‘The Barefoot Woman’ Keeps a Mother’s Memory Alive

Posted December 4, 2018 11:25 p.m. EST

“A mother’s dead body is not to be seen,” writer Scholastique Mukasonga’s mother, Stefania, would tell her girls. “You’ll have to cover me, my daughters, that’s your job and no one else’s.”

But no one covered her. There were no daughters left. Stefania’s girls — all except Scholastique, who had fled to France — were among 37 family members massacred in the Rwandan genocide in the spring of 1994, when the Hutu majority turned on their Tutsi neighbors, killing more than 800,000 people in 100 days. Elementary schoolteachers attacked their students. Priests hacked their parishioners to death. The bones of Mukasonga’s family lay scattered and anonymous, in ossuaries or simply where they had fallen.

Mukasonga and one brother survived, saved by their mother’s ingenuity. She had them smuggled into Burundi, then Senegal, when they were teenagers, many years before the genocide began. The siblings made a pact; one would study while the other worked to support them, then they’d keep switching, back and forth. Mukasonga later became a social worker and settled in France; her brother became a doctor.

In “The Barefoot Woman,” Mukasonga’s latest book, translated from French into English by Jordan Stump, she attempts to fulfill her daughterly duty: “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.”

It’s a slender memoir, slightly shapeless but radiant with love. It might best be read as a companion to “Cockroaches,” Mukasonga’s devastating first book about her childhood and what she was able to learn about the slaughter of her family. (“Cockroach” was the Hutu epithet of choice for the Tutsis.) The earlier book is a compendium of unspeakable crimes and horrifically inventive sadism, delivered in an even, unwavering tone. Mukasonga intended it to be a “paper grave” for her dead; the last paragraph is just a list of their names: this one whose rice she had loved, another who thought himself so handsome, the one killed along with her 10 children.

The new book is gentler, in some ways. Mukasonga takes a few pages to touch on the roots of the genocide — Belgium’s poisonous colonial policy of divide-and-rule, creating an apartheid state — but the gaze of the book is softer than in her earlier work. That shroud of language with which she wants to wrap her mother’s body contains warm memories. The narrative unfurls like an album, broken into topics, swift as songs: “Bread,” “Beauty and marriage,” “Sorghum.” Through these short meditations, she recalls her mother and a whole vanished world. It is the world of the inzu, the family’s straw hut, with its “maternal curves.” Home-brewed beer bubbled at the foot of her parents’ bed, where the youngest daughters would sleep. The boys bunked down with the baby calves.

Mukasonga brings to life the old ways — of teaching your feet to see in the dark, so you won’t injure yourself while walking home late at night; of learning to flatter your favorite cow; of weaving together grasses to make a cradle for a baby while you work in the fields, building it just so, to keep out snakes and the sun.

The memories of “women’s affairs,” their work and their warm, gossipy sorority, have a special sheen. In France, Mukasonga still longs for the way Tutsi women would share tobacco pipes: “I stand for many minutes at the window of the shop that sells pipes. I don’t dare go in, that’s a man’s place. I soon come to my senses. How delicious could any tobacco be if there’s no woman to trade pipes with?”

Mukasonga recounts these rituals — of sisterhood and maternity — because she yearns for them, but also because Tutsi women were targeted in the massacre — and explicitly for their life-giving powers. The radio programs so instrumental in kindling the violence instructed Hutus to take special care to disembowel pregnant Tutsi women. In one instance recalled in this book, Hutu soldiers shot a girl from the village. They didn’t aim for the heart, Stefania told her daughters. “They aimed for her breasts, only her breasts. They wanted to tell us Tutsi women: ‘Don’t bear any children, because when you bring them into this world you’re giving them death. You’re not bearers of life anymore, you’re bearers of death.’” In Philip Gourevitch’s masterly 1999 book about the genocide, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families,” he writes that every Rwandan he met had a favorite unanswerable question about the genocide. For one Tutsi man, it was “how so many Tutsis had allowed themselves to be killed.” Why blame them? Perhaps because to acknowledge how ferociously they struggled to save themselves, and how futilely, is too heartbreaking.

For Stefania, protecting her children was an obsession. Hutu soldiers conducted regular raids on the home, and she “developed a sixth sense, the sense of an animal forever on the lookout for predators.” She left heaps of wild grass in the fields for her girls to hide in. She widened the burrows left by the anteaters, cut hidden doors in the home to give her children a chance to escape, ran dress rehearsals. She charted escape routes to the borders, hid food underground at designated spots and periodically refreshed supplies.

This work of preservation did not end with Stefania. “The Barefoot Woman” powerfully continues the tradition of women’s work it so lovingly recounts. In Mukasonga’s village, the women were in charge of the fire. They stoked it, kept it going all night, every night. In her work — six searing books and counting — she has become the keeper of the flame.

Publication Notes:

‘The Barefoot Woman’

By Scholastique Mukasonga

Translated from French by Jordan Stump

146 pages. Archipelago Books. $16.