Scholastique Mukasonga is an author I had been meaning to read for a while, especially since the wonderful Archipelago Books had published a slew of her memoirs, a novel and a collection of short stories. I decided to begin with Cockroaches, the first of her acclaimed autobiographical works.

We thought we could see implacable hatred in their eyes. They called us Inyenzi – cockroaches. From now on, in Nyamata, we would all be Inyenzi. I was an Inyenzi.

Cockroaches is Mukasonga’s hard-hitting and heartbreaking chronicle of her Tutsi childhood in Rwanda and the events leading up to the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide, told with poetic grace and intensity.

This genocide is truly a dark spot in the annals of African history, where an estimated 500,000 Tutsis (as per Wikipedia) were senselessly massacred by the Hutu clan. Just before the opening pages, Mukasonga dedicates the book to the murdered members of her family – her father Cosmo, her mother Stefania, her brother Antoine and his family, her sister Alexia and her family, and her other sisters Judith, Julienne and Jeanne.

As we begin reading, we realize that the genocide was not a sudden occurrence. Seeds of it were sown much earlier. Mukasonga reveals how the Tutsis were relentlessly persecuted right from the early days of her childhood.

The first pogroms against the Tutsis broke out on all Saints’ Day, 1959. The machinery of the genocide had been set into motion. It would never stop. Until the final solution, it would never stop.

Born in the late 1950s, Mukasonga’s first recollections begin from their new house in Magi, on the steep foothills of Mount Makwaza. Her big sister Alexia and her elder brothers Antoine and Andre went to school, while her mother worked the fields. Her father knew to read and write and worked as an accountant and secretary to the sub-chief Ruvebana. As soon as she was three, Mukasonga experienced her first brush with terror as she “heard noises, shouts, a hum like a swarm of monstrous bees, a growl filling the air.”

Her family manages to escape and hide in the banana groves. While still roaring, men burst into their house, launched a frenzied attack and destroyed all their possessions and belongings. Realising that they will never be able to resume their old life in Magi, a long period of exile begins for Mukasonga and her family. They are deported to Nyamata, in the district called Bugasera – an almost unpopulated savannah, home to big, wild animals, infested by tsetse flies.

The exiled families still harbor hopes of going back to Rwanda one day. But meanwhile, they must carve out an existence in the wild land right from scratch. And they manage to do just that. Bound by a sense of community and brotherhood, the exiled Tutsis begin focusing on the practical matters of restarting everyday life. Houses are built, latrines are dug, fields are cleared for growing crops, and for immediate money they begin working for the locals. Hardships are aplenty, but the Tutsis find a way to survive. Until the spectre of massacre comes to haunt them once again.

One day, thinking that the King is about to pay them a visit, the Tutsis dress up in their Sunday best on the appointed day. Morning quickly merges into the afternoon, and there’s still no sign of the king. However, helicopters suddenly make an appearance and start targeting the Tutsis who are once again compelled to flee for dear life. In this manner, Mukasonga’s family find themselves displaced yet again as they make their way to Gitagata to rebuild their lives.

What is remarkable about Mukasonga’s story is the indomitable spirit and the instinct for survival displayed by the Tutsis in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Mukasonga’s mother, for instance, dreads the prospect of moving again and having to begin life anew, but soldier on she must. The father is a resilient man too, and has ambitions of educating his children by sending them to school whatever the circumstances. That single mindedness yields results because we would not have had this book in our hands had Mukasonga also been murdered with the rest of the family.

It’s not all bleak though. Mukasonga writes about how the family manages to find moments of happiness and calm even when the world is crumbling around them and death is just around the corner. Mukasonga, particularly, cherishes some fond memories of her childhood – the daily routine, running for school, singing and dancing, making food preparations for festival days, enjoying languid afternoons with friends by the lake, and being enthralled by her mother’s storytelling skills.

As the book progresses, Mukasonga begins to develop an aptitude for education and learning, and we follow her journey from Nyamata “where the solidarity of the ghetto gave her the strength to endure the violent and even deadly persecution”, to the school in the city where “she would know the solitude of humiliation and rejection.”

It is the parents’ insistence that something of the Mukasonga family remains, and with that goal in mind they send Scholastique and Andre to pursue higher education in the city, even though they remain in the villages, so that the two avoid the tragic fate that is destined to befall the family (which is exactly what happens).

Andre becomes the head doctor of a hospital in Dakar, Senegal, while Scholastique pursues a career in social work eventually marrying and settling in France. And that is how they end up being the only survivors of the original Mukasonga family.

The penultimate chapter in the book focuses exclusively on the horrors of the 1994 genocide, and is quite brutal. The sheer random cruelty, mayhem, and mass murder make these sections painfully difficult to read. Mukasonga is tormented by the fact that she is not present with her family when these horrific crimes take place. It takes her nearly ten years since to revisit her Rwanda, to visit as she so calls “the land of the dead.”

The murderers tried to erase everything they were, even any memory of their existence, but, in the schoolchild’s notebook that I am now never without, I write down their names. I have nothing left of my family and all the others who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.

Cockroaches was first published in 2006 after a gap of nearly 12 years since the genocide. From the vantage point of adulthood, Mukasonga gains the necessary distance and perspective when recalling and retelling her brutal past. Her prose is spare and lucid, lyrical yet tragic. Her language is drenched in warmth and emits rays of great tenderness and beauty even amid all the pain.

The reality of the shocking, gruesome genocide is hard to digest, and I realized how easy it is for the reader to just snap the book shut and not read more if he/she is no mood to stomach these horrors. And that is fine. We have that advantage to choose. If only the Tutsis had that choice too – to shut out that violence, and lead a normal life like the rest of us.

11 thoughts on “Cockroaches – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

    1. It’s certainly a powerful book, Karen! The 1994 genocide in particular was difficult to read, especially the parts where she writes about what happened to her family members. But I felt it was also essential to hear her voice. I will be reading more of Mukasonga’ s books.

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  1. To say this sounds like an arresting read is probably a gross understatement. Nevertheless, brutal experiences like this need to voiced if we are ever to learn from them…

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    1. Agree, Jacqui! The chapter which exclusively focuses on the 1994 genocide towards the end of the book was particularly difficult to read, especially when she writes about what happened to her family members. But, as you rightly say, their voices need to be heard. This was an excellent book, and I plan to read more of Mukasonga’s work.

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  2. I’ve often thought of reading this. I visited Rwanda in 1988 as it was a very beautiful country. I see Daunt books in the UK are publishing Our Lady of the Nile in March so maybe I will start there.

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    1. I have been hearing many good things about Mukasonga’s books and based on this will say the praise is justified. Cockroaches is an excellent but brutal book. I think Our Lady of the Nile will be a good place to start too. I definitely plan to read all of her books now.

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