In 1994, when Clemantine Wamariya was 6 years old, she and her 15-year-old sister Claire had to leave their family in Kigali, Rwanda, due to the “conflict.” The two girls spent the next 6 years as refugees, traveling through 7 African countries, having to learn new languages and find the means to survive, not knowing whether their parents and younger siblings were alive. In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine Wamariya tries to come to terms not only with the upheaval and trauma of her childhood as a refugee but also with the new life she has in the United States. Wamariya’s beautiful way with words does not blunt the force of what she has to say; rather it brings to the fore her struggle with her anger over what has happened to her, her family and all who suffered, and her desire to be seen and valued.
Clemantine Wamariya came from a well-to-do family in Kigali, Rwanda. Her father had been a successful businessman, the proprietor of a car service, and her mother, a devout Catholic, helped older neighbors and mentored country girls who came to the city for work. Clemantine’s nanny, Mukamana, used to tell her wonderful stories (including the story of the girl who smiled beads, which you can hear Clemantine tell here ), frequently stopping to ask the young girl, “what do you think happened next?” and using her answers to move the story forward. Clemantine had started kindergarten when violence began to encroach on their life. Mukamana left, and Clemantine’s parents decided to send her and older sister Claire to their grandmother’s farm in the country. Yet the violence reached them there as well, with Claire and Clemantine running into the night and joining the thousands of refugees fleeing genocide in Rwanda. Over the next seven years, Claire and Clemantine moved from camp to camp in places like Burundi, Zaire, Mozambique and South Africa. They endured hunger, illness and constant danger, and had to learn quickly how to adapt to new surroundings in order to survive. I really don’t think it’s possible to describe here the traumatization that occurred to Clemantine during these years when she was 6-12 years old. She writes that it is due to her sister Claire (to whom she dedicates this book, along with Mukamana) that she survived. Claire, despite her youth, had a knack for marketing herself and her business savvy in whatever camp they found themselves. Claire knew how to read people and she knew how to hustle items on the markets, working for commissions that allowed her and Clemantine (and later Claire’s husband and small children) to move on. Claire understood that they needed to keep moving, not get comfortable in refugee camps. This was difficult for Clemantine, who craved order and resented having to give up the few comforts they might have found. Clemantine also found herself in charge of Claire’s babies during the day though she herself was but a child. Clemantine describes herself as being tired, feeling unappreciated, and old beyond her years at this time in her life. Moreover, the sisters still had no idea what had happened to their parents and siblings. Eventually Claire was able to find a way to move herself, her spouse, their two children and Clemantine to Chicago.
One might assume that moving to the states marked a great change for the better in Clemantine’s life, a “happy ending,” but while she was no longer living in a war zone or constantly moving, her life was anything but settled. This book is set up in such a way that Wamariya and Weil alternate chapters on life as a refugee with chapters on life in Chicago, and the reader gathers very quickly that Clemantine is suffering from what I think could be called PTSD. The prologue to the book tells of Clemantine and Claire’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2006. The show featured Elie Wiesel and students who had written essays about the impact of his book “Night” on them. Little did Clemantine and Claire know that this show was also going to be where they were reunited with their parents and siblings after 12 years. The sisters knew that their family had survived the war and they had spoken with them by phone, but they had not seen them until Oprah surprised them on TV. It is a beautiful moment to see this family reunited, but what Clemantine reveals in her book is that it was also a shock. After the taping, it was an awkward situation for the family when, after more than a decade of separation, after the horrors of war and genocide, they had to try to speak to each other. How does one talk about all that happened? Clemantine writes that she had dreamed of this day, of all she would tell her mother, but none of them were able to speak of that past. It is this inability to do that, to make sense of what happened, to explain oneself and to tell the story of what happened next that dominates Clemantine’s narrative in the US.
On the surface, it might appear that Clemantine was living the American dream. She lived with an affluent white family and attended private school, she had food and clothing, was active in school and eventually attended Yale. And she is grateful for this and for the many kind people who helped her and Claire. Clemantine explains, however, that there was much more going on than was evident on the surface. One of the skills Clemantine picked up as a refugee was how to observe people and figure out what you needed to be for them in order to survive. Clemantine became a cheerleader at school and acted the part of American teenager as best she could, even though it was a poor fit.
I could not be like them, languid and carefree. I had no feel for the concept of physical ease, not in any language. I raged with envy and anger and often confused the two.
After Oprah, Clemantine became an attractive spokesperson for refugee-related organizations, and she was often invited to speak about her experiences. She did this, she even says that she was “complicit” in this activity, but inside, she was angry and overwhelmed.
My life …felt like a tar pit. I felt like I was disappearing, being consumed. My story was just so interesting — so foreign, so exotic. It was The Jungle Book.
Throughout the book, Wamariya refers to the history of Rwanda, the colonization and post-colonial machinations of western powers that fed into the genocide. At public appearances, when she talks about her childhood, she thinks to herself that audiences don’t understand that what happened to her happened to thousands upon thousands of people, that it has happened throughout history and will happen again. Her anger is palpable as she writes of taking a philosophy class in which students are asked to do presentations on moral/ethical issues such as whether or not to intervene in a “Black Hawk Down” situation. She yells at them that she has lived this, it’s not just an intellectual exercise for her. Her reflections on 9/11 and a visit to the Vietnam War memorial in Washington are also eye-opening. She admits to being jealous that victims were named and known, unlike Rwanda.
At the end of the book, Clemantine writes about visiting Rwanda again and about wanting to talk with Claire and with her mother about the past. Claire and her mother have found ways to cope with the past without talking about it. Clemantine, however, cannot do as they do.
All the things that we do not say create not just space but a force field between us, a constant, energetic pressure. Two people in pain are magnets, repelling each other. We cannot or will not reach across the space to connect.
Clemantine writes that she wants to be seen by her family and the world, to be recognized and admired as one who has not been destroyed. She wants to be the girl who smiled beads, who has agency and power. Writing this book seems to be the way for Clemantine to finally define her narrative and own her story, to make us look and admire.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads is, like Mothers of Massive Resistance an important book to read because of what it shows us of our ignorance of and complicity in the pain and suffering of marginalized people. Given what our own government is doing ripping apart families right now, separating children from parents trying to cross the borders illegally, we should listen to what Clemantine Wamariya has to say and get more involved in making sure that “never again” is more than just words we say.