Review: The Barefoot Woman – Scholastique Mukasonga

Rice field in Rwanda

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In the pages of history, genocide often appears to come out of nowhere. It is fixed with a date – in the case of Rwanda, April to July 1994 – as if those responsible for the atrocities awoke one morning and decided to commit mass murder instead of going to work. In Scholastique Mukasonga’s memoir, The Barefoot Woman (archipelago books, translated from French by Jordan Stump), it is evident, however, that the journey was much longer, and touched almost every aspect of daily life.

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Set during the author’s childhood in 1960s Rwanda, The Barefoot Woman is a touching tribute to her mother, Stefania, who was killed during the 1994 genocide, and to her way of life. In the earliest chapters, Mukasonga alludes to her mother’s murder, but the focus of the book is not on her death but the minutiae of how she, and her community, lived. Following the withdrawal of the Belgian colonial powers, and the subsequent rise of a Hutu government, Tutsi Rwandans were forcibly relocated from their homes to the town of Nyamata. Along with their belongings and sense of safety, the refugees lost a number of their cultural traditions, such as their inzu (traditional homes) and the importance of cows in daily life. Through memorialising her mother’s attempts to recreate these aspects of her former life, Mukasonga immortalises them in print.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Although life goes on in Nyamata, with stories about beauty and husbands, gossiping with neighbours, and the sorghum harvest, providing a settled pace to the book, Stefania’s constant fears for her children’s safety provide a reminder that not everything has returned to normal. From hidden food supplies to vases big enough to hide her children, Stefania’s attention is always directed toward the potential for danger, and local proverbs indicate that she is not alone in her concern. At any moment, the soldiers could come to destroy a family or a home, although, in this book at least, for the most part they do not, and there are a number of points in this relatively short text where the stories are quite funny.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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There is a lyrical style to the prose, which again softens against the potential for violence inherent in the family’s lives, and in form, The Barefoot Woman is less a novel than a collection of anecdotes and descriptions, set out in the style of an ethnography. There isn’t a sense of an overarching narrative that holds the pieces of life together, although this may have been an intentional choice by the author, given the often-fractured nature of traumatic memories. The text is carefully layered with memory, and with respect, so that there is not only a sense of learning about a culture, but a very personal connection to Stefania, and to the family she loved so much.

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For those looking to learn about the Rwandan genocide, Mukasonga’s earlier memoir, Cockroaches, may be more appropriate, but to understand Tutsi life, and appreciate the bond between a daughter and her departed mother, The Barefoot Woman is a beautiful read.

Thanks to archipelago books for providing a copy of The Barefoot Woman for review. It is now publicly available for purchase.

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