I don’t always look too closely when I add books to my library hold list. Until I downloaded it and finally read the description, I assumed, based on the title, that The Girl Who Smiled Beads would be a novel. It’s a very novel-y title. I was very wrong.
This book is the memoir of a young woman, only a year younger than me, who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the years of displacement and brutality that followed.
Clemantine Wamariya (originally Uwamariya) was six years old when the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down and in 100 days nearly 1 million people were massacred in a country the size of Maryland. She and her fifteen-year-old sister Claire were sent almost immediately to live with their grandmother in a smaller town outside Kigali, and that was the beginning of a series of harrowing moves, escapes, and resettlement that would span nearly a decade, taking the two to cities and refugee camps in Burundi, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Zambia, Mozambique, and South Africa before they finally landed in Chicago.
Only half of her book is about that journey, though. The other half focuses on her life since arriving in the United States and how those seven years have affected her every day since. Her life changed radically in Chicago. She was taken in by a wealthy white couple in the suburbs who genuinely cared for her – her sister had kept her alive all those years, but that was a whole generation of children for whom affection was an energy that could not be spared. The Thomas’s sent her to school, focused on her education and the care she needed and while the survival skills she had instilled in herself pushed her through, she always felt a significant disconnect between herself and the world and the self the world expected her to be. Wamariya speaks of tragedy and trauma from a place that most of her readers are fortunate enough to never know. I don’t know if the vocabulary exists to communicate to us lucky ones what she experienced. She speaks very rightly of our inability as a species to comprehend the scales of human tragedy and the truths of human cruelty – and of her own inability to explain it to us.
I won’t call this one of my favorite books of the year, but I will call it one of my most highly recommended.
Bingo Square: Underrepresented