THE BAREFOOT WOMAN
by Scholastique Mukasonga
translated by Jordan Stump
Archipelago Books, 146 pages
reviewed by Rebecca Entel
The Barefoot Woman opens with the author’s mother, Stefania, imparting knowledge to her daughters. “Often in the middle of one of those never-ending chores that fill a woman’s day,” Mukasonga writes, “(sweeping the yard, shelling and sorting beans, weeding the sorghum patch, tilling the soil, digging sweet potatoes, peeling and cooking bananas…), my mother would pause and call out to us.” Much of the book proceeds from this image: we learn the details of her mother’s life and rituals through her endless work and we learn the kinds of things passed down from a Tutsi mother to her daughter—one of only two of eight children to survive the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
In that opening scene, Stefania tells her daughters how to properly bury a mother: “when you see me lying dead before you, you’ll have to cover my body […] that’s your job and no one else’s.” Her coming death during 1994’s Tutsi genocide hangs over the entire book from these opening lines, following Mukasonga’s earlier work, Cockroaches, which is specifically about the terrors her family and community faced during and after the exile of the 1960s, as well as the fate of most of her family members in 1994. The fact that Mukasonga could not heed her mother’s dictum—she was living in France during the massacre—is a driving force behind the book. Indeed, Mukasonga presents the book as a metaphorical shroud for the dead, though one she is unsure can complete its considerable task:
Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words—words in a language you didn’t understand—to do as you asked. 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.
In paying tribute to her mother, Mukasonga’s book also pays tribute to a little-known way of life that is no more. That way of life embodied complicated histories of Rwandan colonization and Tutsi exile. Mukasonga, who writes in French, and whose novels and memoirs explore these histories, here pays particular attention to certain details, such as her father’s rosary and Stefania’s dismissal of what she found to be “pagan”; rituals for newborn babies that changed because the correct plants were not available in the new environment of exile; the family’s adjustment to a new way of life and diet without the essential cattle of their former life; Stefania’s determination, in spite of those adjustments, to procure a cow for her eldest son’s traditional dowry.
Perhaps most poignant are Mukasonga’s descriptions of her mother’s relationship to their physical home. Forced into a rectangular structure with a flimsy metal door, Stefania was “like a trapped, frantic insect. Disoriented, she searched in vain for a friendly curve to nestle into.” Behind that new house, she then built an inzu: a circular, woven home that Mukasonga explains didn’t live up to the family’s original inzu in size, intricacy of design, nor the double courtyard and thresholds visitors had to pass through. Such details take on new meaning when a Hutu soldier’s “rifle butt crumpl[ed] the piece of sheet metal we used as a door.”
Like any writing about eventual victims of genocide, every detail of this book is soaked through with grief. The author writes of the inzu: “I’ll keep its name in Kinyarwanda, because the only words the French gives me to describe it sound contemptuous: hut, shanty shack […] Now they’re 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.” Even the lighter moments, ones almost humorous—Stefania’s secret adoption of underwear under her traditional pagne, for example—bear the weight not just of loss but of loss in which an entire people has met a violent, terrifying end. And so much of Stefania’s everyday life was about saving her children from the violence she knew would come: she put large jugs and baskets along the walls of the house for the smaller children to hide in when soldiers invaded, and Mukasonga remembers walking with her to dig up and replace old food that she’d buried in multiple locations for when her older children might need to flee by foot across the border to Burundi.
The episodic nature of the book’s chapters can be a bit jarring. For example, the book passes from topics such as how Stefania protected her children during soldiers’ raids to chapters about food (“Sorghum,” “Bread”) to chapters about marriage rituals. But I’d argue that such an assortment of seemingly dissonant topics belies the reality of the people she’s writing about, whose everyday lives were shaped by exile and imprinted by a constant threat of violence. In the chapter “Women’s Affairs,” we learn about rituals of adolescence and courtship, but the chapter ends with a discussion of the systematic rape of Tutsi girls and women by the Hutu. While traditionally babies conceived outside of marriage were not allowed to be born in the family home, for a young rape victim named Viviane, “solidarity and pity were stronger than tradition,” and so Stefania led a group of women in devising a water purification ritual for the girl and her child. Emblematic of The Barefoot Woman as a whole, Viviane’s story exposes the brutal reality of the book’s present while illuminating the traditions of the Tutsi, all the while showcasing Mukasonga’s mother’s place among the women of her community.
For readers primarily interested in learning more about how the Rwandan genocide developed over decades, Cockroaches may be the book to read first. But an understanding of the women Mukasonga comes from necessitates The Barefoot Woman.
What can a reader say after reading such a book, after reading about the intimate day-to-day life of someone who does not even have a grave? Perhaps the greatest compliment a reader can give any writer and her translator: I feel I now know this person and will not forget her.
Rebecca Entel’s short stories have appeared in such journals as Guernica, Joyland, and Cleaver. Her first novel Fingerprints of Previous Owners was published in June 2017 from Unnamed Press. She is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College, where she teaches courses in creative writing, multicultural American literature, Caribbean literature, and the literature of social justice.