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Heart-rending Homage To A Devoted Mother [review]

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga

Scholastique Mukasonga’s parents and siblings were victims of the hatred directed towards members of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. They were were forcibly relocated from their village amid growing violence perpetrated by the country’s Hutu majority.

The Barefoot Woman is Mukasonga’s touching testament to her mother Stefania; a fierce but loving woman determined to protect both her family and the ancient traditions of her people.

Like all the families who took refuge in makeshift huts at Nyamata, the Mukasonga family was on constant alert for Hutu soldiers. They regularly pillaged the houses, looking for weapons and people plotting to escape to nearby Burundi. Scholastique’s mother Stefania had only one thought:

… one single project day in and day out, one sole reason to go on surviving: saving her children.

She devised ever more ingenious places for her daughters to hide and ways for them to escape. Stefania left piles of wild grass in the fields just big enough to shelter three little girls, cut secret doors into the walls of their home and hid food supplies underground.

Over time Stefania “developed a sixth sense, the sense of an animal forever on the lookout for predators”. She left nothing to chance, often calling a dress rehearsal at night so that when the raiders came, the children knew precisely what to do. The hiding places fooled no-one, least of all the soldiers searching for the Tutsi “cockroaches”, but Stefania never relaxed her guard for a second.

Resolve and Determination

The Barefoot Woman is a dark tale of life in exile. Despite the constant fear of death and rape, the displaced families put their energies into re-creating some semblance of their past life. It took imagination and tenacity because the land selected by the Hutus for the displaced Tutsis was not very fertile. By tradition herders of cattle, the Tutsis had also seen all their cows burned by the Hutus.

But they still managed to sow, grow and harvest their crops of beans, corn, and sorghum, send children to school and arrange marriages for their children.

Mukasonga also relates how Stefania and the other village women try to protect their old traditions. They weave grass cradles for babies; tell stories around the fire in the inzu ( a family straw hut) and teach their feet to see in the dark so they can walk home at night without injury. But when the inevitable happens and someone falls ill, the women turn to their stores of plants, tubers and leaves to mix a remedy.

A Way of Life Destroyed

Mukasonga’s memories of these rituals and her mother’s insistence on keeping up the old practices, are suffused with affection. She brings the woman to life from the dry, cracked layers of mud on her feet to the pipe she smokes at the end of the day.

But it’s a way of life that has disappeared. There are precious few houses like Stefania’s left in Rwanda today, Mukasonga recalls, except for those in museums …

… like the skeletons of huge beasts dead for millions of years. But in my memory the inzu is not that empty carcass, it’s a house full of life, of children’s laughter, of young girls’ lively chatter, the quiet singsong of storytelling, the scrape of the grinding stone on the sorghum grains, the bubbling of the jugs full of fermenting beer, and just by the front door, the rhythmic pounding of the pestle in the mortar.

The Barefoot Woman is a tribute born from horror. Thirty-seven members of Mukasonga’s family were killed by Hutus in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Her childhood home of Nyamata saw some of of the greatest atrocities during that period with an estimated 10,000 people murdered inside the local church and thousands more outside. 

Mukasonga escaped this fate because she had won education scholarships that took her out of the village. In 1973 she had fled to Burundi following a wave of attacks on Tutsi students at her college.

A Daughter’s Tribute

The Barefoot Woman is an attempt to fulfil via language the daughter’s duty she could not fulfil in person. In the beginning of the book we learn that Stefania would often gather her three daughters and tell them “A mother’s dead body is not to be seen. You’ll have to cover me, my daughters, that’s your job and no one else’s.”

But Stefania’s body was never found; her “poor remains dissolved into the stench of the genocide’s monstrous mass grave” so all her daughter has to offer are words/

I never did cover my mother’s body with her pagne. No one was there to cover her. Maybe the murderers lingered over the corpse their machetes had dismembered. Maybe blood-drunk hyenas and dogs fed on her flesh. …. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.

This is a book written first and foremost out of love. But it exists also because Scholastique Mukasonga refuses to let her story and that of her family While its focus is on one family’s experience it is also the story of suffering by all minority groups forced to abandon their homes. Impossible to put down. Impossible to forget.


The Barefoot Woman: Fast Facts

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga was translated from the French by Jordan Stump. It was published in 2018 by Archipelego Books. You can read extracts Literary Hub or the Tin House site

Scholastique Mukasonga was born in Rwanda in 1956. When she was four years old her family was displaced to an under-developed district of the country. She left Burundi to settle in France in 1992, two years before the Rwanda Genocide.

Her 2017 memoir Cockroaches was a finalist for the LA Times Charles Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose. 

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