“Cattle Praise Song”
by Scholastique Mukasonga
translated from the French by Melanie Mauthner
from the November 12, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

I first heard of Scholastique Mukasonga a few years ago when Archipelago Books published Melanie Mauthier’s translation of Mukasonga’s debut novel from 2012, Our Lady of the Nile. I thought that was a very good book, and I really liked her 2006 memoir Cockroaches, which came out in English in 2016. Another memoir (prior to her debut novel, Mukasonga published three memoirs; her story, though she left Rwanda prior to the genocide, is tragic), The Barefoot Woman, originally published in 2008, is coming out in English next month. Since her debut, Mukasonga has published a collection of short stories (I’m assuming, but don’t yet know, that “Cattle Praise Song” is from it) and another novel. I’m glad to see she’ll get some attention this week in the pages of The New Yorker. While her sentence-by-sentence style is not always appealing, her work is powerful.

Here is how “Cattle Praise Song” begins:

I was seven years old and puffed up with pride; I was my father’s little cattle herder. Every morning, when my father left the big hut, I woke with a start, reproaching myself bitterly for sleeping so soundly when I should have been up before him, like my older brothers, to tend to the cows in the kraal. I was convinced that my father never slept, that he was always on the alert. He would never let himself be caught out by cattle rustlers. Stealing cows was a serious sport in Rwanda. People feared these bandits and also admired them. They were very cunning. They had medicines that would put all the inhabitants of a kraal to sleep. The rustlers would make an opening in the fence, and the cows, under their spell, would follow them through it without a moo. The thieves left no trace: they were powerful sorcerers. They knew the secret paths that led through the swamps to Burundi, where they sold the stolen cows and bought new ones. In Rwanda, some herds grew bigger quickly, but you couldn’t ask questions—it was too dangerous.

I hope you all feel welcome to share your thoughts below and discuss the story!

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By |2018-11-05T14:43:03-04:00November 5th, 2018|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Scholastique Mukasonga|Tags: |7 Comments


  1. David November 6, 2018 at 10:46 am

    This story was a pleasant read, but not much more than that. It is presented mostly as a childhood reminiscence of the narrator. She describes what it was like for her growing up and that’s about it. We are not introduced to any remarkable characters and nothing really happens at all. When she was a child everyone had cows. They loved their cows. As an adult, she misses those cow-filled days of youth. And that’s about it. This would have been very nice as the opening chapter in a novel where, in subsequent chapters, we find out more about the people we are introduced to and where something of some significance might happen. But as it is, it is a fairly unambitious story that succeeds in doing what it sets out to accomplish. Nice enough, bit nothing really special.

  2. William November 8, 2018 at 10:26 pm

    David —

    You made two errors in your comment — one small and one big.

    Your small error — you referred to the narrator as “she”. Yes the author is a woman. But it is clear from the context of the story that caring for cows in that society was a male’s job. So this is a case of a woman writing in the persona of a male.

    Your major error was to say that this story is nothing special. Au contraire. What Mukasonga has done is to portray the impact of the genocide through its effect on the Tutsi’s lifestyle as cattle keepers and the psychic damage of their loss of this role. Mukasonga describes in lovely detail how important taking care of the cattle was to them. What devastation to lose this way of life! The narrator’s father has become delusional. No description of killing, but rather the aftermath. She skips from before to after, without narrating the “during”. Very creative, and very subtle. Not surprising that you missed it.

  3. David November 9, 2018 at 9:47 am

    You’re right about the first error. I had initially thought the narrator was male, then realized there had been no clear indication of gender, then thought that there was a reference that indicated the narrator was female, then realized it didn’t really matter to the story, so stopped worrying about it. I guess in my mind I just went with female after that.
    But about the second “error”, you seem to equate disagreement about the story with making a mistake. I am well aware of the way Mukasonga describes the love for the cows and the importance of the cows and how much they missed not having the cows when they were relocated, but where you see subtle significance I see (at best) nothing more than what I described or (at worst) a trivialization of the genocide by reducing it to being bad because they loved having cows and missed them when they no longer had them. The story is told mostly from a child’s point of view, but even the narrator telling the story is actually an adult when telling it.
    I am reminded of the early Seinfeld episode where Jerry gets in trouble at a dinner party for saying he hates ponies and hates kids who have ponies only to be confronted by the old immigrant woman who angrily declares that she had a pony when she was a child and everyone she knew had a pony. The story also reminds me of all those stories about kids who have beloved pet dogs and are sad when the dog dies. Here the cows are more important to them than that, but the story seems to talk more about how lacking cows made them unhappy rather than really talking about how it was a hardship.
    You are right that Mukasonga skips over the “during”, but she also skips over the more significant consequences of the “during” as well, or merely mentions them almost as an afterthought. In fact, the narrator’s family escapes the 1962 genocide without any loss at all (other than cows – no human loss). It is only mentioned very casually at the end that the narrator’s whole family was killed in the genocide decades later. But leaving out any focus on anything of real consequence only leaves the background. Even without the genocides, the first half of the story would be unchanged. And if the cows were lost for any other sort of reason (disease, drought, rustlers, etc) the second half would also not be any different. There is nothing here of any significance about the genocide. In fact, Mukasongo seem to explicitly not want the story to be about that. The result is that it becomes, similar to what many have said about Seinfeld, a story about nothing. It’s pleasant enough, but nothing more significant than that.

  4. William November 9, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    Dsvid —

    First I want to apologize for the snarky last sentences in my commentary. Totally unjustified. You’re a perceptive reader.

    However, I still disagree with your take on this story. The first part sets up how important cows are to the people. Not just for their livelihood, but for their whole way of life. All the rituals with which they surround the taking care of the cattle and drinking the milk. Then, suddenly, it is all taken away. They are adrift, converted from herders to farmers, forced to take care of plants. Not only is their livelihood and sense of independence taken away, but their pride and honor. I can’t believe you say that this is of little significance. Look what it does to the father — he wanders around in a fantasy of cows, unable to fully accept what has happened. Comparing the loss of the people’s cattle to the loss of a pet pony is absurd.

    Scholastique is saying — Yes a million people died. But those who lived also suffered. It is as though we would say to an Afghanistan vet with PTSD or whose leg was blown off by an IED — “Hey, you’re still alive. Your injury is of little significance.”

  5. David November 9, 2018 at 5:26 pm

    William, I think there could have been a good story written about the tragedy of the loss of displaced people during the genocide; I just don’t think this story was it. If I told you that a man whose family has been farming for generations has had to leave the farm and now works in a hardware store, you might feel sorry for him and understand why he’s not happy, but it’s not something that rises to the level of PTSD or losing a limb. In this story Mukasonga does not say anything that indicates that the displaced family is materially any worse off than they were before; they merely have to do different things to provide for themselves. The mother is mostly in the background, but she seems to be just getting on fine with her bananas. The people who use the gourds to collect water seem to be getting on fine as well. The boy goes to school, so they cannot be desperate for his labour. It is only the father who cannot accept the change. Sad for him, but not a tragedy by any stretch of the imagination.
    Mukasongo actually (perhaps unintentionally) undercuts some of the sympathy I might have felt for the father when she includes the comments about how they looked down on the man who herded goats. Goats! What a loser! Only people who herd cows are worth admiring! The arrogance the father has about his work goes beyond mere pride in working hard and taking care of his family. If that were what he most cared about then he would not be so broken by not having cows. It’s his own prejudice that contributes to his suffering, a suffering no one else seems to endure. The father seems a lot like the woman who loved her pony. Or the boy in every “my dog died” movie. More like that than someone who lost a limb or has PTSD, anyway.

  6. William November 9, 2018 at 6:37 pm

    David —

    It seems we are just going to have to part ways on this one.

  7. Ken November 11, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    I found this to be reportage and didn’t find the subject matter itself interesting and since there was, up to the point I stopped, almost no character development, interesting ideas, or story, I stopped. If, in contrast, this subject matter is of interest to a reader, then the story would probably be engaging but it seems, to me, to fail as fiction or literature.

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