Madame Euphrasie: A Lady of the Ruanda



Editor’s Note: This portrait of an African chatelaine is, in miniature, a portrait of a society in transition: that of the lordly Batutsi of Ruanda, a Belgian Trust Territory on the eastern border of the Congo. The tall Watusi of the film, King Solomon’s Mines, are Mme. Gevers’s Batutsi.

HER baptismal name? Let us call her Euphrasic, which is popular among the Batutsi. Her native name means “ Beautiful-Cow-Of-The-Plain,”and it is borne out by the lady’s great beauty. Aged about forty, she is six feet three inches tall and strong in proportion, a sign of her high breeding. Her nose is straight and thin, her mouth well shaped, her teeth superb. Being myopic, she wears goldframed spectacles which fail to conceal her beautiful eyes. We would call her “gazelle-eyed" at home; here, naturally, they say “cow-eyed.”Her legs, long and exquisite, easily support what we would call her calli pygia; common among the ladies of her race, it is considered a mark of beauty. Her long supple neck carries a rather small head, whose high brow is set off by an Egyptian coiffure. Seated in one of Monsieur O.’s deep armchairs — he had let me know of her visit —she gracefully smokes a cigarette. Her host offered her a whisky and soda, which she now prefers to the hydromel and pombe, or banana beer, of her childhood. Her costume is most elegant, draped so as to enhance her statuesque beauty. Over a salmon-pink blouse of crepe-deChine with a low round neck, the lady has knotted a pagne, a sort of long wrap-around skirt, of fine cotton printed with large black flowers. A classic peplum, a shawl-like upper garment, of white crepede-Chine, falls in graceful folds, moving at the slightest gesture.

This beautiful creature’s walk befits her high descent. She has the gait of an Inyambo heifer which is characterized by a laborious waddle caused by the weight of the animal’s immense horns: among the women, it is produced by heavy legrings, piled from ankle to knee. She no longer wears the rings, but her gait remains bovine. The Batutsi lords deride the walk of European women as absurdly masculine and bouncy.

Monsieur O., who speaks fluent Kinyaruanda, has agreed to translate my questions to this oncefcudal lady.

“Madame, tell me how you spend your days, and what your occupations are.”

Monsieur O., as he translates, gives me a malicious wink; he foresees her embarrassment. She does, in fact, look like someone on the witness stand. But at last she says that in the morning she sets her house in order: “It is not a hut, but a brick dwelling. . . .”

“And then, Madame Euphrasie?”

Monsieur O. manages to elicit the statement that she busies herself with fine basketry, with her serving-women. And she plays at archery with the children; and she leaches them, by word of mouth, songs and poems.

We talk of cooking. Madame Euphrasic prefers potatoes, especially fried, as the Belgians like them, to the yams of earlier days. She steams her meat; her mother never touched it. She has taken up the three European meals. She drinks tea. Coflee, she does not fancy . . . nor the movies. The pictures go too fast; it is very difficult to understand.

Madame Euphrasie is accompanied by a young follower, very pretty, self-effacing, like a maid of honor. She too smokes cigarettes and drinks whisky. The young girl wears black and white stripes, with a red peplum over her white blouse. Both have, naturally, renounced the ancestral custom of spitting on the floor. Their bearing has great distinction. The lady politely invites me to call on her at home, in her brick dwelling, when I am in the neighborhood of her Hill.

When they have taken their leave. Monsieur O. gives me a sly smile: “All she told you: the basketry, the archery, the poems . . . don’t, count on it. It’s half dreamed, half spoken, because it seemed good to say. You’ll see when you go there.”


MY CHANCE comes soon to call on this great lady of the Batutsi. A high official, Monsieur D., will provide me with an interpreter. He proves to be a young man of family, very “evolved,”connected with all the aristocracy.

We soon turn onto a path trodden at random through the banana plantations and cultivated fields. Beyond these, we come to a clearing, with a superb view of the hills, all the way to the volcanos near the Uganda border. We can see two of the Birunga—Karissimbi, the “white shell,”and Sabinio, “Grandfather’s teeth,” so called because of its crenelated summit.

We arrive at Madame Euphrasie’s home, a square pavilion of coarse brick, roofed with heavy tile. My guide raps on the door, and a porter appears, an old man in calico rags. He says that Madame is out walking, but nearby. He sends out a messenger, and we walk to meet Madame Euphrasie, along a path which slopes sharply down.

The chatelaine climbs toward us, surrounded by her women. The pretty follower is not present, only two sluttish little maidservants; but the lady, taller by two heads than they, is well turned out, though not with the elegance of her calling-costume. Heavy necklaces; a peplum of hieratic purple, faultlessly draped; a white blouse, a pagne of black and white.

She recognizes me. The interpreter reminds her that she invited me to call. She regrets not having been notified. We go toward the house. She shows us into a minuscule hall, lit by its one door, and furnished only by a dusty wooden chest. If Madame Euphrasie spends her mornings tidying the house, as she said, then today she has forgotten the vestibule.

She evidently prefers that we go no farther, and repeats, “If only she had been notified. . . .”

She gladly permits herself to be photographed, in full face, in profile, and against the vast horizon. And then, “as on every day,”she gives orders to her overseer.

“Are you talking to him about your herds, Madame?”

She replies that her herds are at present in some distant hills.

“And the serving-maids whom you instruct in basketry?”

“Oh . . . they are away . . . there is only one here.”

A flustered young girl is singled out from the gawking crowd of serfs; the lady hands her a little basket, which she has caused to be brought, and then explains this and that, resting her hand on the delicate woven straw.

“But the great woven panels that you told me about ?”

“There are none at present.”

“And the bows and arrows? And the children?”

“The children? They are not here.”

“And the songs you teach them? Could I hear them ?”

“The woman who knows them is away.”

My patrician interpreter is impassive as he transmits these questions and answers.

Remembering Monsieur O.’s smile, I understood.

Madame Euphrasie had described to me a day in the life of her mother, a feudal chatelaine. Madame Beautiful-Cow-Of-The-Plain now calls herself Euphrasie, drinks whisky and smokes cigarettes; but Madame Euphrasie is half ruined, and unadapted to these times. Her cows, which is to say her fortune, are stolen in the distant hills they graze; and she no longer manages to obtain abagaragu, or vassalage. Her old serfs no longer keep faith with their contract: two months’ work in the chatelaine’s fields in exchange for the use of two cows.

Madame Euphrasie has lost the power to order a thief impaled, to blind those who displease her, to cut off the hands of the disobedient. She is obliged to sell cattle in order to meet her living expenses and her desire for new things: gold spectacles, or that gold watch. She is like a nobleman of long ago, selling away, one by one, his farms and fields. Of her former splendor, these only remain to the lady: the distinction of her bearing, a taste for fine clothes and authority, a little land, this small and unkempt dwelling, and a splendid tree, on which I compliment her. “It was planted,”she says, “by my grandfather.”

She is a widow. Most of the great chiefs, her contemporaries, have managed to adapt themselves. They become chiefs of Hills; they own plantations, and great herds which they supervise from nearby; they visit their domains, drive their own gleaming cars, and frequently perform important administrative functions.

Madame Beautiful-Cow-Of-The-Plain is unhappy. She misses the old days. It is inconceivable to her that a cattle-thief should get off with a couple of years’ penal servitude.

Translated by E. S. Yntema