica, are “our share,” says Gloriosa, among the “true Rwandan girls.”
The drama that ends the book, when the threat to “de-tutsify our schools” comes true, is a harbinger of the violence to come. We hear the din of what Mukasonga in his memoirs, Cockroaches, he calls “the machinery of genocide.” Thanks to Mukasonga, who has been tipped for the Nobel Prize in Literature for his ability to make art by giving witness, we are still hearing its echoes.
• Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Melanie Mauthner, is published by Daunt (£ 9.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism