Scholastique Mukasonga paints a picture of a country by focusing on the microcosm of a girls’ boarding school in Rwanda around 1980. Our Lady of the Nile is a secondary school for girls run by Belgian nuns and priests. Situated on a hill near the source of the Nile and “so close to Heaven” (as the Mother Superior fervently believes), the school takes its name from a shrine to the Lady of the Nile, a black Madonna. Most of the students are daughters of ministers or rich merchants and are expected to find husbands who will raise their families’ status and wealth. The poorer students hope to find good jobs.
Mukasonga immerses you into the schoolgirls’ world and their rivalries and friendships. The inter-communal tension between the Hutu and Tutsi girls is evident from the beginning: the majority of the girls are Hutu, with the Tutsi girls from poorer families. The leader of the anti-Tutsi campaign is Gloriosa, a Hutu girl whose father is an important politician. She is a bully who will stop at nothing to get her way (and will no doubt grow up to be a successful politician).
The Belgian colonizers made much of the distinction between the two races, something that doesn’t seem to have changed with independence. Monsieur de Fontainaille, a man obsessed with the Tutsis and their good looks, is convinced that they had originally come from Egypt. He lives in a fantasy world, and persuades the two Tutsi girls, Virginia and Veronica, to come regularly to his house so he can dress them as Tutsi queens, which he claims is their birthright. Veronica is seduced by his attention, but Virginia—who is the main character of the book—is much more sceptical.
Mukasonga gradually ratchets up the tension. One night, Gloriosa decides it is time to take matters into her own hands. She sneaks out of school to break the “Tutsi nose” of the Madonna to replace it with a “Hutu nose”. In doing this, she inadvertently breaks the statue of the Madonna, but—like a born politician—uses the situation to her advantage. She returns to the school with cuts and torn clothes, and accuses Tutsi men of attacking her. This sets in motion events that are prophetic of the massacre that was to happen 14 years later. The Belgians, much like the international community later, are either helpless or too afraid of standing up to Gloriosa—and by extension, her father—to be of much use.
Through this slight story, Mukasonga exposes the way small things can build to a horrifying climax that can tear a country apart and destroy its people. A sobering, but essential, book for our times.