Book Buzz: The Girl Who Smiled Beads

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya

Growing up in a gray stucco ranch house in Kigali, Rwanda, Clementine Wamariya enjoyed the comfortable existence of a slightly spoiled youngest child in a middle-class family. In an early chapter of The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, a few chillingly concise pages describe through the eyes of her six-year-old self how this existence suddenly shattered.

First, her parents became tense and she noticed them whispering to each other. Then the water stopped working, houses were broken into, sounds like thunder boomed through their neighborhood, neighbors disappeared. Clementine and her older sister, Claire, were hurriedly sent to their grandmother’s farm in nearby Butare.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 had begun and it was only a matter of time before a knock on their grandmother’s door sent the girls running for their lives with only the clothes on their backs. Thus began a six-year journey through seven African countries, living in one refugee camp after another; threatened, abused and engaged in a daily battle of survival.

This journey ended in 2000 when the United States granted Clementine and Claire refugee status, landing them in Chicago. In a terrible irony, the airline lost their shared suitcase containing all their earthly possessions, leaving them once again with nothing. Through a church connection, a family took Clementine in as their own, enrolled her in a private school, and gave her the experience of a life of privilege; ultimately, she attended Yale University and is now an in-demand humanitarian speaker and activist.

Wamariya probes the many disconnects in her life. Her experiences in Africa and the United States are vastly different and difficult to reconcile. The sisters spent many years completely cut off from their family in Rwanda, having no idea if their parents and brother survived the massacre. (Oprah orchestrated their awkward on-air reunion on a show that focused on refugees.) She experiences estrangement from her own past, all traces of which were lost when they fled Rwanda. Even her connection with her physical body is a struggle; its needs, the way its scars are a constant reminder of things she would rather forget.

Rather than graphically illustrating the violence and horror of the massacre, Wamariya talks about the day-by-day process of surviving “what comes after.” The ingenuity of her sister, Claire, creating income or bartering power with any small thing she has access to in the refugee camps. In the U.S., going to an almost all-white, upper-middle-class school, aware each day that no one in her life has any idea or even a reference point for the things she has endured. Trying to learn intimacy when her psyche developed around fear, mistrust and anger.

So much of Wamariya’s life was terrifying, and her memoir records the struggle of what to do with those memories. It is also life-affirming in that she uses every tool available to her to live and reclaim herself. “I’m telling this story to save myself,” she says through tears in an interview. And in the telling, she makes the human cost of war absolutely clear to all of us.

Lisa Gresham is the collection services manager for Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 27, 2018.)