At the center of her latest book, “Sister Deborah”, is a female prophetess and healer. The writer became a historian to rethink the history of his country of origin through fiction. The goal? The recovery from a “cultural genocide” passed in silence. Welcome
The Black Lives Matter movement made it a slogan: “I put God, he is black” (I met God, he was black). For Scholastique Mukasonga, author of Sister Deborah (ed. Gallimard), this female Messiah may have existed. In this fascinating alternate history, the Franco-Rwandan writer brings to life an ancient belief that mothers told young women: in the early 1930s, a prophecy announced the arrival of a black woman emerging from in a lake, carrying a miraculous seed that will end. the famine and drive away the white settlers. Under the pen of Scholastique Mukasonga, the woman was called Sister Deborah, an evangelical African-American who crossed the Atlantic to reach Rwanda, her promised land.
Scholastique Mukasonga centers her work, where the spiritualities and rituals of East Africa mix, in her own history. In 1994, thirty-seven members of his family were murdered during the genocide of the Tutsi. It would take him ten years to find the courage to return to Rwanda, after being forced into exile in Burundi and then in France. A cathartic stay, which will lead him to immerse himself in writing to recover the ancestral beliefs of his own country and save them from oblivion.
“I used my mother’s legacy to become a storyteller myself.”
Your story is utopian, fictional, but it is based on a supposed true reality. How do you juggle between reality and fantasy?
I was lucky, like many little girls in Africa, to grow up with a mother who told me oral stories passed down from our ancestors. Long ago in Rwandan tradition was a powerful and revered female character named Nyabinghi. A type of thaumaturge who will have the power to reincarnate. Me, I grew up in a time when beliefs were transmitted but forbidden activities. These accounts, which can be described as “folkloric”, contain a grain of truth. Over the years, I’ve documented myself with archive pieces I’ve found, but most of all I’ve drawn on the legacy my mother left behind to become a storyteller in my own time. I began to write through the function of memory and transmission.
In Sister Deborah, you leave some words and expressions in Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda, without translating them, and the references you put in are not accessible to everyone. Who is the book for?
I write in French, a language that allows me to reach more readers. However, my books are systematically sprinkled with Kinyarwanda words. When these are strong words without a translation, an equivalent meaning, I leave them in the original language, to respect what I am writing, but the explanation in French always follows. It is important for me to maintain the purity of meaning and value my native language.
“I come from a generation where all traces of our pre-colonial religious culture, which was the very foundation of Rwandan society, was erased.”
In your literary work, you always magnify the Rwandan tradition. What triggered the writing of this new story?
A link between spirituality, the violence of colonization and uprooting, this book is a way for me to get rid of what I experienced in the past. I come from a generation where we completely erased all traces of what was our pre-colonial religious culture, and which was the very foundation of Rwandan society. Genocide was a shock wave on all levels. We had to rebuild ourselves, psychologically, but also rehabilitate our own national narrative. This is a long process that I started after my return to Rwanda, and I try to share through my books.
What place does religion occupy in the culture of your country?
The Catholic Church has played a major role in Rwanda’s history, both politically and religiously. The colonizers relied on missionaries, who were in charge of education, with the task of “civilizing the savages”. But in a country that has become very Christian – in appearance – with Catholic and then Protestant missions, we have not forgotten the beliefs inherited from the ancients. Many practiced a form of syncretism, for example calling Mary along with Nyabinghi. My mother did rituals, but never in public. The Church and the Catholic religion have become our civil state… not our identity.
“We were led to believe that in the West there is no poverty! From now on, we have to start a journey to find our roots.”
Is religion “the opium of the people” in Rwanda, and more broadly in Africa?
Traditionally, on the African continent, spirituality has always been strong and continues to be so today. People have to believe in unseen powers. In Rwanda, religious currents increased after the genocide, at a time when people were poorer than ever, everything was taken away. Today, independent churches with a Pentecostal tendency are born almost every day in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Uganda or in Nigeria, to name just a few. And its cults can be exported within diasporas. There is no longer a monopoly on religion, as it was decades ago.
Some speeches affirming that the liberation of black people must be done by returning to a precolonial or pre-slavery culture, and therefore by breaking away from the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) (1). What do you think ?
We are led to believe that in the West poverty does not exist! From now on, we must discard everything we have been told and begin a journey to find our roots. Why would Nyabinghi be shy? Why is it shameful to worship the mythical hero Ryangombe? Why is traditional medicine rejected? We need to practice turning back on ourselves, and freeing ourselves from the religious discourse that has been thrown at us: “You don’t know who you are, what you think you know is worthless, what has value is what we will tell you. »
“Women are everywhere in my works, always strong and powerful.”
Sister Deborah also takes the form of an Afro-feminist story. Is this one of the other messages you want to convey?
Many journalists ask me if I am a feminist. I cannot answer this question, because for me this word is polyphonic, everyone can define it in their own way. But in fact, women are everywhere in my works, always strong and powerful. I want to send an image of the woman as the mother of humanity, who carries within her a lot of silence. Why shouldn’t the Messiah be a woman? Today, in most countries, women perform the same roles as men. In Rwanda, for example, although there are still some inequalities – as in all countries – they lead most of the ministries.
Finally, is Sister Deborah a heroine or an antiheroine?
Sister Deborah is a healer and prophetess who was elected to preach freedom to oppressed people. He carries a message of hope, but one that is clearly doomed to failure. And, in my opinion, this is the very condition without which there is no hope. This is why I say to the character of Sister Deborah: “I know now, the spirit will not return. And yet in spite of everything, we must wait for it always, and I announce the coming of one that will never come, because if one or other of the spirits fulfills the promise, there is nothing to wait for, everything will stop. . »
(1) An ideology espoused by Kemitism, a spiritualist movement that advocates a “return to the sources”, meaning the values and beliefs of the ancestors as the only conditions for the rebirth of Africa.