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Cover for Our Lady of the Nile

Our Lady of the Nile

A Novel

Scholastique Mukasonga, Melanie Mauthner (Translated by)


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For her most recent work and first novel - Notre-Dame du Nil, originally published in March 2012 with Gallimard in French - Mukasonga immerses us in a school for young girls, called "Notre-Dame du Nil." The girls are sent to this high school perched on the ridge of the Nile in order to become the feminine elite of the country and to escape the dangers of the outside world. The book is a prelude to the Rwandan genocide and unfolds behind the closed doors of the school, in the interminable rainy season. Friendships, desires, hatred, political fights, incitation to racial violence, persecutions... The school soon becomes a fascinating existential microcosm of the true 1970s Rwanda.

Praise For Our Lady of the Nile: A Novel

A Publishers Weekly Book of the Year for 2014

Shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award

"In part, this is a good-humored yearbook of the adventures and scandals among the all-girl school's precocious teenage charges, where the greatest peril to morality is the arrival of a male teacher with long blond hair. But soon the school, abetted by its hypocritical administrators (including those Belgian civilizers), becomes a petri dish for Hutu militancy, and normal adolescent pranks take on horrifying consequences. The novel's abrupt transition from a naïve coming-of-age story to a violent tragedy is jarring—though surely it doesn't even begin to convey the shock of the reality." - The Wall Street Journal

"In skilfully distilling an atrocity the reach and horror of which is hard to wrap one’s head around into the eminently relatable, recognisable tale of the lives of teenage schoolgirls, Mukasonga has written a coming-of-age story like no other." --Lucy Scholes, The Telegraph

"Eerily laconic, both comedy and tragedy hauntingly understated . . . a book about our inability or refusal to protect children from history." Sarah Moss, The Guardian

"[Mukasonga] mines her own experience of attending an elite all-girls’ high school run by Christian missionaries in Kigali in the 1970s, to depict a society hurtling towards violence and genocide . . . touching scenes garner a weighted meaning in light of the conclusion of the story, reminding us — amid the novel’s wider racial and political tensions — just how fraught girlhood can be." - Financial Times

"[Mukasonga's] deliciously limpid, melodious style makes Rwandan daily life vividly accessible ... Mukasonga expertly draws together all her threads and stories in climactic sequences to create a skillfully-orchestrated vision, both loving and fearful, of her beloved homeland ripped apart by vicious racial hatred." - Shelf Awareness

"Mukasonga helps readers without experience of the setting become immersed at once,
feeling out the tribal tensions without being overburdened with exposition. This is a moving,
nuanced portrait of fear and survival." - Publishers Weekly

"Mukasonga’s masterpiece ... The novel’s electricity comes from its deceptive lightness, the danse macabre of dorm intrigue on the cusp of Armageddon. But its core is a reckoning with the genocide’s deep origins, an unraveling of Rwanda’s colonial background that is also an allegory of its miseducation." 

"The power of [Mukasonga's] depiction of how one group can turn against another is chilling and evocative . . . Our Lady of the Nile is compelling but disquieting reading." Dorian Stuber, Shiny New Books

"We should […] welcome the opportunity to read Mukasonga’s work in English. African francophone literature, and particularly that written by women, continues to be underrepresented in English, and as a result, we are not only missing out on compelling stories, but on an important political project. Scholastique Mukasonga, and likely many of her colleagues whom we have yet to translate, is working to correct the frustratingly persistent Western narratives about Africa and its history. […] The West has indeed too often dismissed suffering in Africa, but books like Our Lady of the Nile remind us why we must not be dismissive, why we must not look away." – Madeleine LaRue, Music & Literature

"Our Lady of the Nile swept me up with its artful bitterness […] [Our Lady of the Nile] is buoyed by its air of foreboding consequence that imparts urgency to almost every page." - Barnes & Noble Review

"Sneaky, lingering, her story evokes a sense of menace, and eventually a scene of full-blown violence, that sticks with you […] Our Lady of the Nile, published in English twenty years after the massacre of the Tutsi people, is a political novel, addressing race, culture, gender. The brutality of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict is easily misunderstood. This book makes it human, brings it down to the level of the everyday. When the question of how such a thing could have happened is asked, the treacherous answer is here, in the mundane. By imagining the everyday lives of Rwandans, Mukasonga makes more sense of the climate leading up to the genocide than a stack of news articles does. From this slant, the novel does its work quietly and well, with its head down—the way a Tutsi student might have done at Our Lady of the Nile." - Bibi Deitz, Bookforum

"The novel reflects glimpses of a tension-filled past and slowly moves to uncover racial strife and the increase of genocidal actions against the Tutsi minority in Rwanda through the eyes of lycée girls enrolled at a Catholic boarding school that stands isolated on the Ikibira mountaintop by the river Nile, gated and guarded." World Literature Today
"Scholastique Mukasonga’s somber tale of life at an elite all-girls school high in the mountains of Rwanda is a political novel, but it’s never boring. Mukasonga, translated by Melanie Mauthner, creates a fictional account of the events leading up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide that makes it easy to understand how such an atrocity could have happened." — Coveteur

"What makes Mukasonga’s novel so effective is her ability to show how daily life continues alongside the omnipresent rhetoric of racial hatred and the threat of imminent violence ... Her novel is a portrait of the slow, excruciating build-up toward violence and Rwandans’ attempts to lead full, meaningful lives while contending with state-sponsored exclusion. It is both a glimpse into the particular history of Rwanda and a warning about ignoring the latent signs of violence and exclusion that are present today around the globe. Implicit in her novel are many pressing questions. What crises that will erupt in the coming decade will seem so painfully predictable in hindsight? And what, if anything, is her Western readership willing to do to prevent them?" —George S. MacLeod, Kenyon Review

"...Our Lady of the Nile is exquisitely well conceived, structured and constructed, entirely deserving of the Prix Renaudot it won, placing her in a line that includes previous winners Céline, Le Clézio and Weyergans." Bert Archer, The National Post

"In a writing style both rough and tender, Our Lady of the Nile depicts a society inevitably heading towards horror. [...] Poignant and tenacious." - Christine Rousseau, Le Monde

"Whoever has loved Africa will be touched by this story [...] It is the very essence of Africa, an immense Africa that will absorb even this terrible genocide." - Joël Prieur, Minute

"Strangely, it is in this incredibly light novel, that one best understands the ethnic, political, and religious reasons behind the massacre of the mysterious Tutsis." - Arnaud Viviant, Regards

"[After she was awarded the Prix Renaudot] I went out and procured every work by Scholastique Mukasonga. [...] Never has a prize been more merited." - Frédéric Beigbeder, Lire

"In this well-constructed novel, the grim final scenes prefigure the horrors to come." - The Arts Fuse

"A quite powerful novel of Rwanda, Our Lady of the Nile gives a good sense of life and conditions there in the early 1970s -- and the longstanding ethnic strife that took such a human toll, both before and after the period described here." -

"What makes Mukasonga’s novel so effective is her ability to show how daily life continues alongside the omnipresent rhetoric of racial hatred and the threat of imminent violence ... Her novel is a portrait of the slow, excruciating build-up toward violence and Rwandans’ attempts to lead full, meaningful lives while contending with state-sponsored exclusion. It is both a glimpse into the particular history of Rwanda and a warning about ignoring the latent signs of violence and exclusion that are present today around the globe. Implicit in her novel are many pressing questions. What crises that will erupt in the coming decade will seem so painfully predictable in hindsight? And what, if anything, is her Western readership willing to do to prevent them?" — George S. MacLeod, Kenyon Review

Archipelago, 9780914671039, 240pp.

Publication Date: September 16, 2014

About the Author

• 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 37 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 (Our Lady of the Nile), won the Ahamadou Kourouma prize and the Renaudot prize in 2012, as well as the Océans France Ô prize in 2013 and the French Voices Award in 2014, and was shortlisted for the 2016 International Dublin Literary award.

 • About the Translator: Melanie Mauthner read Modern Languages (French/Spanish) at Wadham College, Oxford and worked as a sociology lecturer before becoming a translator. Her publications include Ethics in Qualitative Research (Sage 2012), Sistering (Palgrave 2002), short stories and poems in magazines and anthologies. She obtained a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 to translate Scholastique Mukasonga's collection L'Iguifou and is now translating her novel, Notre-Dame du Nil. She performs as part of the London writers' collective, Malika's Poetry Kitchen.

The author lives in France.

Conversation Starters from

1. The lycée of Our Lady of the Nile dominates the book, both as a setting and as a symbol for both the past and future of Rwanda and Africa as a whole.  What things do you notice in the first few pages of the novel that describe the construction of the lycée, its location, its symbolic force?  By the end of the novel, how do we view the lycée?  Is it a force for good, for bad, or something more complex?

2. The unveiling of the statue of Our Lady of the Nile and its christening provides a potent symbol for the overarching goal of the lycée, to create a new African ruling class rooted and educated in the traditional European (white) values, in other words black educated (or “civilized”) Christians.  As we move through the novel, to what extent is that project successful?  Where are moments in the novel where its failure is explicit? And what do we make later in the novel about the fact that the former Virgin Mary had been painted black and so became Tutsi? See “The Virgin’s Nose.”

3. The concept of the white man’s burden (i.e. that white’s have an obligation to ‘civilize’ non-whites through education and religion, but also to preserve and protect elements of the indigenous cultures under the assumption that the indigenous culture wouldn’t be able to do so themselves) is omnipresent in the novel.  What examples do you see?  For example, one stark instance is the episode of the gorillas, presumably referencing the famous primatologist Jane Goodall as well as Monsieur Fontenaille.  Furthermore, how does Mukasonga present these instances, and in what ways does she criticize them?

4. References to witchcraft, witchdoctors, curses, spells, and poisons abound in the novel.  These ‘pagan’ aspects of the native Rwandan culture exist side by side with the Christian presence, and while they would seem to be opposed, rather seem to intermingle into something distinct.  Where do you see this sort of fusion happening? Or what are some instances where the seemingly primitive practices and beliefs of witchcraft come into contact with very modern and contemporary events or figures? As an example, look at the episode describing the theft of the saber of the King of Belgium.

5. How does language function in the novel, especially as it relates to colonialism and issues of power? The lycée is a French only zone where Swahili or other native languages are not permitted.  To push further, remember that Mukasonga wrote the novel in French, the language of the education that eventually allowed her to leave Rwanda and move to France, escaping the devastation of the Rwandan genocide that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, including the vast majority of Mukasonga’s family.  What does it matter that she has written the novel in the language that both saved her and yet was the language of the ruling class that did so much harm to her native country?

6. We are told incessantly that the purpose of the lycée is the advancement of the Rwandan women. To what extent are the lives of the women/girls we meet in the novel improved or advanced?  At the very beginning of the novel, we read, “The young ladies of Our Lady of the Nile know just how much they are worth.” (8).  What are they worth?  What are the options for these women?  Simply political bargaining tokens for men wishing to advance their own interests, even if this brings the women personal security and even luxury?  Is this feminism? And if so, of what sort?  Pay particular attention to the case of Frida, described in the section “Up the Virgin’s Sleeve.”

7. At the end of the section “Up the Virgin’s Sleeve” Frida’s death is hushed up, not mentioned, and essentially silenced from the collective memory of the lycée, ranging from the teachers to the students.  Mukasonga writes, “For there was now a shameful secret lying coiled deep within the lycée, and deep within each of the girls, too; remorse in search of a culprit; a sin that could never be purged since it would never be owned” (132).  We can generalize Frida’s death to the millions of deaths that eventually occurred during the genocide, or even deaths that occurred as a result of colonialism more generally.  It’s clear that part of the grieving process, part of what allows Mukasonga to move forward in her life, is this ‘owning’ of the sins, both collective and personal.  The way one owns the sin is to tell it, to write it, to make the secret visible.  What other instances of secrets, forgetting, or erasing do we see in the novel?  And to complicate matters further, what do we make of the witchdoctor’s comment, “The whites wrote the secrets down”? (146).

8. There is much white fantasizing about the black body, both physically and understood in a more general cultural sense, ranging from the mythic to the sexual, even the perverse.  Consider the cases of Father Herménégilde, Monsieur de Fontenaille, and Father Pintard.  What unifies these separate cases, and at one points do they differ? How does the white gaze play into these cases as well? Consider this quote:  “’here, we’re [as Tutsis] inyenzi, cockroaches, snakes, rodents; to whites, we’re the heroes of their legends’” (165).

9. The conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsis permeates the novel, through quotidian interactions all the way up to more explicit discussions and terminating in violence.  Although the horrors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was still many years away from the time in which the novel occurs, violence against Tutsis was becoming more and more commonplace during the time of the novel. What foreshadowing do we find?  And what do we make of the explicit alignment of the Tutsis with the Jews (119, 164) by Father Herménégilde and Father Pintard, especially considering the novel takes place in a post-Holocaust world?  The most poignant example is the final two episodes of the novel.

10. What do we make of the final episode of the novel, where the prejudice boils over into nightmarish violence? The occult appears once more as a major force, providing safety to Virginia. Does the novel end on a hopeful note? What do the gorillas come to represent in the final scene?