Review: Scholastique Mukasonga’s “Cockroaches”

Your awareness of the genocide in Rwanda, in 1994, may initially have been shaped as much as mine by the movie Hotel Rwanda (2004). At a preview for the movie in Washington, D.C., Terry George, the director, said that the genocide could have been put down by force as small as the D.C. Police Department. Most victims were killed not by sophisticated guns or other equipment but by machetes. Years later, Bill Clinton admitted that Rwanda’s genocide against the Tutsis was one of the worst moments of his presidency, meaning his hesitancy to do anything. I’d point more directly at Susan Rice who was then undersecretary of State for African affairs. One can go even further and argue that the genocide in Rwanda made it easier for similar acts in other countries. Genocide has become a growth industry; the shouts of “never more” are as empty as they have ever been.

Scholastique Mukasonga’s memoir of waiting for the genocide to begin takes  its title from the word that the Hutus—Rwanda’s dominant tribe—called the Tutsis: cockroaches. I said “waiting for the genocide” because it was obvious to the Tutsis that once Rwanda was independent, in 1961, that it would only be a matter of time until the pogrom would begin. It actually took more than thirty years, and during that time Mukasonga’s family and thousands of others were forced to live in ghetto-like areas, designated for them and set off from major cities like Kigali. Nyamata was the area chosen for her family.

Racial tensions burst forth in 1973, by which time Mukasonga, born in 1956, had proven herself a scholar. She had excelled in school and became one of the token Tutsis the government supported in elite schools. However, the cockroachesdiscrimination against her was horrendous. She fled the school and the country, into Burundi, observing, “I lived like a rat.” A little like the gruesome decision a mother makes in Sophie’s Choice, Mukasonga’s parents decided that she and an older brother, André, would both flee the country. “We’d been chosen to survive.”  Imagine having to make such a decision for two of your children. The assumption was that if they all tried to flee to Burundi, they’d be apprehended. Think of the guilt for both children. The large-scale genocide didn’t begin until 1994, by which time Mukasonga had completed a degree in social work (begun in Rwanda), been hired to work for the UNICEF, and married a Frenchman named Claude, whom she met in Burundi. Eventually, the two of them, moved to France.

This is one of her initial observations about what unfolded: “Yes, we were prepared to face death, but not a death that was forced on us. We were Inyenzi, fit only to be crushed like cockroaches, with one stomp. But they preferred to watch us die slowly. They drew out the death throes with unspeakable tortures, purely for their own pleasure. They liked to cut up their victims while they were still living, they liked to disembowel the women and rip out their fetuses. And that pleasure I cannot forgive. It will be with me forever, like a vile heartless laugh.” In her own family, besides both parents, thirty-five others (her siblings, their spouses and their children) were all murdered. The total within the country was a million. ”Of the sixty thousand Tutsis recorded in the municipality of Nyamata in January 1994, there remain only five thousand survivors—5,348 to be precise.”

Scholastique and her brother (who was living in West Africa) were two of the lucky ones, and returning to Nyamata ten years after the genocide offered little comfort. Obviously, the murderers of her family were everywhere. How do you face them, move on to the rest of your life? Part of the answer to that question does not come in Mukasonga’s book but from what we know about Paul Kagame, who ended the genocide, liberated the country and has continued to serve as Rwanda’s president ever since the end of the war. If you’ve kept up with Kagame, you know that he has brought stability to the country, even turned it into one of the continent’s economic success stories. His critics argue that he has done so by being ruthless against his would-be opponents. Trade-offs often involve such terrible decisions.

Reading Cockroaches, it’s easy to conclude that Kagame did what he believes he needed to do. In too many troubled spots in Africa, when racial tensions are put down, they simply go underground, waiting to raise their ugly heads again. As for Scholastique Mukasonga herself? She’s a fabulous writer, the author of highly praised novels and her memoir, Cockroaches, published ten years ago in France. She’s been the runner-up for major international literary awards. Her talented translator, Jordan Stump, needs to get started on translating her other works.

Scholastique Mukasonga: Cockroaches
Trans. by Jordan Stump
Archipelago Books, 165 pp., $16

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.