Book Review - Kibogo

You can learn a lot about Rwanda from reading Scholastique Mukasonga’s work. Born there in 1956, Mukasonga experienced first-hand the ethnic tensions that would eventually erupt in brutal conflict. Her family was displaced in 1960, and later she fled to Burundi. Mukasonga settled in France in 1992 — two years before the genocide that wiped out 37 members of her family, including her parents. 

In her memoir, The Barefoot Woman (published in French in 2008), Mukasonga vividly described how exile erodes one’s traditions and identity. Her debut novel Our Lady of the Nile (2012) depicted Rwanda’s social divisions in a lycée for girls in the 1970s and foreshadowed the violence that would follow. Kibogo, nimbly translated by Mark Polizzotti, opens in the 1940s and explores colonial exploitation and oppression in the region formerly known as Ruanda-Urundi. 

The Belgian administration attempted to control the Rwandan people by suppressing their culture, while missionaries were intent on replacing ancestral beliefs with Catholicism. Many in the hillside community Mukasonga portrays are reduced to secretly sharing stories around night-time fires. At the heart of these legends is that of Prince Kibogo who, struck by lightning on top of Mount Runani, rose to heaven and brought the rains. 

Mukasonga’s novella is made up of four parts. “Ruzagayura” refers to the great famine of 1943-1944, when the colonial authorities forced Rwandans to contribute to the war effort. Children were taken to harvest the small flowers that protected western soldiers against malaria; men were enlisted to work in mines for iron and copper to make rifles and cannons, while farmers’ cattle were slaughtered for food.

In “Akayezu” we are introduced to a Rwandan priest who wears a dazzling white cassock, loves reading and Latin, but is dismissed from the seminary when he refuses to renounce the beliefs he grew up with. Returning to his village, Akayezu helps “resurrect” a newborn, which enrages the church fathers further. He retreats to live in a hut in the sacred grove of Kigabiro. 

The next part recounts the story of a woman believed to be the bride of Kibogo’s spirit. Considered “the last remaining pagan on the hillside”, she is derided by the mission fathers as “a heathen and obstinate witch”. As an old woman, Mukamwezi unites with Akayezu and he moves into her shack at the foot of the hill. Together, they call on Kibogo to combat the drought. 

There’s humour in the final chapter, when a white anthropologist, the Professor, arrives on the hillside and two elders relate wildly differing versions of the Kibogo legend. Wanting to safeguard the old folktales — and his career — the ambitious scholar sententiously observes, “Even peoples without writing have their libraries.” Kwaba, one of three “hillside troublemakers”, delights in telling yet another version, in the hope he will be adopted and schooled at the professor’s expense. The professor makes grand claims that his research will “make the hillside famous the world over”, yet when he dies in a plane crash one of the Catholic converts suggests this is “Yezu’s punishment”. The storytellers, meanwhile, attribute this vengeance to Kibogo. 

Mukasonga has spoken about digging into “the trunk of my mother’s tales”. At one point she recalls how “a little girl, forgotten at the storyteller’s feet, who refused to go to sleep like the others, stored away in her memory, without really understanding them, the enchanted words of the fable”. One wonders if it’s an image of her younger self.

Originally published by The Financial Times