The story begins and ends with death. “Mama, I was not there to cover your body, and I have only words – words in a language you did not understand - to do as you asked. On the pages of my book, my sentences weave, back and forth, a shroud for your lost body,” reads the prologue to “The Barefoot Woman”, an autobiographical novel. Across 10 chapters, each a self-contained story, author Scholastique Mukasonga evokes the life of her mother Stefania, one of over 800,000 Tutsis murdered by radical Hutus during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
The narrative is set in the 1960s. The family lives in exile in a refugee village on the dusty, arid plains of Bugesera in eastern Rwanda. They have left behind their traditional houses or inzu, their cows, their beloved mountains in the south of the country. The genocide is still in the future, but tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups (tensions born of the colonial era) are already evident. At one point in the narrative, the survival of the Tutsi in this refugee village is described as only delaying the inevitable.
Ever since Stefania heard “the dull noise of hatred”, she has been doing all she can to ensure the survival of her three daughters still living at home. She goes about it systematically, enlarging the burrows of aardvarks and camouflaging their entrances with grass and twigs; her daughters are to slip into them when the soldiers arrive. At night, she rehearses what must done in an emergency.
She has another door - one leading straight to the fields - built into the house and draws up escape plans, marking a route through the bush to the border with Burundi. She fills bags with supplies for the journey and buries them at pre-arranged places: “Of course, the food had to be regularly replaced, and afterwards we ate a meal which had already gone off, spoiled by motherly love.”
“The life told here is a lost one – one already annihilated.”
The portrait of Stefania is a tender one. She’s a village woman - one who cannot read or write, who plants medicinal herbs and fears evil spells – rather than what Mukasonga describes as an “evolved” one. With her “strange liturgies” and rituals, Stefania does everything she can to protect her children and attempts to preserve her own dignity in a precarious situation.
Mukasonga’s narrative is infused with a subtle humour and an ironic undertone. Underpants, she tells us, were considered a sign of civilisation and progress in the eyes of the mayor and the nuns: “The nuns effectively outsourced the task of promoting underwear in the villages to us. We had been promoted to missionaries of the underpants.”
At times, Mukasonga’s tone is almost conversational (which is not meant as a criticism) only to abruptly lurch towards the unspeakable: “The cow was given to Jeanne’s family as a bride price and Jeanne became Antoine’s wife. They had nine children, seven of them sons, much to my mother’s delight. She thought that this way at least one or two of them would survive and the family would continue. She was wrong.”
Genocide is the subtext underlying everything in the narrative, be it a discussion of millet or smoking a pipe; bread, weddings or hairstyles. The life told here is a lost one - one already annihilated - but Mukasonga‘s portrait is never nostalgic, nor does it strain towards transfiguration. The world she describes is already damaged; the footsteps of soldiers can already be heard, the looting has started, the beating and murdering. Girls are raped, and in Mukasonga’s text, there are portents of what‘s to come: babies are in no hurry to be born, ravens circle the village, even the moon cries.
Mukasonga writes in light floating sentences laced with sadness. Here and there, we catch a glimpse of the present day – of a husband, of children - but mostly the narrative stays entirely with her mother in that refugee village in Bugesera. “The Barefoot Woman” is at once a eulogy and a homage, to Stefania and to all the other Rwandan “mothers of courage”.