By Scholastique Mukasonga
Translated by Jordan Stump
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono
165 pages, paperback
In Cockroaches, Scholastique Mukasonga’s latest work to be translated into English, the author describes a classroom scene that took place when she was still a girl in the 1960s. While reading a book called African Mornings, Mukasonga and her other classmates make some important discoveries.
[T]he Africa we read about wasn’t our Africa. Not the Africa where Rwanda was, at least. There were so many strange things: baobabs, oxbow lakes… The children were named Mamadou, Fatoumata. “Fatoumata?” we would say. “There’s no such thing as Fatoumata, it’s Fortunata. That’s a real girl’s name.” That would make the teacher angry. “Fatoumata!” he would say. “Repeat after me: Fatoumata!” And, although we still had our doubts, we repeated after him: “Fatoumata! Fatoumata!” Nonetheless, thanks to that book, we sensed that the world was far bigger than we could imagine.
This is a rare light moment in a book that is filled with harrowing passages about persecution and violence in Rwanda over four decades leading up to the 1994 genocide, during which twenty-seven of Mukasonga’s family members died. However, this passage reminds us of the importance of education, something Mukasonga’s father, Cosma, wanted for all of his children. In Musakonga’s case, having an education gave her an opportunity to escape the terror she first witnessed at age three.
Yet, even though she is now living her father’s dream, her childhood memories still haunt her, as she writes in the beginning of the book. From there, she doesn’t waste much time describing the first time a group of Hutus came after the Tutsis with machetes and destroyed the house Cosma was in the process of building. This happened in the late 1950s, just as the Rwandan Revolution was beginning, and the Hutus were rebelling against the Tutsi, which had become the elite population. (However, as Mukasonga points out, “My father was not an aristocrat with vast herds of cows, as some people think of the Tutsis,” although he was an accountant and secretary for a sub-chief.) Soon after that first terrifying scene, Mukasonga and her family were exiled to the town of Nyamata in the district of Bugesera. As they were being transported out of their land in packed vehicles, the Hutus waved their machetes and spat at them.
At first, the adults thought it was only temporary, but when they realized it wasn’t, they tried to adjust to their new life. However, the situation worsened over time. Guards began to show up, enforcing unreasonable curfews, destroying crops, raping women, and dumping bodies into their only water supply. Even after Musakonga started attending a prestigious school for girls wanting to be social workers, her peers still mistreated her. She also had to sneak out at night in order to join a secret study group. But just as things started to improve for her at school, her education was once again interrupted by events around her.
Those looking for a book on the history of the Rwandan Genocide should look elsewhere: While Mukasonga may occasionally refer to history books, her objective is really to tell what she and her family experienced during that time, as well as recount stories she heard from others. In fact, she doesn’t really provide much historical background on why the Hutus wanted to commit mass slaughter against the Tutsis, so Cockroaches doesn’t provide the most objective view of the genocide, but that’s not really the point. Mukasonga is showing how she and her family and neighbors were caught in the middle of this conflict they did not want to be a part of — a conflict that really began hundreds of years before the “final solution.”
But Cockroaches is not just a first-person account about the author’s survival. In the passage quoted earlier, we saw that names not only belong to real people but also reflect the culture they live in, so the book also acts as a memorial to those she knew who died during the genocide. By telling us about the family, friends, and neighbors who died in the massacre, she’s trying to show the world that the Tutsis who died were not inyenzi, or cockroaches, as they were called by the Hutu soldiers who liked to humiliate them. These were people like her who just wanted to live simple lives with their families but were unfortunately exterminated in cruel, sadistic ways without remorse and without giving their victims a proper burial.
For such a story, one wouldn’t expect Cockroaches to be a slim, 165-page volume, but its brevity is what gives the book its power. With the help of translator Jordan Stump, Musakonga’s clear, simple language succeeds in making the reader feel the pain she was experiencing without being sentimental. For example, after a Catholic priest made the refugees fight over clothes that he had just flung at them and then threw water over the crowd, she ends the anecdote with this: “Christian charity was not without its humiliations.” One may find her use of restraint in this case rather strange, but just as African Mornings showed her that the “world was far bigger” than she could imagine, Cockroaches is also trying to show a reality we’re not familiar with but should be.
Christopher Iacono lives with his wife and son in Massachusetts. You can learn more about him at cuckoobirds.org.