Mary of Kivu

by Gary Barker

Gary Barker’s new novel, Mary of Kivu, takes place mainly on the shores of Lake Kivu, near the Rwandan-Congolese border where amidst the ongoing conflicts and horrendous sexual violence against women, there are reports of a local woman performing miracles. Every day, hundreds of people from nearby villages line up outside the home of Mary of Kivu hoping to be cured. The Vatican sends someone to investigate, as do international women’s rights NGOs. Mary shares her story with no one—until she meets Keith Masterson, an American journalist looking to add color to his dispatches on the region’s wars. Against all odds, Mary interrupts her daily healings to tell Keith the beginning of her story. The novel weaves together the interviews with Keith’s own troubled past. What follows is an excerpt from the novel, published in the Summer of 2016 by World Editions in the UK.



[Note to reader: I have rendered Mary’s account as translated to me from Swahili with minimal editing.]

I will start at the beginning so you know it all, so you know my story.

You know Kivu, eh? You will know what I mean then.

The nights there, they are soft. There may be the creaking of bugs, maybe music in the background if someone is having a party, or maybe it is coming from a bar.

And there is always a breeze. We have lightning, but most of the time even our thunder is soft. Soft rumbles beyond the mountains.

We are lucky. Blessed. If not for the wars. If not for those men. If not for the hearts of men turned sour and angry and full of hate that they do not even understand. Men following the orders of other men. Lost men. Very lost men.

If not for them, Kivu is where God would come to rest.

I was raised here—a sister, a daughter, a schoolgirl, a wife, and now a mother. Three sisters like me. My father always said he was blessed to have four daughters, a marvelous one, a fantastic one, a wonderful one, and a beautiful one. I am the one he called beautiful. Many fathers were not happy to have daughters but my father was.

I dreamed from when I was a little girl of a man who would protect me, love me. Because a girl loved by her father will only have a man who loves her so.

I adored my school uniform. I was so proud of it—that pink blouse and the skirt. I would wash it and iron it a second time if my mother or the housegirl didn’t do a good job. And I studied. I was so serious.

The older women told us how to stretch ourselves.

[The translator stopped for a moment when Mary started to tell this part. I could tell there was something about it that bothered her.]

How to stretch our vaginas and showed us which plants to rub there so it wouldn’t hurt. This would give our husbands more pleasure, they told us. We had heard from the other girls that it would make us more sensitive too, give us pleasure.

[Mary smiled as she said this and looked away from me in shyness.]

Although it didn’t seem to me that you needed to do much more to that part to make it more sensitive.

School was the most important thing to me. I would stay awake worried sick the night before a test. I would cry if I did not get the best marks.

“Mary, Mary, she only studies. So serious. When you gonna smile, Mary? When you gonna come out and play, Mary? So much more to life than your books, Miss Mary the schoolgirl.”

That’s what they said to me. The boys and the men. My father would chase them away like you might a stray dog. He didn’t take them seriously. Or maybe he did. Shoo, shoo, he said to them. And then he said to me: Come inside, Mary.

It was a teacher at school. Miss Unygire. She introduced me to poetry. And it was all I wanted to read. Do you like poetry? We had classes in English and in French.

And you must know about my dear Joseph.

He was from a nearby village, closer to the city by the lake. He went to the boys’ school that was across the way from ours, from the girls’ school.

I had seen him as a little boy because we went to the same church. I thought of him as a small, small boy. He was quiet and had a proud face. But he was a small, small boy who liked to read like me. I wondered if he had the same strong thoughts I had about what I read. But he was too small, too frail for me to take him seriously, eh. He could not be the one I was waiting for, the one I was stretching myself for, the one I would give pleasure and who would give pleasure to me.

Then one day, just like that, from one day to the next it seemed, he was all filled out. This book boy, a small boy like me who kept to himself, had become a strong young man. His arms, they did shine. I remember looking at the way he bent his arms and watching that muscle move, on the back of his arm. This was a new kind of poetry to me.

[As she said this M. laughed the same free-spirited laugh as that woman in the wheelchair, and looked momentarily at the floor.]

I sat under the tree between our two schools. It was the yard where we played. I sat under that tree hoping he would see me; that he would look at me. But he looked right through me. He did not see me. I looked at myself and thought it must be the same for him. I was a small, small girl with nothing to attract him. No breasts, no hips, nothing to show the outside world, to show him, that I was becoming a woman.

I could not make him look into my eyes. I thought if he saw them, if he truly saw them, he would see how I felt and he would know me and he would feel like I did.

So I would sit under that tree, reading my poetry and stories and studying. When other boys tried to talk to me, I would ignore them. They did not exist, just as I did not exist for Joseph.

The boys’ school only went up to year eight, so Joseph and the boys who stayed in school, whose parents could keep them in school, had to go away to the city by the lake for secondary school. So Joseph stopped coming every day. I would see him sometimes in church, but always from far away. And then he stopped coming to church.

I imagined that he was with a girl—no, with a woman. I imagined that she had big hips and large breasts and the straightest hair or maybe she had beautiful braids and beautiful clothes and that she came from the city. I imagined that she had stretched herself well and would be very desirable for a man.

I imagined that he was walking with her along the lake, that he was taking her on a boat ride. That he hired a fisherman to take them across the lake to one of the islands. And I imagined that he was taking this girl to sit on the shore of the island and look at the sky, and that he was telling her how beautiful she was.

Eh, the silly things in girls’ heads.

“My silly Mary,” he told me later when I told him this. “I was walking with the cows and I was not reading poetry to anyone. Not even to myself. I was reading for mathematics.”

My dear Joseph studied and studied. His family was working to save money so they could send him to the university. He passed his entrance exams and his family and other families in the church put together the money to send him there. My family was not close to his so we didn’t help, but we knew some who did.

A boy from a nearby village going to university! This was reason for celebration.

But I was not part of the celebration. I was just the little girl with no breasts and no hips sitting under the tree reading her books and dreaming of a man who would take her on a boat to see the islands in Lake Kivu.

That was when we began to hear the stories. There had always been stories. About the lost men. The men who would drink their magic drinks to keep the bullets away, men who they said could see in the dark. Men who had a magic potion that made bullets turn into water when they hit their bodies. Men who could come at any time and attack those who didn’t help them, or who might attack even if you did help them. Men who did horrible things to women and girls, who took girls away to be their bush wives. But it always seemed so far away from us, so many mountains away, so many lakes and volcanoes away.

Now the stories were coming from closer. Then there were stories of the men, eh, the boys too, who had formed new armies that would attack anyone who was not from their group. We heard of things in villages nearby. Now it was only one mountain away. My parents would tell of these things in quiet voices in their bedroom when they thought we could not hear them, just as they thought we did not hear them when they made love.

I remember I heard my father say that he was glad that he did not have any sons, because these men, or the government soldiers, would come and take away his sons and turn them into killers.

These stories frightened me. I read more and more, read from my books about places far away, books that told stories that had nothing to do with the fighting and killing that was now just a village away. And when I was scared for our village, I would keep myself calm by thinking that it was good that Joseph would be going away to university in Uganda.

I believed that his books and all his studying would keep him safe. That would be his shield.

But at university, I thought, he would also be away from me. He would not see me turn into a woman.

And you know what happened? I was reading poetry and stories every day after school, every book I could find. I thought every book, every poem was written just for me, about me. I was amazed at these feelings put into words that these writers and poets wrote.

And then one day I felt the blood, the monthly blood. An auntie had told me about it. I knew something about it. But I was convinced at first that it was the poetry that brought it on. I like to think that poetry made me become a woman, eh. I like that thought.

I was happy when that happened. It meant that I was becoming a woman. I thought I could get my Joseph’s attention.

I could not stop worrying about what would happen when he left. Away at university, he would be around all those other girls, those city girls. They knew things we did not. They did things we did not. They were not like us respectable girls from Kivu—us plain, respectable girls. I was sure that once he left our village and met those girls, he would never come back. And he would never be mine.


Gary Barker is author of the novels Luisa’s Last Words and The Afghan Vampires Book Club (with Michael Kaufman), and the non-fiction work Dying to Be Men: Youth, Masculinity and Social Exclusion. He is founder of Promundo, an international organization that works to prevent violence, and cofounder of the global MenEngage Alliance. More information about the book can be found at He can be reached at