Mukasonga’s extraordinary, lyrical, and heartbreaking book … is indispensable reading for anyone who cares about the endurance of the human spirit and who hopes for a better world.
— Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Los Angeles Review of Books
Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches is a compelling chronicle of the author’s childhood in the years leading up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
In a spare and penetrating tone, Mukasonga brings to life the scenes of her family’s forced displacement from Rwanda to neighboring Burundi. With a view made lucid through time and pain, Mukasonga erodes the distance between her present and her past, resurrecting and paying homage to her family members who were massacred in the genocide, but also, in movingly simple language, the beauty present in quiet, daily moments with her loved ones.
As lyrical as it is tragic, Cockroaches is Mukasonga’s tribute to her family’s suffering and to the lingering grip of the dead on the living.
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About the Author
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By Scholastique Mukasonga, Jordan Stump
Archipelago BooksCopyright © 2016 Scholastique Mukasonga
All rights reserved.
The late 1950s: A childhood disturbed
I was born in the southwest of Rwanda, in Gikongoro province, at the edge of Nyungwe forest, a large high-altitude rainforest, supposedly home – but has anyone ever seen them? – to the last African forest elephants. My parents' enclosure was in Cyanika, by the river Rukarara.
Of my birthplace I have no memory but the homesick stories my mother told all through our exile in Nyamata. She missed the wheat she could grow at that altitude, and the gruel she could make with it. She told us of her battles with the aggressive monkeys that ravaged the fields she farmed with her mattock. "Sometimes, when I was young," she would say, "I joined the little shepherds tending the cows at the edge of the forest. Often the monkeys attacked us. They walked on two feet, just like men. They wouldn't put up with my little friends' insolence. They attacked them. They wanted to show them monkeys are stronger than men."
My father was not an aristocrat with vast herds of cows, as some people think of the Tutsis. Still, he knew how to read and write, and he'd learned Kiswahili, the language used by the colonial administration, so he worked as an accountant and secretary to sub-chief Ruvebana. But he was a real jack of all trades: he managed his boss's assets, and when it was necessary he went to prison in his boss's place. He was serving a sentence for him when my oldest sister Alexia was born. That earned her the slightly odd name of Ntabyerangode: "Nothing-is-ever-completely-white." Which, to my father, meant that the joy of his daughter's birth had been somewhat spoiled by his incarceration. Sometimes, too, my father Cosma went hunting for gold in the torrents of the mountains on the Congolese border. He came home with a few little chips, in matchboxes. We never got rich off those tiny flakes.
In 1958, sub-chief Ruvebana was appointed to Butare province, and my family followed him. The sub-chiefdom was located in the far south of the province, on the crests overlooking the valley of the Kanyaru, whose course forms the border with Burundi. From our new house, in Magi, on the steep foothills of Mount Makwaza, we had a sweeping view: the valley of the Kanyaru and its papyrus swamps, and, beyond, much of the Ngozi province in Burundi.
Mount Makwaza was the homeland of a great Hutu chief, an igihinza. We were terribly afraid of him. My mother described him as a giant, always dressed in a leopard skin. When threatening clouds shrouded the mountaintop, she would tell us, "Someone must have angered the igihinza, be good now." In our childish terror, we believed the igihinza's enormous shadow was darkening the whole mountainside. No one dared venture out at the foot of Mount Makwaza after dark, for fear of disturbing the igihinza's nighttime doings. Up at the very top of the mountain, we thought we could see the glow of his fire.
My big sister Alexia and my older brothers Antoine and Andre went to school. My mother worked in the fields. We rarely saw my father at home; he had an office, which still exists, facing the subchief's residence, but he didn't spend much time there, because he was always out on his bicycle seeing to matters that I found deeply mysterious. My father had the only bicycle in the area, which gave him considerable prestige, reinforced by the pen sticking out of his shirt pocket, an uncontested sign of his authority The moment they spotted him pedaling along the narrow mountain path, the village children would cry out "It's Cosma! It's Cosma!" and parade along beside him all the way to the house. Hearing those shouts, my mother would begin reheating the pot of beans and bananas she always kept ready for my father's unexpected returns. I can still picture that pot, reserved for my father's meals alone. It was tall, completely black but shiny inside, made of very thick cast iron. It was the only metal kitchenware we owned. It had a name: Isafuriya ndende, the "big cookpot." My father told of buying it from a street-merchant in Zanzibar. It was a very precious object, so precious that my mother wouldn't leave it behind when we were expelled from Magi. The famous cookpot followed us into our exile in Nyamata.
We were still living in a mud hut with a straw roof, but my father set about having a brick house built on our plot of land. He went into debt for the purpose. My mother was apprehensive about moving into a house like the white people's, or almost – an urutare, a "big rock," as she called it. She still missed the warm intimacy of the hut she'd lived in as a child, a big hut made of artistically woven grasses.
As for me, I spent my days with the potters who'd set up their camp in the eucalyptus woods facing the house. They were Batwa, a people kept at arm's length by the rest of Rwanda. The first Europeans called them Pygmies, very wrongly Boniface, the patriarch of the "tribe," welcomed me as if I were his own daughter, and my mother thought nothing of seeing me go off to play with the children of people traditionally treated as pariahs. She often gave me beans and sweet potatoes for the children, and in return the Batwa brought her their nicest pots.
The first pogroms against the Tutsis broke out on All Saints' Day, 1959. The machinery of the genocide had been set into motion. It would never stop. Until the final solution, it would never stop.
Needless to say, the anti-Tutsi violence didn't spare Butare province. I was three years old, and that was when the first images of terror were etched into my memory I remember. My brothers and my sister were at school. I was at home with my mother. All at once we saw plumes of smoke everywhere, rising up from the slopes of Mount Makwaza, from the valley of the Rususa, where Ruvebana's mother Suzanne, who was like a grandmother to me, had a house. And then we heard noises, shouts, a hum like a swarm of monstrous bees, a growl filling the air. I can still hear that growl today, like a menace swelling behind me. Sometimes I hear that growl in France, in the street; I don't dare turn around, I walk faster, isn't it that same roar, forever following me?
My mother immediately lifted me onto her back: "Hurry, we've got to go get the children so they won't try to come home."
But just then a crowd appeared, bellowing, with machetes in their hands, and spears, bows, clubs, torches. We hurried to hide in the banana grove. Still roaring, the men burst into our house. They set fire to the straw-roofed hut, the stables full of calves. They slashed the stores of beans and sorghum. They launched a frenzied attack on the brick house we would never live in. They didn't take anything, they only wanted to destroy, to wipe out all sign of us, annihilate us.
They almost succeeded. Nothing remains of my parents' enclosure in Magi but a tall fig tree. I picked up a little fragment of brick from a pile of rubble: I'd like to think it came from our house. An old woman came running toward me from the banana grove, grumbling: Who is this stranger? What's she doing prowling around the hut? I said nothing, unable to break in with a question while she went on and on, as if talking to herself. Suddenly I heard her say the name Cosma. Cosma? Cosma, yes, she remembered him, or she'd heard about him. But she wasn't there the day my house was destroyed, she was sick, or maybe she was getting married. Why bring all that up again? It was so long ago. Had I come to drive her out of her little house?
I look at the tall fig tree. No, the killers hadn't succeeded. My two sons are alive. They've seen the tall fig tree that preserves the memories, and like that tree they'll remember.
I don't know how my mother managed to get Antoine, Andre, and Alexia from school. We were all gathered together in the sub-chief's enclosure. The Tutsi families that had escaped the slaughter and whose houses had been burned had spontaneously come there to seek refuge. I believe my father tried to organize the crowd as best he could. After nightfall, we set out for the Mugombwa mission.
My brother Andre says it was Belgian paratroopers who oversaw the transfer. "Just to keep us in line," he said, "one of them threw a grenade at a dog, and it was blown limb from limb." From then on the Tutsis knew where they stood.
The refugees were housed in Mugombwa church and the classrooms of the mission. They stayed there for some two weeks. In my little- girl mind, I found it all wonderful. There were many, many people. The mothers cooked in the courtyard. My brothers and my big sister no longer went off to school. My mother no longer tended to the crops. The children played all day long, and we ate something we never had at home: rice! It was strange, everyone slept on the floor, in the same room, even the parents! I wasn't afraid anymore!
I went back to see the school buildings we'd been stuffed into. A far grander church was built next to them in 1976. In April 1994, the Tutsis took refuge there, or were driven there. I was told that Father Tiziano, as the people of Mugombwa called him, an Italian, locked the church doors with a padlock and fled to Burundi, declaring that everything would be fine. Today the tile roof, peppered with holes made by bullets and grenade shrapnel, has been replaced by a bold metal framework. On Sundays the church is full. How many murderers among the pious assembly? The faithful sing with all their hearts. Jesus is kind. He forgives all sins. He forgets everything. When Mass is over, the young people from a Catholic movement raise the Vatican's gold and white flag, marked with the Chi-Rho symbol. Hand on heart, they sing a hymn to the glory of Saint Francis Xavier. Who would ever be so rude as to bring up the "unfortunate events," as they're called by those who deny all participation in the genocide and refuse to speak the word? Let us forgive each other, and let us go on as if nothing had happened.
* * *
While I was playing in front of the school, some odd things were going on in one of the classrooms. As my brother explained it, all the family heads were appearing by turns before a sort of jury of Hutu notables. They decided who could stay and who was to be expelled. As it happened, all the Tutsis whose houses had burned were to be banished. Maybe they wanted to be sure there were no stray Hutus among the exiles.
One morning, before dawn, they brought us out of the classrooms. The schoolyard was full of trucks. I'd never seen so many. The motors were running. Their headlights blinded us. We heard shouting: "Into the trucks, faster, faster!" There was no time to gather the few humble belongings we'd managed to bring with us. My mother brought only the famous black cast-iron cookpot. That was our only luggage. I was crying. I'd lost my little milk jug, which I was never without. My mother held us close to her so we wouldn't be lost in the commotion. I clutched at her pagne. We had to climb into the trucks, and quickly. We were crammed in like goats, all pressed together. We had to leave at once.
The trucks started off. A crowd had gathered by the side of the road to watch the convoy go past. Everyone was shouting, "There go the Tutsis," and they spat at us, waving machetes.
At first, I wasn't unhappy: a trip in a car was a novelty for me. But the journey turned more and more unpleasant: it went on forever, we were so tightly packed in, we crashed together with every bump in the road, we had to struggle not to suffocate, we were thirsty, there was no water. The children were crying. Whenever we drove by a river or lake, the men beat on the roof of the driver's cab to ask him to stop. But the trucks kept on going. Night had fallen. No one knew where we were headed. I saw despair in my mother's eyes. I was afraid.CHAPTER 2
1960: Internal exile
I don't know how long the trip lasted. Much later, I learned that the convoy had traveled through Burundi: Ngozi, Kirundo. Finally the trucks stopped in a schoolyard. We were surprised by the heat. We'd started off in Butare, in the mountains, where the weather's always cool. Everyone was desperately thirsty The women were nursing already-weaned children so they'd have something to drink. The men went off to look for water. We truly were in an unknown land, nothing like Rwanda.
I don't know when my parents realized they'd been deported to Nyamata, in the district called Bugesera. Bugesera! To every Rwandan, there was something sinister in that name. It was an almost unpopulated savannah, home to big wild animals, infested by tsetse flies. They said the king sent disgraced chiefs into exile there.
We also soon saw that we weren't the first Tutsis to be displaced to Nyamata. Others were already there, people from the North, especially Ruhengeri. They'd been placed around the village of Nyamata proper and north of there, toward the valley of the Nyabarongo, in Kanzenze, in Kibungo. We southerners were the last to arrive. There were a few families from Gitarama and Gikongoro provinces in our convoy, but most of them were from Butare. At first they crowded us into the empty primary school classrooms. As the days went by, the women set up their kitchens in the schoolyard, simple shelters made with four stakes and a straw roof – ibikoni. The children went looking for the three big stones that traditionally form the hearth. There was no rain. This was the dry season, probably the summer of 1960. What I remember is the soldiers. They were housed in the schoolyard too, in sheet-metal huts. They sat there all day long, doing nothing, probably keeping an eye on us, their rifles between their legs. We thought they were very black. We called them the Congolese. We children weren't afraid of them. They gave us cookies, they always had cookies to give us. We spent our time sitting next to them so they'd give us cookies – ibisuguti. But they didn't speak our language. We didn't talk with them. They gave us cookies, and that's all.
Facing the school we'd been housed in, at the other end of the courtyard from the women's makeshift kitchens, stood an old colonial building with high white walls. We called it Tripolo's house, maybe from the nickname given to a Belgian administrator. The food they gave out to us was stored inside.
One evening, not long after we arrived, while the women were busy making the meal, while my mother, whose side I never left, was trying to shoo me away for fear I might be burned, we saw gigantic shadows appear on the big white wall of Tripolo's house, and those shadows spoke and they looked like people. Everyone stood glued to the spot, fascinated by those images, which seemed to be alive on the white wall, speaking words we understood. It was in Kirundi, but we understood. There was a mother and her child. And the child said, "Umutsima uratakaye ma – I knocked my paste over, Mama." And the mother answered, "Hora ndawucumbe ndaguha undi – It doesn't matter, I'll make another batch and give you some more." That was the only scene I can remember from the only movie I ever saw in Rwanda. For a few days, when night fell, we sat down in front of the big white wall and waited for the moving pictures to come back, but the mysterious projectionist never returned.
At first, it was the soldiers who distributed the food. Every morning the refugees would line up for their pocho, their ration. That job fell to the men. Not even widows went to pick up their rations. They always found some kindly soul to go in their place. But these distributions didn't go well. The soldiers hurried the line along with blows from their rifle butts. There were scuffles and shouts. The Tutsis prized their dignity above all. They couldn't tolerate humiliation and disorder. A delegation of important men, my father among them, negotiated an agreement by which the refugees themselves would hand out the rations, and from then on everything went smoothly.
The food they gave us seemed very strange. There was a white powder you were suppose to dissolve in water, and we were expected to drink that nameless liquid. It surely wasn't milk, because it didn't come from a cow, and besides, tradition dictates that milk is drunk not from metal containers but from jugs carved from the wood of certain trees, and treated with deep respect. The adults indignantly refused to drink, but the children were dying of hunger, so the mothers had a taste and then gave that powdered milk to the children.
Then there were the tomatoes. We were familiar with tomatoes, of course, but little ones, cherry-sized, used for making sauce and cooking bananas. The tomatoes they gave us were huge. We didn't know what to do with them. My parents refused to eat them raw. But since there was nothing else, they forced them on the children. I wept as I ate my first tomatoes.
* * *
Nyamata's displaced people hoped they would be able to go home once the troubles were over. The families had abandoned the classrooms and built huts in the courtyard and around the school. There was no lack of grass in the savannah. But everything was meant to be temporary; there was no question of settling here. We would go home again very soon, back to Rwanda, because nobody thought of Nyamata as Rwanda.
Excerpted from Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga, Jordan Stump. Copyright © 2016 Scholastique Mukasonga. Excerpted by permission of Archipelago Books.
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