Wealth, Prestige, and Love in a Rwandan High School

“At first, Virginia had not said anything. We never speak about these things in Rwanda. There are so many things we must never speak about in Rwanda.”

In the years following the decolonization, Notre-Dame du Nil is the high-school where every young girl in Rwanda dreams of studying: situated on the high peaks of the Congo-Nile region, near the source of the great Egyptian river, the prestigious high-school hosts the daughters of ministers, diplomats and rich businessmen.

The students know only too well that they are there only thanks to their family’s wealth and, so, know how much they worth: the main goal of their education is to make them feminine models in the newly-born Rwandan society- feminine, because women have specific roles: the strict religious discipline and the elitist education provided by French and Belgian teachers aim at preserving their virtue and making them ‘good marriage material’.

However, beneath this glittering surface of wealth and prestige, guarded by the strict religious morals of Sister Lywine, more earthly things occur, such as the “rewards” given by Father Herménégilde to the worthy students (especially to Frida, the beautiful fair-skinned student). Scandal breaks when Frida becomes engaged to a rich Zairian and soon gets pregnant. Her mysterious death is a shock for the small community and her name is banished from all conversation, like a shameful memory.

Awarded the 2012 Renaudot Prize in France, Notre-Dame du Nil represents a powerful and almost merciless piece of writing about post-colonial Rwanda; a small mirror into a society in which wealth, prestige and strict rules can only increase tensions and passions. The novel can be seen as a kaleidoscope of portraits depicted in a meticulous way: Gloriosa, an arrogant Tutsi looking down on the others, Frida, the beautiful victim, Virginia the courageous who wants to know more about her ancestry. The most eccentric figure in the novel is perhaps Monsieur de Fontenaille, a White anthropologist who preaches the superiority of the Tutsi people.

It is through his predictions and theories that Mukasonga lets us foresee the genocide to come, after all, Notre-Dame du Nil only allows 10% of Tutsi students. In this selective microcosm where many things are silenced, ethnic tensions come to life and are about to burst at any time.

And yet, in this confusing atmosphere, Imaculée, one of the students, gives her friends and the reader a beautiful lesson of humanity:

“I thought about what Gorett’s mother was telling: that gorillas were once humans. I have another version of the story: gorillas refused to become entirely human, there were almost human, but they preferred being and living as they were, gorillas, in the highlands near the volcanoes. When they had seen other apes like them becoming humans, mean, cruel and killing each other all the time, they refused it. Maybe this is the original sin Father Hermenegilde speaks about all the time: the moment when gorillas became humans.” (Translated from the French)

Notre-Dame du Nil by Scholastique Mukasonga

Gallimard Editions | 2012| 9782070456314

Review by Ioana Danaila


Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.

The Big Lie

In The Big Lie, Tanya Selvaratnam details how she came to the realization that age isn’t just a number when it comes to fertility. Born in 1971 (11 years after the FDA approved the Pill for contraceptive use and two years before abortion was legalized with Roe v. Wade), Selvaratnam had inherited reproductive freedom, and with it, she argues, the assumption she could wait to get pregnant whenever she felt ready.

When her experience revealed that her advanced age might have influenced her inability to deliver to term, the Harvard grad exercised her reproductive right in a new way—acquiring knowledge. The result is a fastidious survey of the baby-making business; a crash course on American healthcare policy, international adoption, and fertility tourism; a personal story threading statistics, reports, articles, and expert advice like beads.

Through it all, Selvaratnam is diagnosed with cancer and her marriage ends.

As intimate as it is, Selvaratnam’s book also serves as a resource, aimed at opening the door on a global network—and economy—fueled by the desire to have a child.

Selvaratnam says she wrote the book as an admonition to younger women who want children to arm themselves with information about their fertility. “I didn’t learn about this at home, in school, or at my doctor’s office,” she explains. “I found the information on my own… Although infertility is traditionally seen as a female problem, more and more reports are emerging about the man’s role. In fact, infertility cases are evenly accounted for by both male and female factors.”

She argues that while some couples hoping to get pregnant seek affordable treatments in parts of Asia and Africa, the next generation of Africans may find themselves facing infertility challenges as more and more couples postpone childbirth.

…despite having twenty-nine of the world’s thirty-one high-fertility countries…fertility rates are expected to fall by 2030 and possibly below by 2050, due to the rapid economic growth. According to an article in the Economist in 2009, ‘An emergent African middle class is taking out mortgages and moving into newly built flats—and two children is what they want. 

When the fertility rate falls below 2.1, the replacement rate (of people being born versus those dying) can cause an imbalance between the young and old generations, resulting in concerns about whether there are enough people to take care of the aging population and enough new workers to keep the economy going.


The Big Lie enters the market at a time when conversations around working families reproductive choices have captured the zeitgeist with renewed intensity. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s instantly viral article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In have influenced the discussion around the challenges women face on the job when planning for a family, and when they become mothers, if they choose to do so.

Selvaratnam represents women who have leaned all the way in—and must now balance career demands with the reality of their biological clocks (if they choose to have children) and the exorbitant costs of assisted reproduction, if necessary. Though she focuses solely on getting pregnant, not the costs of taking care of them, high mortality rates and undeveloped or developing economies of the most reproductive nations, her book is uniquely global in perspective and class-aware, expanding the conversation from privileged women at the highest echelons of society to women with less financial resources who endeavor to navigate the expensive morass of the fertility economy.

The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock by Tanya Selvaratnam

Prometheus Books | 2014 | ISBN: 978-1616148454

Review by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond

NANA EKUA BREW-HAMMOND-headshotNana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of Powder Necklace. Named among the 39 most promising African writers under 39, her work will be featured in the forthcoming anthology Africa39. She blogs at People Who Write.


So Long A Letter | Guest Review by Jade Yeung

“You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don’t know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you.” – Pg 58

So Long a Letter is an epistolary novel written in the voice of Ramatoulaye, a Senegalese school teacher. Addressed to her best friend Aissatou, the letters chronicle Ramatoulaye’s emotional journey after her husband’s second marriage and his unexpected death. Written in a refreshingly forthright manner, the novel avoids usual narrative arcs (a beginning, climax and end) from the onset, the reader is aware of what has occurred to fuel Ramatoulaye’s letters.

In her first letter, Ramatoulaye writes to Aissatou, “Yesterday you were divorced. Today I am a widow.” The novel occupies the gap between these two sentences, as Bâ explores topics from African feminism to the intertwined relationship of tradition and religion and its implications for women such as Ramatoulaye, caught between a ‘new’ post-colonial Senegal and an allegiance to the patriarchal values that nourished her upbringing. Ramatoulaye’s thoughts reveal her to be a strong woman persevering under an oppressive patriarchy, shaped to some extent by societal, marital and religious traditions.

She writes “Start again at zero, after living twenty-five years with one man, after having borne twelve children? …. I had lost my slim figure. My stomach protruded from the wrapper…. Suckling had robbed my breasts of their round firmness. I could not delude myself: youth was deserting my body.”

These depictions of her female body as a vessel for bearing children are conflated with knowledge of the limitations placed on women by society.  While conversing with a male friend who works at the National Assembly, she fiercely rebuts a passive sexist remark:

Nearly twenty years of independence! When will we have the first female minister involved in the decisions concerning the development of our country? And yet the militancy and ability of our women, their disinterested commitment, have already been demonstrated. Women have raised more than one man to power… When will education be decided for children on the basis not of sex but of talent?

Though Ramatoulaye seems to dwell in virtual isolation, suspended between different ideologies and isolated by the practical realities of raising young children while mourning a dead husband and failed relationship, the reader never feels alone. Indeed, it often feels like Ramatoulaye is addressing not Aissatou but the reader. Her sufferings are not over, as her daughter points out, but she has not finished living either. In fact, it rather feels that Ramatoulaye is entering a new, promising epoch by the end of the novel.

Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter is a cornerstone of African feminisms, written brilliantly with calm and passionate intelligence, and it should be read by anyone tired of MFA poetry or empty fiction. Bâ was relevant yesterday and is relevant today.

So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ.

Translated to English by Modupe Bode-Thomas

Heineman | 1989| ISBN: 978-0-435905-55-2

548973_10150628616752966_250410152_nJade Yeung
was born and raised in Brooklyn. She received her BA in English at Hunter College. She reads literary fiction, poetry published before the 1980’s, and compelling non-fiction. When she’s not working one of several jobs in publishing and food, she likes to cook and listen to podcasts.

Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author

The African Book Review’s editor, Etinosa, had a conversation with renowned Nigerian author, Sefi Atta about her new book, A Bit of Difference, the changing roles of women in Nigeria and the unique position of young Nigerians growing up in the diaspora.

ARB: A BIT OF DIFFERENCE seems to take a moment in Deola’s life and use that as a lens for exploring a host of social issues. What inspired the book and did you have a goal when you set out to write the novel?

ATTA: I was inspired by the poster I described at the beginning of the novel. I saw it at Hartsfield-Jackson international airport in Atlanta, where I catch my connecting flights to Nigeria and England. My goal was to return to the territory of my debut novel Everything Good Will Come. I had stayed away for a while but I felt the time was right to revisit it.

ARB: One of the things that stood out to us in the novel was how astute the protagonist was in both noticing and maneuvering how other people perceive and categorized her. Is Deola symbolic of Nigerian youth caught between the varying (and sometimes conflicting) expectations of western and Nigerian societies? (Do you think being in that position is more difficult or advantageous than say, being a Nigerian born, raised, and residing in Nigeria?)

ATTA: Deola is tired of failing to live up to other people’s expectations, but I don’t know that her predicament would be any different if she’d never left Nigeria. She might not have to deal with the perceptions of foreigners, but she would have to deal with the perceptions of other Nigerians. I live in Nigeria, England and the United States. I have my working life in Mississippi, my social life in Lagos and a bit of both in London. I enjoy being able to escape from one country to another when I can.

ARB: To a fair extent, the female body is often regarded as social property to be regulated not just by the woman, but by society at large under the guise of morality. However, Deola stands out (and was truly inspiring) in her willingness to be comfortable and assertive with regards to her femininity and sexuality. Is this a reflection of modern Nigerian society? And what ideally, do you want the future of the Nigerian girl to look like in terms of the choices society affords her, and the choices she can make for herself?

ATTA: I would be lying if I said I thought about any of these issues while I was writing the novel. I will say this, though. We express our femininity and sexuality differently, depending on the generation to which we belong, our religions and cultures. The growth of the telecommunications industry in Nigeria has also radically changed how we see and project ourselves. It has increased our choices, but not necessarily in positive or empowering ways. I see Nigerian girls who are sexualized too young, who model themselves after celebrities and hip-hop video girls. My thing is this: Use your brains, whatever you do. Nigeria is not forgiving of anyone who makes stupid decisions. Thankfully, I see Nigerian girls who are enterprising, hardworking and smart.

Continue reading “Sefi Atta: An Interview with a Leading Nigerian Author”

A Bit of Difference

Who: Deola Bello

What: Exploring what it means to be a contemporary African woman.

Why: Female, thirties, working for international charity, soon pregnant, single, Nigerian. Nothing is unusual, nothing is as it should be.

Should I read it: Necessary for women everywhere and all the men in their lives.

Qq: “[Deola] gave up her virginity when she had no more use for it. Losing her virginity was like discovering her hair was not her crowning glory” – Pg 97

A Bit of Difference presents a commentary on African femininity, specific to Nigeria, yet easily applicable to women worldwide. The novel is assertive in its exploration and insightful in detailing the complexities, limitations, joys, and paradoxes of being a Nigerian woman, living within or outside the country. Using the life of Deola Bello, a single auditor working for a British charity, Atta explores everything from Western perceptions of Africa and indeed African women, to the contradictions inherent in social expectations for women and their abilities to meet, ignore, or defy set expectations.  A Bit of Difference, much less a novel than a brilliant portrait, successfully achieves what all good poetry strives for; it picks a moment and explores it. Atta offers no comfortable narratives or righteous solutions; instead her honest voice challenges the reader’s understanding of what it means to be Nigerian, African, British, European, American, but above all, what it means to be a woman inhabiting the battle ground that is the female body.

A Bit of Difference by Sefi Atta

Interlink Books | 2013 | ISBN: 978-1-56656-892-0

Read our interview with Sefi Atta here.

Ghana Must Go, A Novel

Ghana Must Go

Who: The Sai family, a loosely knit yet inexplicably bound group, each facing different directions yet somehow holding on.

Why: Failure, Success, Expectations, Betrayal.

Should I read it: On a cool day with lots of time to spare

Qq: “It was the reason, he thought they built churches so big, and investment banks so impressive. To dazzle the faithful. Arrogance by association. The machine was in control, and so he was in control who belonged to it” Pg 69

The women of Ghana Must Go, are creatures who exist in a manner that few other writers have captured. Many times excuses are made for the humanity of characters, banal characteristics used to code and justify their existence. Selasi however, grants her women an existence that does not need justification. They are because they are. Yet they somehow remain intangible to the reader, vessels suspended in the space between critical consciousness, and intimacy. Selasi’s writing style maintains a distance that sometimes successfully works emotion and tenderness into the tale. At other times, the narrator’s distance is much too far and the reader feels as though in a Brecht play, too conscious of the fourth wall, unable to grasp the humanity of the characters, or view them as anything other than threads succumbing to Selasi’s convulsing attempts to weave an intricate tapestry. Intricate it might be, but a complete tapestry it is not. The reader is therefore left with convoluted knots, spaces with unraveling threads, coupled with brilliant patches that underscore Selasi’s genius and force one to keep reading in the hopes that the rest of the narrative maintains such illusive brilliance. It therefore comes as a surprise when a grey character exudes a contentment that is critical to, yet almost overlooked in Selasi’s tapestry. Her contentment weighs as the anchor of the book, the place towards which each character is destined, but never quite arrives. It is audacious in a way that echoes the unfulfilled aspirations of Ghana Must Go.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Penguin Press| 2013| ISBN: 978-1594204494