From the Book Club: Notes on "The Barefoot Woman"

Image by Carson Ellis for  The New       Yorker,  from Mukasonga's  “Cattle Praise Song”

Image by Carson Ellis for The New Yorker, from Mukasonga's “Cattle Praise Song”

A little backstory: we decided to encourage ourselves to seek a more comprehensive and immersive understanding of the peoples, cultures, and histories behind coffee. So we’re reading books together, which is one of the best ways we know to begin to imagine what a culture outside of ours is like.

We have also been inspired in no small way by this talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It tells about the danger of portraying a person, a people, a group, a culture in only one way. It will continue to inform our discussions during our meetings. The news, media, and general societal mind-views do so much to influence how we frame others, whether they are within or outside our own community groups. There is a danger to aligning ourselves to that easy “othering” without question. The people on the other side of the world, like us, have a multitude of selves within them.

With this book club, we are choosing to encourage each other to shift our habits, and learn as many stories as possible about the people from whom we are choosing to purchase coffee.

Notes on The Barefoot Woman

The first chapter is like a prequel to the movie! It sets you up and lets you feel the weight of the book in your hand. It's like a worry rock, or a smooth stone that fits in your hand. It made some of us cry! But the heavy hand of death doesn't stay for the whole book. The cadence and poetry of the book gives us space to breathe. 

On survival of culture: responsibility to each other seems to be the family culture. Her family is her culture, it's where she's from. The household is where that culture exists. This is often turned on its head as a relic of what was lost: the character who took great pride in her 4 sons became overcome with the burden of keeping them safe. And parental love here defines intimacy and defies cultural boundaries. Scholastique’s mother works very hard to make sure her children still have a sense of their culture and traditions despite their physical/geographical boundaries due to their relocation.

On the sacred space of the home: the private, controlled, and protected space is something they guard closely. The issue with their discomfort at having the front door open could also be an indicator that they are all too aware of the crack in this protective shell around their family. It's too foreign, too open, too much of even their mouths on display. Scholastique’s book is like Stefania building her own house. Keeping the memory of her mother alive is like the woman's responsibility to keep the fire in the home alive throughout the night. 

On story-telling: it's an act of defiance and rebellion for Scholastique to write into permanence the artifacts of her culture. This "inferior" culture that was projected on them is paralyzed and overwritten by this story and rendered useless and impalpable. Scholastique weaves humor in the way she describes her childhood; a woman’s sense of humor runs throughout the book.

On the danger of a single story: taking back their dignity is another striking feature. Just like her mother's pagne, this story weaves itself around the dead. The danger of a single story! Chimamanda was right -- the danger is in taking away the dignity of a group of people, and the Tutsi people knew this. The danger of a single story: it's narrow-minded, it's limiting. Telling more stories and characteristics of a group of people is another act of defiance to fight the history imposed on them. 

On coffee: the Hinga Kawa women, and many other women in Rwanda, make poverty and ignorance their mutual enemy. 

On the ideals of beauty: the Rwandan woman's body must look strong but also at the same time must not betray any signs of work. What pressure! There seems to be a cross-cultural sense of pressure on a woman to always have it together, show signs of strength, but not look like the stress of the work at hand has affected her physically. This is comparable to Western Culture! And women are always the mirror to each other, same as her.