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

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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.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families

We wish to inform you…

Who: Rwanda, 1994.

Why: Simple answer: The final kindling of a flame, centuries old, leading to a massive flare, hundreds of thousands dead.

Should I read it: Yes.

Qq: “Rwanda had the memories and the habits of a long past, yet the rupture in that past had been so absolute that the country I was driving through was a place that has never existed before” Pg. 180

Surviving violence is often an extension of the pain one has escaped. Indeed, when that pain is caused by your neighbour, your in-law, your priest, your government, surviving is a rebirth into an essentially different world. An intriguing, if slightly undeveloped, aspect of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, is Gourevitch’s focus on the survivors of the genocide. Having provided an indepth look at the forces behind the genocide, (“genocide is never spontaneous”) Gourevitch seeks to understand how the survivors battled the fears, guilt, and hopes that came with that position. He asks, along with the Rwandans he interviews, how to face western forces that first helped feed into the hate and propaganda spurring Hutus to kill hundreds of thousands of their Tutsi friends, in-laws, congregation members, neighbours, using only machetes, then turned away from requests to intervene and stop the violence, provided aid to perpetrators-turned-refugees, and then arrogantly demanded that both Tutsi and Hutu fractions put aside their differences, like little children, and live together again. (Desmond Tutu urged them to bond over their shared blackness). In many ways, Gourevitch attempts to underscore the efforts of the people and the nation as a whole, not to pretend to move past their pain, but in light of their shared and individual experiences of violence, loss, and devastation, answer the bigger question, “now what?” Should the violence be forgotten? Should it be commemorated (Rwanda now has a national holiday in remembrance of the genocide), can the batutsi reach out to the bahutu? Can a tutsi woman raped during the genocide love her enfant mauvais souvenir, child of her hutu rapist? When does the pain go away? Gourevitch’s recount is not just a piece of investigative journalism, it’s not just a westerner attempting to piece together a foreign story, it’s an insight into what it means to experience the extreme violence humanity carries out against humanity, and what it means to survive, to find the right words to ask questions with no compact answers, to seek an amorphous justice, to understand the limitations of retribution, and to live. We Wish to Inform You, is not light reading, it’s necessary reading.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

Pcador | 1999 | ISBN: 9780312243357