Kibogo by Scholastique Mukasonga

Kibogo by Scholastique Mukasonga

Kibogo reads like a gateway to a historical, colonial/postcolonial dreamscape. It reads like a fantastic reimagining of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but on a mythical, quasi-spiritual platform in Rwanda. It is inspiring as a work of decolonization, heart-wrenching as a historical fiction, a lyrical maze as a work of literature.

Like Things Fall Apart, Mukasonga’s Kibogo hinges on the binary opposition between the colonizer and the colonized, the imposition of Christianity on native peoples, and the annihilation of indigenous beliefs. But while similar to this famous predecessor, it is also unique in its own right. Kibogo is a nuanced novel. The Colonizer is not necessarily European and this point is pronounced. Sometimes — perhaps more than we would have wanted — the colonizer is our native neighbor, one of our own. Fanon was an astute observer of colonial culture; too often the enemy is a more intimate partner, the one who resides within. Mukasonga also draws a perforated line between Christian and Indigenous Belief; the characters and their stories reveal a more accurate historical account of colonization by highlighting how a syncretization of beliefs and practices is likely to have taken place.

This syncretization of cultures, beliefs, practices, and ideas is the heart of Kibogo. The novel is about the gradual development of a colonial culture, not through outright conquest, but through insidious means. Magic is a key component, a driving force that propels the stories to their ends. Ritual is the means by which the magic is released, and this is not only native Rwandan magic, but also European Christian magic, the kind imbued in holy water and Christian prayer. This lends Kibogo a mystical quality. The novel unfolds as would a myth; it is a fable about the meeting of Christian and Animist in Rwandan history. The characters are heroes, heroines, archetypes, and the plot moves forward through human and divine interventions. Each of Kibogo‘s four parts focuses on a particular character, as each of their stories builds upon the last to produce at the end a full view of Rwanda’s religious, spiritual, and colonial landscape.

This is not to say the characters are hollow; no, on the contrary, they are recognizable across colonial histories. For that reason Kibogo is larger than its central focus on colonization in Rwanda. This is a story that is recognizable in other African, Asian, Caribbean, South American, Australian, Pacific Island, and colonial contexts. Kibogo is centered and set in Rwanda, but it is a work of post-colonial literature for the rest of the “formerly” colonized world as well.

In short, a very thought-provoking work wrapped in beautiful, literary prose that unwinds like a yarn told late at night to children gathered around their grandmother’s hearth.

The White Mosque: A Memoir by Sofia Samatar

The White Mosque: A Memoir
by Sofia Samatar

Mennonites? In Uzbekistan? The premise of this book caught me instantly, and I was rewarded for my curiosity. Samatar’s white mosque in The White Mosque is a Mennonite church located in the heart of a Muslim community in Central Asia. Perhaps this reveals a biased tendency on my part; the juxtaposition of the Mennonites in Central Asia suggests an irresistible, exotic historical account.

That — in part — is what Samatar delivers, but the memoir is more than that. The White Mosque is also about the embodiment of a Christian/Muslim, Foreign/Autochthon juxtaposition within Samatar via their experience of living as a Somali-German American Mennonite, a second-generation immigrant in a largely White American community. In one sense, Samatar is a “white mosque” in her academic and personal worlds, as unique and unusual as a pilgrimage of German-speaking Mennonites trekking into Uzbekistan.

The White Mosque begins and ends with Samatar’s touristic, scholarly pilgrimage to Uzbekistan in search of these European Mennonites who traversed that path over a century ago. It is a guided tour. Mennonites, non-Mennonites, tourists, and heritage-seekers accompany Samatar; their observations contribute to this memoir and help shape Samatar’s embodied experience of being a Mennonite of color. The White Mosque also treks back in time, not only through this unique tangent of 19th century Mennonite history, but into Samatar’s past as a child of a Somali father and a German-American mother and as a graduate student. The memoir flickers to the present too: Samatar as an accomplished researcher in pursuit of scholarship.

Indeed, what The White Mosque delivers to the reader is less a historical account, and more a commentary on the present moment, a moment in which cultural-ethnic-religious-racial juxtapositions are worth examination because of the violent divisions in our world along those same lines. This memoir suggests that a closer, more nuanced examination of such transcultural connections, persons, histories, and experiences is worthwhile because they are not as anomalous as they might initially seem.

Midway through reading it, The White Mosque forced me to reconsider why I was attracted to the premise of this book: Were the Mennonites so unusual in their pilgrimage? Is the idea of a European Christian sect in Central Asia such an exotic thing? Haven’t such transcultural phenomena occurred all throughout history? …. Mmm. Well-played, well-played. As a historian, a humanist, and an anthropologist, I know that no human phenomenon should be surprising; we have been criss-crossing, mixing, transgressive and transcultured throughout our history. But The White Mosque makes that point poignant, brings it to the forefront cleverly and gently through personal memory, subjective experience, and beautiful prose.

For that reason alone The White Mosque is worth reading.

“Children of God” (25:17)

In the Summer of 2013 I did an anthropology pilot study that resulted in the making of “Children of God”, an ethnographic, observational film about a non-denominational Christian church group in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Every year they go on a retreat, as a way to build fellowship and for members of the church to renew their faith.

Here’s my blurb from my Vimeo site: “For a few days every year, the congregation of the Praise Sanctuary Church retreats from the city of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to the nearby seaside resort town of Port Dickson. It is an event; its purposeful itinerary aims to foster fellowship amongst the church members and to allow each to individually convene with God. This short film is about their 2013 annual retreat and the way in which they experience being “God’s children”.”

And here’s the film. Again, comments and feedback are always welcome.