To close our series on exile with the British Museum and Edmund de Waal, Scholastique Mukasonga writes a personal experience of exile as a Rwandan Tutsi

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Across June, PEN Transmissions, in collaboration with the British Museum and Edmund de Waal, is publishing a series of essays on the theme of exile. This series speaks to Edmund de Waal’s library of exile, currently housed at the Museum. English PEN’s event series for the exhibition has been postponed due to COVID-19, and these essays – from writers in the events programme, or with books in the library – touch on issues that will be discussed at the rescheduled events.


Translated by Melanie Mauthner

I was three years old when I first experienced exile.

It was 1959. The first pogroms against the Tutsi erupted that year; many massacres later, they would lead to the genocide of the Tutsi in 1994. If I close my eyes, I can see those images again unfurling as if they were fast-forwarding in a film.

I am in a field. My mother is bending over her hoe and I am scampering behind her. Suddenly, there’s a hum rumbling and rising from the hills. Smoke plumes curl above neat waves of banana groves. My mother grabs me. We climb the hill to the track along the ridge. There’s a crowd in a panic, calling out, jostling and shouting; children crying; cows bellowing. My mother is searching for my brothers and sisters. And, in the distance, those screams that I don’t want to hear…

Our house should be by the track. I can see a large hut on fire. I don’t want to believe it’s our house burning. I can hear crackling flames and calves lowing in the cowshed. I close my eyes, or maybe it is Maman covering my face with some of her wrapper.

I won’t be sleeping at home tonight.

I feel these tears of exile are still rolling down my cheeks, the same cheeks I had as a child.

The first place I was exiled to was the mission in Mugombwa where the Tutsi found refuge. In my book Inyenzi or Cockroaches, I described that stay as something of a strange holiday.

Obviously, I had no idea what a holiday might be. But it was very strange: my brothers and sisters weren’t going to school anymore; all the children played together in the square by the mission church; and I was eating something I’d never eaten before – rice. I wasn’t old enough to worry about might happen. I slept next to Maman. I kept the small milk pot that never left me. Maman managed to salvage what was considered our family treasure: a metal cooking pot that Papa had bought from a hawker who apparently came from Zanzibar, which we gave the pompous name of Isafuriya ndende – the marmite with the long neck.

But it all ends abruptly one evening, at dusk. There are trucks ablaze with shining headlights, soldiers and white people shoving and urging us to climb in: Hurry, quick, get in! I lose Maman, my brothers and my sisters. My little pot slips out of my hands, rolling under the feet of people being pushed into the lorries. I’m crying – completely alone and lost forever. I feel these tears of exile are still rolling down my cheeks, the same cheeks I had as a child.

Tutsi families were piled into trucks that drove all through the night over rough earthen roads. At dawn, they were set down in Nyamata, that dismal far-flung spot that, from then on, would be their place of banishment.

For thirty-four years, after they were resettled in villages surrounding Nyamata on the border with Burundi, these ‘internal refugees’ were taunted, persecuted and massacred, again and again. All the people deported there in 1960, and their children, were massacred in 1994.

Yes, thank you, fear, you who were the Tutsi of Nyamata’s most loyal companion, their shadow, never abandoning them, even in the depths of night.

The fact that I can conjure up, here, in a few words, all the people who were assassinated is because, in 1994, I was no longer living in Rwanda. I don’t know why, but I was among the few rare Tutsi pupils who managed to get into secondary school. A strict quota limited their number: ten per cent. In 1973, I was at college in Butare, in my second year, training to be a social worker. That was the year that determined my life’s path; I dare not say its destiny.

In 1973, Grégoire Kayibanda’s government believed they could address the Rwandan people’s general discontent by means of an old scapegoating tactic. They targeted those rare Tutsi who were still employed in teaching and the civil service, and they targeted the ten per cent quota pupils. Girls’ schools were not spared.

It happened one afternoon – was it during a maths class? A classmate suddenly opened the door: Mukasonga, Mukasonga, hurry, quick! she cried. In the school corridors, I heard a large crash and yelling. I didn’t stop to think. We knew it was the boys from the nearby lycée,who were throwing themselves into hunting Tutsi. Our Hutu classmates acted as guides and encouraged them.

It’s fear that saved me, fear that let me flee and run down the corridors as fast as I could, leap over the barbed-wire fence without getting scratched, and hide in a eucalyptus copse until night fell. Yes, thank you, fear, you who were the Tutsi of Nyamata’s most loyal companion, their shadow, never abandoning them, even in the depths of night.

I finally got home by hiding in the boot of a Hutu politician’s car. That’s when my parents took the decision that my brother André and I – we had both been able to study, and discover that another world existed beyond Rwanda – would have to follow the road into exile in neighbouring Burundi.

Nor can the shore where the exiled will at long last land ever be the promised land.

Did my parents have a premonition? Some of us, at least, needed to survive, if only to preserve the memory of those who knew they would not be spared from extermination. I would remember them from then on.

Could humans be defined as banished-beings? Some religious texts would seem to suggest so. And human banishment lies at the heart of the biblical myth: it is God who chases Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. And it is that same divinity who orders Abraham thus: Leave your land, your family and your father’s house for the land that I will show you. It is during their exile in Egypt that the Hebrews come together as a people.

For migrants, refugees, the displaced and the deported, exodus – whether chosen or under duress – certainly does not result from divine will, nor wrath, deciding upon their fate as individuals or peoples; rather, it is the chaotic convulsions of history: war, persecution, famine and economic crises, natural disasters, drought and inexorable climate change. Nor can the shore where the exiled will at long last land ever be the promised land: gnawed by nostalgia, they will remain strangers there for a long while, and even if they do manage to integrate and build a new life, will they like Ulysses, who did return to Ithaca, sigh: What use is the wealthiest dwelling among strangers when you’re far from home?

A beautiful word once described the welcome given to a stranger who knocks on your door, a word bound to shame those who build walls and put up barbed wire around – chacun chez soi, chacun pour soi, everyone where they belong, everyone for themselves. This word was Hospitality. Is it utopian, an illusion? Once upon a time, in societies we used to call primitive or archaic, the host was a sacred being. No one asked, Where do you come from, where are you going, why are you on the road, and how long do you intend to stay? At last, the stranger could be adopted as a member of the family. Did this tradition of hospitality ever exist? Or is it just a myth? At least, it was an ideal.

My mother, Stéfania, who, like my whole family, was condemned to a life in exile, always kept two spare mats ready for the unexpected traveller who might seek shelter. May each of us always have a small mat, with which to welcome a stranger.

Born in Rwanda in 1956, Scholastique Mukasonga experienced from childhood the violence and humiliation of the ethnic conflicts that shook her country. In 1960, her family was displaced to the polluted and under-developed Bugesera district of Rwanda. Mukasonga was later forced to leave the school of social work in Butare and flee to Burundi. She settled in France in 1992, only two years before the brutal genocide of the Tutsi swept through Rwanda. In the aftermath, Mukasonga learned that 27 of her family members had been massacred. Twelve years later, Gallimard published her autobiographical account Inyenzi ou les Cafards, which marked Mukasonga’s entry into literature. This was followed by the publication of La femme aux pieds nus in 2008 and L’Iguifou in 2010, both widely praised. Her first novel, Notre-Dame du Nil, won the Ahmadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012, as well as the 2013 Océans France Ô prize, and the 2013 French Voices Award, and was shortlisted for the 2016 International Dublin Literary award.

Melanie Mauthner‘s translation of Scholatique Mukasonga’s novel Our Lady of the Nile was awarded the French Voices Grand Prize 2013. After she received a Hawthornden Fellowship to translate Mukasonga’s short stories, some of these appeared in the New Yorker, the New England Review, the Stinging Fly and the White Review.

Created as a ‘space to sit and read and be’, library of exile is an installation at the British Museum by British artist and writer, Edmund de Waal, housing more than 2,000 books in translation, written by exiled authors.

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