Lannan Center Director Aminatta Forna Writes a Review of Scholastique Mukasonga’s “Kibogo”
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“Kamanzi, our sub-chief, came to take away our children.” So begins a trail of misfortune that befalls the inhabitants of a small hillside village in Rwanda shortly before the second world war. The children are wanted to pick flowers for the colonists (the Bazungu). The people hide their children but the sub-chiefs, with their sunglasses, watches and shoes, lash the fathers and force them to work in the mines. The farmers neglect their own crops in order to grow beans to feed the miners; their cattle are confiscated. Misery follows misfortune until finally arrives the greatest catastrophe of all: the Ruzagayura famine. The villagers are unprepared, lacking both cattle and stores. They look to the sky in search of their god Kibogo’s rain, but the rain doesn’t fall, and when it eventually does come the ensuing storm sweeps the soil and crops away.
We are still only four pages in. This short, tightly drawn and fast-paced novel is the latest work to be published in Britain by Scholastique Mukasonga, whose previous books, both memoir and fiction, reckon with Rwanda’s tumultuous history. In Kibogo she explores themes of forgetting and remembrance, and the insidious legacy of Rwanda’s Christianisation.
The story is told in four parts. In Ruzagayura, the villagers, beset by famine, turn back to the old ways, remembering how their king and the rainmakers took charge of making rain come. Four old men try to recall the legend of Kibogo, but argue over the details. Their efforts to find someone who might know more leads them to a female sage, Mukamwezi, who claims to be the bride of Kibogo. Mukamwezi once belonged to the royal court. When the king was deposed by Belgian colonists she went to live alone, eschewing all suitors. She agrees to conduct a ceremony to appeal to Kibogo to bring the rain.
In sentences replete with a sly humour, Mukasonga recounts how the villagers encounter visitors, each with their own agenda
Meanwhile, further down the hillside, the Catholic priest, referred to as “padri”, is planning to appeal to the Almighty for rain by way of a procession bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary to the hilltop. When rain does indeed come, the padri takes the credit. He pronounces the four old men infidels. Over the following year three die, and, despite the padri’s objections, the supposedly Christian villagers erect ancestor shrines in their memory.
Some time later, Akayezu – “small Jesus” – arrives: a young and none too bright seminarian, dressed in white robes, who is nearly trampled when he attempts to feed the hungry villagers with two loaves of bread. When he is seen apparently to resurrect a child, he gains a following of women and falls foul of the church authorities. Gradually, his challenges to the padri grow bolder: “The idea preyed on his mind: Tell me, then, why the padri’s book never talks about black people and why it says nothing about us Rwandans? Did Yezu not know any blacks?” And: “Akayezu was certain it wasn’t the story of the Jews the Bible told, nor even of Yezu, but of the Rwandans.”