Eleanor reviews 'Blue sweater' by Jacqueline Novogratz
I read The Blue Sweater (2009) by Jacqueline Novogratz somewhere during the depths of lockdown in 2020. I was approaching year 13 at the time and feeling a crushing sense of urgency about picking university choices and deciding on my future.
Unsurprisingly, it felt like a big task – the daily COVID briefings depicted an increasingly miserable national scene, my exams had been cancelled and it was hard not to feel a bit hopeless. But I’d also gained more time. I no longer had to get up at half six every morning for school (uni me could never) and socialising was completely off the cards. My workload had decreased significantly and, besides listening to podcasts on my hour-long daily walk (thanks Boris), I needed something to fill my time.
I turned to reading, a hobby which I’d treated as a competitive sport at primary school. I read books in the bath after a long day of fighting boredom, read long into the night and explored my new love of non-fiction. This not only helped me to expand my geography knowledge – which seemed so pressing at the time – but felt comforting too. Amongst a brief easing of restrictions, I found The Blue Sweater in a charity shop. It looked like the kind of thing I would enjoy and its mix of the personal, with the professional world of NGOs, proved ideal.
The book’s title comes from Novogratz’s wardrobe – the story goes that she was mocked for the sweater and donated it to charity, only to stumble across it again during her consultancy work in Rwanda. A little boy was wearing it this time, and her name remained scratched into the tag. As charming as this story is, for me it was the tales of Rwandan women that Novogratz shares that are most interesting. She follows four women whom her new bank – Duterimbere – helped to support through a loan for their bakery. But, come 1994, these women were trapped in Rwanda during its 100 days of genocide, with each of their experiences reflecting the contradictions and complexities of women’s roles in conflict. I am conscious of being reductive in this summary, and don’t wish to spoil it, but the horrors experienced – and, at times, perpetuated – by Prudence, Agnes, Liliane and Honorata during the mass murder of Tutsis, moderate Hutus and Twa are deeply troubling.
Whilst this enhanced my desire to promote women’s rights – indeed, I’m writing my dissertation on Afghan women’s experiences of resettlement and migration – certain elements of the book have stayed with me. “Religion had played such a tragic, disappointing role”, Novogratz writes after her return to Nyamirambo after the genocide. Churches had become killing fields. If people survived the genocide, they may well have been taken by AIDs. Despite this sorrow, “God was everywhere in Honorata’s life”. Instead of rejecting faith as many disillusioned Rwandans had done, Honorata thanked him constantly for preserving her life.
Many of the women from the bakery had died, betrayed by nuns, priests, and their own neighbours. Honorata herself had come close to death when soldiers stormed her home, only to find herself overcome by the Holy Spirit. She managed to hide under a pile of dead bodies, her sister Anunziata not so fortunate – Honorata prayed with her in her dying moments, cradling her body. She later escaped, moving from one refugee camp to another with her teenage daughters, traumatised, and vowing never to return to their home country. Novogratz writes of Honorata: “If I asked her where she got her strength, I knew she would attribute it only to God”. I cried at this woman’s strength, at how she had lost her community and was now separated from her children, albeit to deliver them an education abroad. I thought of how easy it seemed, in comparison, for me to put my faith totally in the Lord.
So, although I think Novogratz’s style of writing isn’t flawless, and her arguments steer dangerously close to paternalism, immense hope can be found in her stories. Ostensibly a book about business, The Blue Sweater proves that, even where there is utter devastation, faith can prosper.
It’s a stark reminder to us all to keep our personal situations, as Oxford students, in context, and to broaden our prayers and thoughts to those overseas.
Eleanor is in her second year at Mansfield College