Kibogo by French-Rwandan writer Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Mark Polizzotti, recreates mid-20th-century Rwanda, at the time a Belgian colony. The novel begins during the Second World War, some 13 years after Musinga, the Rwandan king, was deposed for his refusal to convert to Catholicism. In the subsequent years, Rwandans were willingly or forcibly converted, their traditional culture was ruthlessly suppressed, and the people suffered under a harsh colonial rule.
Kibogo starts with these distressing words: “Kamanzi, our sub-chief, came to take away our children.” For the price of some wine, fabric, gasoline, and sunglasses, the children of this hillside community were requisitioned like raw materials necessary to the war effort, forced to harvest flowers to be used in an antimalarial treatment. Also taken in support of a distant war were men to mine in the Congo and cattle to feed the soldiers. To make matters worse, the country was in the middle of a drought and famine. “As we know too well, one misfortune leads to another. And when the barns had been stripped clean, that’s when Ruzagayura showed up.” In Rwanda, famines had names, as did the rains which failed to fall. The people starved and returned to their traditional beliefs asking themselves who could save the Rwandan people. The Catholic Yezu and Maria, as the priests claimed? Or would Kibogo, who had once sacrificed himself to bring rain, return? Mukamwezi, formerly Kibogo’s virgin bride, and Akayezu, a rogue priest candidate and possible miracle worker, were enlisted by a few old men to save the day to the scorn of most of the villagers who regarded Mukamwezi as a crackpot.
In Kibogo, as in her other books, Mukasonga remembers and preserves the history of her people and the country she fled, narrowly escaping the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda that took most of her family. Kibogo speaks of the transfer of culture, of the routines and fables a girl learns at the knee of her mother. “And sometimes, a little girl, forgotten at the storyteller’s feet, who refused to go to sleep like the others, stored away in her memory, without really understanding them, the enchanted words of the fable.” One imagines Mukasonga herself listening to her mother spin tales and the author confirms in an interview with Il Giornale that she learned the Kibogo legend from her mother. “Every evening around the fireplace, my mother Stefania told us the traditional Rwandan legends. Her inexhaustible repertoire often returned to that of Prince Kibogo who went up to heaven to bring the rain back to Rwanda, menaced by a severe drought” (translation mine).
Mukasonga’s works are informed by the Rwandan genocide in 1994 during which the author lost her parents, all her siblings but one, 37 relatives in all. In Le Monde, Mukasonga told an interviewer: “I have to write, like Primo Levi, to safeguard the history of my kin. My books are their graves, their paper tombs. The drama of genocide, it’s that you have deaths, but not bodies” (translation mine). Kibogo predates the Rwandan genocide, which Mukasonga has covered in her memoirs and novels. Instead, Kibogo provides for the Anglophone reader a taste of Rwanda in transition, subject to colonial rule and Christianization. Although some 50 years before the Rwandan genocide, the seeds of that destruction were planted during the colonial era depicted in Kibogo.
In Kibogo, Mukasonga memorializes a time before the genocide but not before the trauma of colonization. It begins with war and famine and throughout highlights the erosion of traditional beliefs and practices at the hands of the priests and Belgian colonizers. Rwandans were forced to farm according to European standards, cutting down their banana trees and cultivating coffee while neglecting their own food crops. Forced changes in agricultural practices magnified the effects of droughts. Perhaps even worse than the contempt of the agronomists who arrived to improve on local agriculture is the contempt of the priests, who were always ready to blame any misfortune on the people’s “pagan ways,” calling them “black and ungrateful,” and attributing traditional practices to the influence of Satan.
The last chapter of the book takes place years after Akayezu and Mukamwezi were said to have ended the drought. A Western anthropologist, who arrived to investigate the legend of Kibogo, asked to speak about the legend to the local elders who were skeptical. Karakezi, one of the elders, said: “And my stories, even if I still know them, don’t interest anyone around here anymore, so why would they interest the Bazungu?” He and Gasana, another elder, along with a few local boys, led an expedition to the mountain where Kibogo was said to have sacrificed himself. The once sacred grove of trees at the site had been destroyed and a statue of Mary placed at the top of the mountain.
Even so, the anthropologist was delighted with what he found there. Perhaps the memory of Kibogo would be preserved after all. As Gasana said: “There’s nothing you can do against my words. They won’t just vanish like the ones in the tales. They won’t dissolve in the hazy memories of children.” In an ironic twist, the anthropologist died in a plane crash, his death attributed variously to either Yezu or to Rwandan gods angered by the disturbance of a holy site. In the end, tradition prevailed. The anthropologist may have died along with his findings, but “in the deepest secret of the night, the storytellers spin and spin again the tale of Kibogo.”
With the announcement that Kibogo has been longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature, Mukasonga’s storytelling is now sure to reach a larger audience. Mukasonga, who writes in French, the language of the Belgian colonizers, is no stranger to the tension of reaching a larger audience in translation while telling stories from her homeland. Kibogo’s translation into English by Mark Polizzotti — who has also translated works by Patrick Modiano, Gustave Flaubert, and Marguerite Duras — is just one more step on its journey from Rwanda to France to the English-speaking reader. Polizzotti wisely maintains the Kinyarwanda words that are scattered throughout Kibogo. The reader can appreciate unfamiliar words such as ibiboko (eight lashes), wiwire (good morning) and Muzungu/Bazungu (white man). Mukasonga and Polizzotti have done a wonderful job of translating the rhythms and rituals of Rwandan life and language, maintaining the tone of a folk tale with the seriousness of literary fiction. Priests and village elders, small boys and wise women, saviors both earthly and heavenly, local chiefs and anthropologists populate this slim volume, drawing the reader into a world that is distant in both time and space, a world that is well worth visiting.
By Scholastique Mukasonga
Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Published September 13, 2022
Shara Kronmal is a physician, writer and translator from French to English. She is an editorial assistant at CRAFT Literary Journal and lives in Chicago, IL. Her essays appear in Please See Me and the Journal of the American Medical Association. She is on Twitter as @SKronmal.