Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga | Book Review

“Nothing in Rwanda was left in me but a wound that could never be healed.” 

“Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide. And I alone preserve the memory of it. And that’s why I am writing this.”  

“Where are they? Somewhere deep in the anonymous crowd of the genocide’s victim. A million of them, their lives stolen, their names lost. What is the point of counting up our dead again and again? From the thousand hills of Rwanda, a million shades answer my call.” 

This book is a remarkable homage to her murdered family during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and is dedicated to “everyone [who] died at Nyamata in the genocide” .

Cockroaches by the wonderful Rwandan writer, Scholastique Mukasonga tells a story of her Tutsi family in the years preceding the genocide of 1994 during which the author lost 37 members of her immediate family, including her parents, Stefania and Cosma, her siblings: Antoine, Alexia and her husband, Pierre, Jeanne, Judith, Julienne, and all their children. It is an unforgettable memoir as we witness Scholastique and her family through years of pogroms and massacres against Tutsi during January and February of 1964, followed by Scholastique’s and her brother, Andre’s escape to Burundi in 1973. 

“There was nothing for us to do but leave. In Burundi, we could probably continue our studies and find work. And above all – my parents weren’t sure how to say it – at least some of us had to survive, to keep the memory alive, so the family would go on, somewhere else.

We’d been chosen to survive.” 

In Burundi, Scholastique completed a degree in social work in 1975 followed by working for UNICEF  on the rural development programme for next three years, then moving to Djibouti and finally settling in  France with her husband and children. A decade after the genocide, Scholastique returns to Rwanda to learn the fate of her loved ones. During that visit she goes to the places she frequented as a child, she visits the church seeing people attending the mass and she reflects on the ones committed the most heinous acts in 1994. She says:

“… and everything goes on as if nothing happened,” 

 The unspeakable trauma and grief never leave Scholastique. This book portrays a sense of displacement, a forced exile, being away from the family when the violence erupts and its impact on the author’s emotional wellbeing, trauma of surviving

“This will be another sleepless night. I have so many dead to sit up with.”  

“I was burdened with the memory of all those dead; they would be with me for as long as I lived. “ 

The author also chronicles her childhood and offers some beautiful insight into the small moments of joy for her family such as the process of making banana beer called ‘urwarwa’ in which the entire family participated, portrays family traditions, discovering the love of reading:

“Sometimes I dreamed of an impossible thing: having a book all to myself.”

She shares beautiful and gentle memories of her devoted parents, their commitment to education for their children. I found particularly moving the description of the author’s mum, Stefania , happy days spent with her mum and a deep admiration for her mum’s storytelling. Despite all, it shows the strong family unit based on the deepest love and commitment.  

The descriptions of the author’s school years in Kigali, where she was the only one of a few Tutsi students, are filled with the feelings of “the solitude of humiliation and rejection”, provide a glimpse into a life marked by an ID card with the mentioned one’s ethnic identity, being ashamed because of the way she looked, an inability to question status quo which would certainly end up with the expulsion form the school.  

“Among my schoolmates, too, I soon came to feel different. Or rather, it was they who made that difference cruelly to feel different. They made me ashamed of the colours of my skin (not dark enough for their tastes), of my nose (too straight, they said), and of my hair (too much of it).” 

“The room filled with the sound of conversation, but no one ever spoke to me. I could feel them staring at me, telling me I wasn’t supposed to be there, that my presence disgusted them (…). I grew up used to serving myself after all the others. When there were bananas or sweet potatoes, there was nothing left in the dish by the time it came to me, and I had to make do with the maggot ridden beans no one would touch. And I grew used to peeling the sweet potatoes on the others’ place, doing the dishes, cleaning the toilets. I never rebelled, even if I wept when no one was looking. If found all this almost normal. “ 

It also offers a compelling insight into the lives of the students with the mixed ethnic background where the father was Hutu, and the mother was Tutsi.  

One word about the title of the book: “cockroaches” – inyenzi in Kinyarwanda – a term used by the Hutu dominated government to demonise and dehumanise the Tutsi members of the Rwandan society.

The readers follow Mukasonga and her family first to the Gikongoro province where she was born in 1956, and where she had her first recollection of the 1959 pogroms taking place on All Saints’ Day when she was just three years old and “when the machinery of genocide had been set into motion.” Those first images of violence, machetes, spears, clubs, and torches still haunted her many years later when she lived in France.   Then we follow her family to Nyamata as they are being deported into the ghetto-like areas designed for Tutsi members of the society. We witness the independence in 1961 and the first elections in Rwanda in 1960s which solidified Hutu supremacy ultimately leading to the 1994 genocide when 800 000 people lost their lives.  Just in the municipality of Nyamata,

” of 60 000 Tutsis recorded in January 1994, there remain only 5 000 survivors—5,348 to be precise.” 

The book although small in size allows the reader to better understand preconditions that facilitated the genocide and reminds us that acts of genocide, Holocaust, ethnic cleansing, pogroms do not happen by chance or overnight. It takes years, decades of dehumanisation of the Other, indifference, passivity, and numbness among the privileged ones within any given society.  

 Cockroaches is very much a story about the human nature and that fine line between good and evil. The descriptions of pogroms based on the ethnicity in the 1960s against Tutsi reminded me so much about my beloved grandparents’ experience when they lived during the 1930s and 40s in what it is now the Ukraine. In Cockroaches, dehumanisation of the Other, pogroms, ethnic tensions even within the same family sound so like the descriptions I heard from my grandparents despite different time period and geographical location. 

In the final chapters, we follow Scholoastique’s quest to discover the final fate of her parents and siblings in now non-existent family home. All she knows that they were killed but she does not their final moments or where their remains are. 

“What hurts the worst? Not knowing how they died or knowing how they were killed? The fear they felt, the cruelty they endured (…). All I have left is the terrible guilt of living on amid so many dead.” 

The book also explores the meaning of surviving the genocide when all your loved ones are gone. Scholastique refers to the term “sub-vivor” meaning having survived, but not being alive, “being outside of oneself, oblivious to own existence.” 

 I recall the beginning of the 21st century when my grandpa was in his late 90s and still did not know how his brothers and sisters and extended family died. He passed away in his late 90s without ever knowing where the graves of his loved ones are. This singular event like many similar ones before or after could serve as a lesson to prevent Srebrenica, Rwanda, Cambodia, Darfur any many other acts of the genocide or crimes against humanity but despite all the history still repeats itself. The following words by the philosopher, Georg Hegel come to mind:

The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” 

Cockroaches is a book I cannot recommend enough. It should become a part of every curriculum.  

 Scholastique gave the voice to her beloved parents, and her siblings and all those who lost their lives during the massacres. Through writing she reaffirmed the existence of her loved ones; they will not be forgotten. Now her parents, Stefania and Cosma, along with her brothers and sisters also will live in the memory of the readers.  

“Where are they now? (…) In some mass grave that has yet to be found? Over and over, I write and rewrite their names in the blue-covered notebook, trying to prove to myself that they existed; I speak their names one by one, in the dark and the silence. “ 

“The murderers tried to erase everything they were, even any memory of their existence, but in the schoolchild’s notebook that I am now never without, I write down their names. I have nothing left of my family and all the other who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.” 

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    1. Thank you very much for your words. There is a very compelling testimony of the Canadian General, Romero Dellaire who was a part of UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda at that time. He went against the orders trying to save at least some people… But reading his memoir from that time Shake Hands with Devil makes one angry with the indifference of the international community and the politics.. There should be some older interviews with Dellaire available on YouTube which are worth watching . Years back we had to read his book at the uni. It was also the time of the Balkan war and just a year before Srebrenica massacre which also happened on the watch of the un forces… Extremely sad, with no words to describe it… 😔

      1. Yes, I remember when it happened 🙁 and while we chose to ignore the warning signs, we then did not really follow-up the aftermath either. Sometimes, that compounds the error 🙁

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