The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya is a must read. I actually want to shout that sentence out loud: PLEASE READ THIS BOOK. The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a memoir of genocide, survival, and learning to live again, reconciling life events and the trauma associated with them. I’m never going to be able to do this book the real justice that it deserves in this review, so I just want to preface it again with: please just read it.
Clemantine was 6 when the Rwandan genocide started in 1994, and her parents sent her and her 15 year older sister Claire to their grandparents as a way to keep them safe. When the murderers came knocking on their grandparents’ door the girls managed to get away, creeping through the fields, and then running, running, running for days. Those days became years. They made it out of Rwanda and into a refugee camp in Burundi, the first of several camps they would stay in in different African countries before finally making their way to the US as refugees. Claire always pushed on, fighting to create a home wherever they ended up, fighting for their survival, and for a better life. At times they would find themselves in more secure surroundings, in Zaire or South Africa for example, but the war in Zaire forced them back on the run again. These were children running from machete-wielding normal people driven by hatred and blood. Lives ruined by death, but lives also ruined by just having to survive every day, every hour, every minute. This is why I think that everyone needs to read narratives like Clemantine’s. If we don’t we will never really understand.
Today Clemantine is a storyteller, a public speaker, and a human rights advocate, and The Girl Who Smiled Beads was written with the help of Elizabeth Weil. The Girl Who Smiled Beads jumps seamlessly between different countries in Africa, before genocide Rwanda, during, in different refugee camps (in extremely dire conditions), living with Claire’s husband Rob’s family in Zaire, and then living in the US, spending her teenage years alone in an American family, while visiting her sister at the weekend.
There are so many areas in the narrative that stuck out for me, for example when Clemantine recounts being on Oprah, the whole story really left me feeling so uncomfortable. Reading about it from Clemantine’s perspective really struck a chord with me: grandiose American/Western gestures are strange, somewhat inappropriate, even when the initial thought is one of kindness. I think there is so much more education needed in this country on how easily genocide can occur, and how we can effectively help people, countries, in a much better way than has been done up until now. In The Girl Who Smiled Beads Clemantine actually clearly explains her problem with the term “genocide” and it makes so much sense: a dry term used to make the actual meaning more palatable to those who will never have to come anywhere near it. I also think that Clemantine vividly shows us a lot of important reflection on how we deal with trauma and the importance of letting others express their trauma and pain in ways that work for them.
I don’t know if one can ever heal from something as traumatic as genocide. I don’t think we can expect anyone to heal from it, move on, or even forgive, even if forgiveness seems to be a sign of “moving past it all”. I don’t understand why anyone would ever in their right minds ask a survivor if they feel guilty about surviving. And I don’t understand why we still refuse to learn about the causes of the hatred that drives the killing en masse of other people. We say never again. But it continues to happen right under our noses. How many of us really knew about Rwanda more than in passing before Hotel Rwanda was released?
Clemantine is so brave, and so honest, and I thank her for this memoir, and hope that it will be read and reread, and also read in schools, because it is a narrative that we all need to read, absorb, and talk about.
There is a very, very important lesson about sharing in this book that I have taken to heart and will be sharing with my own children. I think the idea that sharing, rather than giving, creates equality is so powerful.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads will be published by Crown Publishing/Penguin Random House on April 24, 2018. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy!