by Scholastique Mukasonga
Kibogo’s story is reserved for the evening’s end, when women sit around a fire drinking honeyed brew, when just a few are able to stave off sleep. With heads nodding, one faithful storyteller will weave the old legends of the hillside, stories which church missionaries have done everything in their power to expunge. — Archipelago Books
Like any other African country on the continent, Rwanda has a rich body of orature and an oral tradition which includes varied interpretations of its pre-colonial history. History, so often represented as “the true story” has, of course, its fictions: flattery of a ruler, inflating the reputation of a national hero (if we are talking about nations), stories bent to serve a particular group’s mythology.[i]
As opposed to some parts of African where numerous languages prevail, 99% of Rwandans speak the same Bantu language, Kinyarwanda, with some minor and official use of Swahili. Thus we might expect a more unified cultural output.
But, then, along came the European colonists and their languages, their culture, their missionaries.
The Berlin Conference of 1884 – 1885 has long remained infamous for the offhanded way that Europe, under the aegis of Bismarck of Germany and at the overall insistence of King Leopold II [ii] of Belgium—through which European powers casually divvied up Africa amongst themselves without so much as a nod to any indigenous African powers. Though signing off on the eradication of slavery, the enduring result has been the persistence of colonial boundaries even into the present, sometimes dividing up traditional peoples and their territories between more than one nation[iii], of colonial languages and education, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Not one African representative was invited to the Conference; and, considering the horrid unfolding of many colonial institutions in various African states, it is almost laughable that one of the ways the Conference represented itself was as a charitable, civilizing project.
As colonizing Europeans essentially helped themselves to African territory, the final blow was to send missionaries to “convert the heathen.”
Enter the real subject of this essay, Kibogo, a four-part novel similarly themed. I find the original French title much more to the point: the original is Kibogo est monté au ciel (“Kibogo Climbed to the Sky”).
The book satirizes the question of religion, evangelization, and the extent of their links to the period of colonization. Even so, it does not resort to easy answers, but leaves the reader to figure them out: it neither completely demonizes nor lionizes either African culture or that of the whites.
Well, a bit perhaps. For the beliefs of the padres—we are talking Roman Catholicism here—the catholic priests and missionaries cannot help but appear, frankly, absurd and, in several cases, downright nasty. We start with a dreadful famine, Ruzagayura, that has religious people desperate to find an intercessor who will bring the rain to end the drought that has caused it. Now, presumably the myth of Jesus, born of a virgin mother and, after various trials and tribulations ascending to heaven, godlike, to save humanity —that story is familiar to our readers; but Mukasonga also presents the reader with the myth of Kibogo who, to save his people, essentially sacrifices himself and ascends into the sky as well. Kibogo, too, has an exalted birth, if not a supportive—but flesh and blood—virgin through which his people communicate to him. The catholic missionaries/priests come refer to the Kibogo story and associated practices as ‘the work of the Devil.’ To circumvent the Devil, they go so far as the take down a sacred wood, key to those who believe Kibogo will save them and who are seeking him and his virgin enabler to help the situation.
According to the National Book Association, regarding Mukasonga’s novel, “When a rogue priest is defrocked for fusing the gospels with the martyrdom of Kibogo, a fierce clash of cults ensues.” (https://www.nationalbook.org/books/kibogo/, 10/11/23). What also ensues is a very studied attempt to present the situation(s) rather than overtly convince the reader which side is more worthy. Essentially, we are left to mull, rather than simply set the book down—great story!—and go blithely about our business. At the same time, it does not gloss over the sins of European colonialism via its religion. Thus the book escapes any untoward accusation of it being simply a “harangue,” and it stays with us.
The book was a Translated Literature Finalist for the 2022 National Book Award, and a worthy one in my opinion. Mark Polizzotti, himself an award winning translator and author of several of his own books, has done a skillful job. The English version reads effortlessly, without any wobbles or awkward searches to find the semantic equivalent of a word or phrase, as if it were a math problem rather than a rendering of the book in a fashion that brings both the spirit and the music of English in accord with the original.
Without further ado, I bid you, dear Reader, read on!
[i] For background on the country’s pre-colonial history I refer the reader to an older but more studied article by J.K. Rennie and which appeared in the Transafrican Journal of History, 1972, No. 2 (1972), 11-54.
[ii] I refer the reader to King Leopold’s Ghost, still a valuable account of the presence of Belgium in Africa.
[iii] The boundary between eastern Bénin and Nigeria is a case in point, dividing the Yoruba nation—’nation’ is most appropriately used to refer to a group bound by language and culture rather than the modern nation-state—with 1/3 of the Yoruba nation in Bénin where the Yoruba are referred to as “Nago” and the other 2/3 in Western Nigeria