Book - The Barefoot Woman

Tony Cross is reading all the books on the longlist for the Baillie-Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2022. Today it's the turn of  The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump...

Scholastique Mukasonga is a Rwandan writer, specifically a Tutsi. She was living in France from 1992, which means she wasn’t in Rwanda in 1994 when the horrific massacre of the Tutsi began. However, thirty-seven of her family were massacred. Thirty-seven. In a period of 100 days between 500,000 and 620,000 Tutsi were murdered.

The Barefoot Woman is Scholastique Mukasonga’s memoir. It isn’t a straightforward narrative account, but one that focuses on a theme in each chapter to tell the story of what life was like in the Tutsi communities of Nyamata before the massacres began. Except there had already been massacres. The Tutsi had been driven out of their homes and moved to Nyamata.

The first chapter is called: “Saving the Children” and is Schlastique’s way of explaining how things felt even before the massacres. How their lives were and how much her mother worked to find ways of keeping her children alive. Regular readers of my reviews will know that I often talk about the writer as witness. The Barefoot Woman is a superb example of that. The Akhmatova Requiem question answered.

Scholastique gives us an insight into how life was lived on a day to day basis but also the broader culture and traditions that helped keep the Tutsi of Nyamata together. Perhaps the chapter Stefania’s House is one of the best example of that. It talks about how their homes were structured traditionally and how the Belgian designed homes they were given when they were moved into Nyamata weren’t the same. Scholastique makes a great point about how the language of the colonisers labels these homes – shacks, hut or shanty. The Tutsi name is Inzu and the chapter makes you realise how the colonial labels are just pathetic failures to do justice to what an Inzu is, the thought that goes into its design, what it signifies and how it comes to be filled with meaning. They’re homes.

The focal point of the book is Stefania, who is Scholastique’s mother. The book starts with a short introduction about how Scholastique and her siblings were told by their Mama to make sure that if she died they covered her with her pagne so that no one should see her body. But, as Scholastique says at the end of that section:

“Mama, I wasn’t there to cover your body, and all I have left is words – words in a language you didn’t understand – to do as you asked. And I’m all alone with my feeble words, and on the pages of my notebook, over and over again, my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.”

This is one of those books where your awareness of what is coming wraps itself around you even when Scholastique doesn’t mention it. But it is never absent from the book for long. There is already the existing abuse that was inflicted on the Tutsi, but worse is to come. We know it and Scholastique knows it. What it must have been like for her in Paris seeing the news from Rwanda I can barely imagine.

We often talk about the Holocaust and say ‘we must never forget’ and ‘we must never let it happen again.’ Yet it has happened again and Rwanda is, perhaps on the largest example recently. What happened in Rwanda happened terrifyingly quickly, although Scholastique’s book makes you realise that there was a lot of dry tinder already on the ground waiting to be lit by the wrong kind of people. The Barefoot Woman lets us know what was been lost not just to the Tutsi in general but to Scholastique Mukasonga herself. This is a heart breaking read but you should read it.

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The Baillie Gifford Prize rewards excellence in non-fiction writing, bringing the best in intelligent reflection on the world to new readers. It covers all non-fiction in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts.

The 2022 longlist is;

Caroline Elkins - Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (The Bodley Head, Vintage, Penguin Random House UK)

Andrea Elliott - Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City (Hutchinson Heinemann, Cornerstone, Penguin Random House UK)

Jonathan Freedland - The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (John Murray Press, Hachette)

Thomas Halliday - Otherlands: A World in the Making (Allen Lane, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House UK)

Daisy Hay - Dinner With Joseph Johnson: Books and Friendship in a Revolutionary Age (Chatto and Windus, Vintage, Penguin Random House UK)

Sally Hayden - My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World's Deadliest Migration Route (4th Estate, HarperCollins)

Matt Rowland Hill - Original Sins: A Memoir (Chatto and Windus, Vintage, Penguin Random House UK)

Anna Keay - The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown (William Collins, Harper Collins)

Polly Morland - A Fortunate Woman: A Country Doctor’s Story (Picador, Pan Macmillan)

Scholastique Mukasonga Translated by Jordan Stump - The Barefoot Woman (Daunt Originals, Daunt Books Publishing)

Katherine Rundell - Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber & Faber)

Jing Tsu - Kingdom of Characters: A Tale of Language, Obsession, and Genius in Modern China (Allen Lane, Penguin Press, Penguin Random House UK)

The shortlist will be announced on 10 October and the winner of the 2022 prize will be announced on 17 November.

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