an extract from Our Lady of the Nile
out now from Archipelago Books
There is no better lycée than Our Lady of the Nile. Nor is there any higher. Twenty-five hundred meters, the white teachers proudly proclaim. “Two thousand four hundred ninety-three meters,” points out Sister Lydwine, our geography teacher. “We’re so close to heaven,” whispers Mother Superior, clasping her hands together.
The school year coincides with the rainy season, so the lycée is often wrapped in clouds. Sometimes, not often, the sun peaks through and you can see as far as the big lake, that shiny blue puddle down in the valley.
It’s a girls’ lycée. The boys stay down in the capital. The reason for building the lycée so high up was to protect the girls, by keep- ing them far away from the temptations and evils of the big city. Good marriages await these young lycée ladies, you see. And they must be virgins when they wed – or at least not get pregnant beforehand. Staying a virgin is better, for marriage is a serious business. The lycée’s boarders are daughters of ministers, high- ranking army officers, businessmen, and rich merchants. Their daughters’ weddings are the stuff of politics, and the girls are proud of this – they know what they’re worth. Gone are the days when beauty was all that mattered. Their families will receive far more than cattle or the traditional jugs of beer for their dowry, they’ll get suitcases stuffed full of banknotes, or a healthy account with the Banque Belgolaise in Nairobi or Brussels. Thanks to their daughters, these families will grow wealthy, the power of their clans will be strengthened, and the influence of their lineage will spread far and wide. The young ladies of Our Lady of the Nile know just how much they are worth.
The lycée is very close to the Nile, to its source, in fact. To get there, you follow a rocky trail along the ridgeline. It leads to a flat parking area for the few tourist Land Rovers venturing that far. A sign reads: source of the nile ➙ 200 m. A steep path brings you to a heap of rocks where the rivulet spurts between two stones. The water pools in a cement basin, then dribbles over in a thin cascade and along a little channel, before disappearing down the grassy hillside into the tree ferns of the valley. To the right, a pyramid has been erected, bearing the inscription: source of the nile. cock mission, 1924. It’s not a very tall pyramid: the girls from the lycée can easily touch the broken tip – they say it brings good luck. Yet it’s not the pyramid that draws them to the source. They’re not here to explore; they’re on a pilgrimage. The statue of Our Lady of the Nile looms among the large rocks overhanging the spring. It’s not quite a grotto, although a sheet-metal shelter protects her from the elements. our lady of the nile, 1953, reads the engraved pedestal. It was Monsignor the Vicar Apostolic who decided to erect the statue, in order to consecrate the Nile to the Virgin Mary, despite the King of Belgium persuading the Sover- eign Pontiff to consecrate the whole country to Christ the King.
Some people still remember the unveiling ceremony. Sister Kizito, the old, somewhat frail cook, was there that day. Every year she describes the occasion to the new pupils. “Oh, it was a beautiful ceremony, similar to those you see in church, in Kigali, at Christmas, or in the stadium, on Rwanda’s National Day.
“The King’s official representative sent an envoy, but the colo- nial administrator was there too, flanked by an escort of ten sol- diers. One held a bugle, another carried the Belgian flag. Various chiefs and deputy chiefs were in attendance, along with those from neighboring chiefdoms. They brought their wives and daugh- ters, who wore their hair piled high and pinned with pearls, they brought their dancers, who shook their manes like valiant lions,and of course they brought their herds of long-horned inyambo cattle decked with flower garlands. The hillside was thronged with farmers. Naturally, the whites from the capital didn’t dare venture onto the rough path that led to the spring. But Monsieur de Fontenaille, the coffee planter who lived next door to the lycée, was there, sitting beside the administrator. It was the dry season. The sky was clear. No haze wreathed the mountain peaks.
“We waited. Finally, a black line could be seen approaching on the ridge path, and a murmur of hymns and prayers arose. One by one they came into focus: Monsignor the Vicar Apostolic, with his miter and crosier, looking like one of the Three Wise Men from the pictures they show in catechism class. The missionaries walked behind him: they wore pith helmets, as all the whites did back then, but were bearded and dressed in long white robes with a chunky rosary around their necks. Children from the Legion of Mary strewed the path with yellow petals. Then came the Virgin. Four seminary boys in shorts and white shirts carried her on a plaited-bamboo litter, the kind used to take a young bride to her new family, or the dead to their final resting place. But it was impossible to see the Madonna because she was wrapped in a blue and white veil. Behind her jostled the ‘native clergy,’ and then, preceded by their banner and the white and yellow papal flag, came the straggling line of catechism pupils, straying cheer- fully off the path onto the slopes, despite the best efforts of the monitors with their sticks.
“The procession reached the hollow and the spring; the Madonna’s palanquin was lowered beside the stream – she was still hidden beneath the veil. The administrator stepped forward and greeted Monsignor with a military salute, exchanging a few words while the rest of the procession took up position around the spring and the statue, which had been raised onto a little stage. The Bishop climbed the five steps with two missionaries, blessed the crowd, then turned to face the statue and recited an oration in Latin, with the two priests giving the response. Suddenly, with a nod and a wave from the Bishop, one of the acolytes unveiled the Madonna. The bugle sounded, the flag was dipped, and a hushed murmur spread through the crowd. The hollow filled with the women’s sharp cries of joy and the jingling of the dancers’ ankle bells. The Virgin who appeared from beneath the veil certainly resembled Our Lady of Lourdes, who can be seen at the mission church dressed in the same blue veil, the same azure belt, the same yellow dress, but Our Lady of the Nile was black: her face was black, her hands were black, her feet were black. Our Lady of the Nile was a black woman, an African woman, a Rwandan woman – and indeed, why not?
“ ‘It’s Isis,’ cried Monsieur de Fontenaille. ‘She has returned!’
“And so, with a vigorous sprinkling of holy water, Monsignor the Vicar Apostolic blessed the statue, blessed the spring, and blessed the crowd. Then he delivered his sermon. Not all of what he said was comprehensible. He spoke of the Holy Virgin, and how she would be known here as Our Lady of the Nile. He said: ‘The drops of this holy water shall mix with the burgeoning waters of the Nile, which in turn shall mix with other streams and become The River, flowing through lakes, flowing through swamps, pouring over waterfalls, braving the desert sands, soak- ing the cells of bygone monks, even lapping at the feet of the surprised Sphinx. It is as if, by the grace of Our Lady of the Nile, these holy drops were to baptize all of Africa; and Africa – now Christian – shall save this world from perdition. And I see, yes, I see, crowds thronging here from all the nations in pilgrimage, yes, in pilgrimage, to our mountains, to give grace to Our Lady of the Nile.’”
When his turn came, Chief Kayitare walked up to the stage and called to Rutamu, his cow, which he offered to the new Queen of Rwanda. He praised both the cow and the Virgin Mary, saying they would provide milk and honey in abundance. The women’s cries of joy and the tinkle of the dancers’ bells approved this auspicious gift.
A few days later, workers from the mission arrived to erect a platform between the two colossal rocks overhanging the spring. They placed the statue on it, beneath a shelter of sheet metal. It was much later that they built the lycée, two kilometers away, just as Rwanda gained independence.
Perhaps Monsignor hoped that the spring’s holy water would prove to be as miraculous as that of Lourdes. Alas no. There is only Kagabo the healer – or poisoner – who fills small black jugs shaped like a calabash with water from the spring. In these he soaks scary-looking roots, sloughed-off snake skins crushed into powder, tufts of hair from stillborns, and the dried blood from girls’ first menstruations. Concoctions to heal, or to kill, it depends.
For a long time, the photos of the unveiling ceremony of Our Lady of the Nile lined the long corridor where visitors, or parents who had requested a meeting with Mother Superior, were asked to wait. Now there was only one photograph still hanging: the one with Monsignor the Vicar Apostolic blessing the statue. Only traces of the others remained, the slightly paler marks of rectan- gular frames on the wall, there behind the hard wooden sofa – no cushion in sight – on which the unfortunate pupils summoned by the fearsome Mother Superior never dared to sit. Yet the photos hadn’t been destroyed. Gloriosa, Modesta, and Veronica found them one day when they were asked to clean the room at the back of the library where the archives were stacked. There, under a heap of old newspapers and magazines (Kinyamateka, Kurerera Imana, L’Ami, Grands Lacs, etc.), they found the photos, slightly discolored and warped, some still covered by a sheet of broken glass. There was the photo of the administrator making his mili- tary salute before the statue, and the soldier behind him dipping the Belgian flag. There were the photos of the intore dancers – slightly blurred because the inept photographer tried to capture their impressive leaps in midair, which caused their sisal manes and leopard skins to be wreathed in a ghostly halo. Then there was the photo of the chiefs and their wives in all their finery, but most of these dignitaries had been crossed through with a wide stroke of red ink, and the faces of others masked by a question mark in black.
“The chiefs’ photos have suffered the social revolution,” said Gloriosa, laughing. “A dash of ink, a slash of machete, that’s all it takes . . . and no more Tutsi.”
“What about the ones with a question mark?” Modesta wanted to know.
“Alas, they must be the ones who managed to flee! But now that they’re in Bujumbura or Kampala, those big chiefs have lost their cattle, and their pride. They drink water like the pariahs they’ve become. I’m taking the photos. My father will tell me who these whip masters are.”
Veronica wondered when she, too, would be crossed out with red ink, on the annual class photograph taken at the start of the school year.
The pupils of Our Lady of the Nile make their great pilgrim- age in May, the Virgin Mary’s month. Pilgrimage day is a long and beautiful one, and the lycée spends many months preparing for it. Prayers are given for good weather. Mother Superior and Father Herménégilde, the chaplain, announce a novena and request that every class relay each other in the chapel to ask the Holy Virgin to chase off the clouds on that given day! After all, it’s quite pos- sible in May: the rains become less frequent as the dry season approaches. For a whole month now, Brother Auxile has been rehearsing the hymns he’s written in honor of Our Lady of the Nile. Brother Auxile is the resident handyman, peering into the oily entrails of the electric generator, or the engines of the two supply trucks, cursing the drivers, and the servant-mechanics, in his Ghent dialect. He plays the harmonium and conducts the choir. The Belgian teachers were urged to take part in the cer- emony, as were the three young Frenchmen posted here in lieu of military service. Mother Superior hinted, gently but firmly, that as it was a solemn occasion, they should wear a jacket and tie, instead of those ugly trousers they call blue jeans, and that she was counting on them to behave respectfully and set an example for the pupils. Sister Bursar spent a good part of the night in the pantry, setting aside items for the picnic: corned beef, sardines in oil, jam, Kraft cheese. You could hear the jangle of the huge bunch of keys attached to her leather belt. She counted out just enough crates of Fanta for the pupils, and a few bottles of Primus lager for the chaplain, Brother Auxile, and Father Angelo from the nearby mission. For the Rwandan Sisters, the teachers, and the school monitors, she put aside a demijohn of pineapple wine, the specialty of Sister Kizito, who jealously guards the secret recipe.
Of course Mass is endless that day, with hymns, prayers, and dozens of rosary recitations, but best of all is the wild laughter of the girls as they race and romp about, sliding down the grassy slope. Sister Angélique and Sister Rita, the school monitors, blow the hell out of their whistles, bellowing: “Watch out for the ravine!”
Mats are laid down for the picnic. It’s not like in the refectory, it’s more chaotic, everyone can sit however they like, they can squat down or stretch out, their mouths smeared with jam. The school monitors raise their arms to the sky in defeat. Mother Superior, Sister Gertrude (Mother Superior’s Rwandan deputy), Sister Bursar, Father Herménégilde, and Father Angelo all sit on folding chairs. The teachers are also allowed chairs, but the French teachers prefer to sit on the grass. Sister Rita serves the men beer – only a Rwandan woman could have such good man- ners. Mother Superior of course refuses the Primus she’s offered, and Sister Bursar reluctantly does the same, making do with some of Sister Kizito’s pineapple wine.
It’s rare to see an actual pilgrim mingling with the pupils, since Mother Superior aims to keep at bay any unwelcome guests who might, on a “devotional” pretext, be drawn by the sight of such a gathering of young girls. The mayor of Nyaminombe district, where the lycée is located, has prohibited access to the spring at Mother Superior’s request. Even the government minister’s wife, who invited a few girlfriends along in her Mercedes to dote on their pious daughters, has a hard time persuading the police officer to lift the barrier. But there’s one visitor Mother Superior can’t keep away, and that’s Monsieur de Fontenaille, the coffee grower. The girls are a bit scared of him. People say he lives alone in his large dilapidated villa. Most of his coffee bushes are going to seed. Nobody knows if he’s deranged or a white witch doctor as he goes about organizing digs to search for bones and skulls. His old jeep ignores the paths, jolting up and down the mountain slopes. He always breezes in, mid-picnic, sweeping off his bush hat in a theatrical gesture to greet Mother Superior, exposing his shaven head: “Please accept my deepest respects, Reverend Mother.”
She struggles to hide her annoyance: “Good day, Monsieur de Fontenaille, we weren’t expecting you. Please, don’t intrude on our pilgrimage.”
“Like you, I’m here to honor our Mother of the Nile,” he replies while turning his back to her. Slowly, he circles each mat where the girls are eating their lunches, stops near one of them, unconsciously adjusts his glasses, searches her face while nod- ding, pleased with himself, and begins to sketch her profile in his notebook. She’ll lower her gaze, as well-brought-up girls do, to avoid his piercing stare, then look away, yet some of the girls can’t help slipping him a sly smile. Mother Superior doesn’t dare intervene, for fear of causing an even greater scandal, but she fol- lows the old plantation owner’s movements with apprehension. At last, he trundles to the little pool brimming with water from the spring, takes a handful of scarlet petals from one of his many jacket pockets, and throws them into the headwaters of the Nile. Then he raises his arms to the sky three times, palms spread, arms wide, and mumbles some incomprehensible incantation. As soon as Monsieur de Fontenaille returns to the parking lot and we hear his jeep begin to stutter, Mother Superior stands and declares: “Come, young ladies, let’s sing a hymn.” The girls sing in unison, some of them gazing wistfully at the dust trail from the retreating jeep.
Upon returning to the lycée, Veronica opens up her geography book. It’s quite tricky to follow the course of the Nile, she has no name to start off with and then there are too many. She seems to have multiple sources, she hides in a lake, resurfaces, turns white, then gets lost in a swamp, while her Blue brother appears somewhere else. She’s easier to keep track of near the end, where she flows in a straight line, with desert on either side, lapping at the foot of the pyramids – the big ones – before spreading chaoti- cally into the delta, and finally gushing into the sea, which is far bigger than the lake, so they say.
Veronica realizes that someone is peering over her shoulder, staring at the open page of the textbook with her.
“So, are you looking for the way back to where your people came from, Veronica? Don’t worry, I’ll pray to Our Lady of the Nile that the crocodiles carry you there on their backs, or rather in their bellies.”
Veronica would be forever haunted by Gloriosa’s laugh, especially in her nightmares.