Book Review - The Barefoot Woman

Scholastique Mukasonga’s tender paean to motherhood and community (originally published in French in 2008 and seamlessly translated by Jordan Stump) explores how exile robs people of their traditions and identity.

Born in Rwanda in 1956, Mukasonga experienced early on the ethnic conflict that has scarred her country. In 1960, her Tutsi family was exiled to the “dry, dusty plain of the Bugesera”, close to the Burundi border. They left behind their beloved mountains and the cows they had once proudly herded, forced to scrape together a living from growing sorghum, beans and vegetables.

Mukasonga pays homage to her mother, Stefania, and the women in the refugee villages who “fed, protected, counselled and consoled” them all. The author recalls the rituals that shaped her formative years and nurtured her family. The arranging of marriages, the imbibing of sorghum beer, the reward of bread and the women’s love of pipe-smoking are related with a deft touch. And the threat of sudden violence from Hutu soldiers is ever-present.

A reverence for learning is at the heart of her memoir. “Progress” was celebrated and her parents recognised that education was key to giving their children the opportunity to join “the evolved”. Sadly, Mukasonga had to leave her school in Butare and flee to Burundi. She settled in France in 1992, two years before the Tutsi genocide; 37 members of her family were massacred.

This bloodshed haunts and propels the narrative. At the start, Mukasonga writes: “Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body and all I have left is words… over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.” In her heartbreaking conclusion, she describes a nightmare about those she left behind. The shadow of her friend Candida asks her: “Do you have a pagne [cloth wrap] big enough to cover them all, every one of them… every one… every one?”

The Barefoot Woman is an extraordinary tribute to “Mother Courage”, as well as a timely reminder of war’s devastation.

Originally published in The Observer