Review of The Girl Who Smiled Beads

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Rating

9

Qualities

  • Eloquent
  • Engaging
  • Insider's Take

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Review

Clemantine Wamariya was an inquisitive, rambunctious child who loved playing in the yard with her older brother and pestering her older sister Claire. Then one day, the schools closed, and her life changed forever. She and Claire were forced to flee as war, murder, betrayal and madness exploded around them. Writing with journalist Elizabeth Weil, Wamariya tells the story of the struggles she endured to survive the Rwandan genocide. She offers a deeply personal memoir about human nature amid the pressures of war, poverty and homelessness. Given the grimness of the tale, her often lyrical language and penetrating insights provide a surprisingly humane and generous narrative. Her deeply felt, articulate and singular saga will appeal to anyone who cares about the growing global refugee crisis, contemporary African history, immigration policies and the human determination to keep the soul alive in the midst of horror. Clemantine Wamariya gives refugee statistics an unforgettable human face and meaning.

The End of Childhood

Clemantine Wamariya begins her book with the writing contest she won in 2006  with an essay she based on Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical story Night. As a result, Oprah Winfrey’s staff invited her and her sister Claire to appear on Winfrey’s talk show. They were refugees of the Rwandan genocide, and Winfrey dramatically reunited them with their family on her show. They hadn’t been together since 1994, when the Rwandan civil war broke out.

Wamariya recounts growing up in Rwanda in a middle-class household. She played with her older brother Pudi and older sister, Claire, who was wise beyond her 14 years. Clemantine’s beloved nanny, Mukamana, spun stories that encouraged the child’s inquisitive mind. One day, Mukamana disappeared. Clemantine’s parents told her she could no longer play with her best friend. She stopped going to kindergarten or even going outside. The “conflict” had come to Rwanda. Clemantine was six.

Wamariya  writes about the night mother sent her and Claire to their grandparents’ home. They hid underground, she reports, while bombs and “thunder” rained outside. They crawled through a tunnel and fled. The two girls became refugees and traveled alone. Eventually, they reached Ngozi, a Red Cross refugee camp in Burundi. Aid workers gave them a bag they could fill once a month with beans and maize. They lived in a tent. Wamariya particularly remembers that insects tormented her and her sister – including lice and bugs that burrowed into her feet.  

Marriage and Refuge in Zaire

Claire got a job taking care of orphans. Clemantine did laundry and cooking. She says her older sister made her take care of an elderly couple in the camp; she came to love them, and they taught her how to forage in the woods. When Claire contracted dysentery, they helped nurse her. Rob, a 25-year-old CARE worker from Zaire, wanted to marry Claire. At 16, Claire knew she was too young, but Rob promised that she and Clemantine could live with his mother in Zaire and finish school, so Claire accepted his offer.

Wamariya describes the warm welcome Rob’s family gave the two sisters. His mother, Mama Nepele, enrolled Clemantine in school. The village had a robust secondhand clothing market where Claire sold purses. But when Claire became pregnant, she could not attend school as Rob had promised.

After a few months, Wamariya recounts, their respite ended. People who were fleeing from fighting elsewhere in Zaire overran their village. Soon the war cut off food supplies. Eventually public utilities shut down and schools closed. Rob arranged for Claire, their baby Mariette and Clemantine to travel to another village where his uncle was a pastor. The family was welcoming, but Clemantine felt she’d been tricked into complacency. She obsessed over caring for Mariette and keeping everything clean to avoid disease. Mama Nepele joined them, but soon electricity and water shut down there as well. Claire, Clemantine and Mariette fled by boat. Wamariya describes her terror as the boat almost immediately began sinking, and the people on board threw their remaining  cherished possessions into the water to stay afloat.

Moving and Hustling

The author describes traveling with her sister, Rob and the baby through different countries trying to find better refugee camps or a way to make money. They found stability at a camp in Dzaleka, Malawi, but Rob wanted to leave. He scared both sisters, Wamariya says, and he’d begun hitting Claire. They made their way to Durban, South Africa. The country was exuberant under President Nelson Mandela. Claire made money buying and reselling clothes and working as a maid. Sometimes Clemantine helped her with cleaning, carrying Mariette on her back.

Wamariya remembers that she'd sometimes be involved in cleaning someone's house when Oprah Winfrey came on TV. She didn’t understand what Winfrey was saying, but she loved the show and Winfrey’s warmth and style. Then, she writes, Claire got pregnant again, and Rob told her that the two sisters  had to go back to Rwanda to find their parents. It was a terrible idea. They could have been safe in South Africa forever. But Claire was 17 and, like all Rwandan women, Wamariya  says, her sister had grown up believing she should do what her husband told her. She felt she had no choice.

Back into the War Zone

Wamariya went north to Zaire with Claire and Mariette, looking forward to connecting again with Rob’s family before trying to go to Rwanda. They found nothing to eat. Soldiers prohibited fishing and enforced a curfew. Zaire was no more. It was now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese army drafted war orphans as young as 11 and 12. For many, going into the army was their only chance to survive. Wamariya was frightened, starving and in shock. Bombs went off erratically; bodies decomposed on the street. 

The sisters, Mariette and Claire’s newborn Freddy hid under beds that they moved away from the windows. Battles went on for days. Claire nursed Freddy, but their only food was water and sugar. They hoped the baby wouldn’t cry. Every day, Wamariya writes, she prayed for tomorrow to come.

Traveling through Burundi was too dangerous, so they went to Zambia. Claire refused to live in a camp. In the market, she found a fellow Rwandan, who made a place for them in his apartment. When Rob joined them, Wamariya recounts, her sister felt they had to move out. Rob arrived with no money, and Claire didn’t want their hosts to see how badly he treated her. They moved to the periphery of the capital, Lusaka, into a sprawling slum. Claire figured out a marketplace hustle to bring in money. She was a great salesperson. Rob cheated on Claire, beat her and made her feel small, but, Wamariya says, Claire persevered. She applied for a microloan from a UN representative. Upon hearing Claire’s story, the representative encouraged her to apply to immigrate to the United States. Her application was accepted. They all flew to Chicago.

Refugees in America

When they arrived in Chicago, Wamariya was only 12, though she had been through a lifetime of trauma. Claire, a mother of two with a third on the way, was 21. They moved into a one-bedroom apartment with the help of the members of the church they joined. It felt luxurious. Wamariya needed additional resources to succeed in school, and church members arranged for her to go to a private Christian school in the suburbs. It meant she had to live with Mrs. Thomas, a woman she came to regard as her American mother. Monday through Friday, she says, she lived in a big bedroom with its own bathroom, while Claire juggled two jobs, three children and a collapsing marriage. On weekends, she helped her sister with cooking, cleaning and caring for the children. Wamariya states that she never spoke to her sister about her life with Mrs. Thomas.

Picking Up the Pieces

From Chicago, Claire located their parents, who were alive in Rwanda, but had lost everything. It was awkward speaking on the phone after so much time and loss. Wamariya recalls dealing with loneliness by reading and sticking to her studies. In Rwanda, their brother Pudi contracted meningitis. The sisters wired money for medicine, but he died. As Wamariya mourned him, she was sad that she'd never told him how often she’d thought of him.  

The sisters figured out a way to get their mother a visa and plane fare to Chicago. But life was awkward in Claire’s apartment. Rob had moved out, and Claire was used to running her own household, but, Wamariya writes, their mother wanted to be in charge and this made Claire feel like a child. The church raised money to bring their father and siblings to America, leading to their reunion on Oprah. They all lived together in the little apartment, but Claire was the only one with a job. The members of their church helped them once more, and they made it work. Wamariya studied for college entry exams at Claire’s dining table across from her mother who was studying English. Wamariya writes that it became clear to them that no starry televised reunion could make up for all the years they lost.  

After her appearance on Oprah, Wamariya, an articulate and passionate public speaker, addressed various groups about her experiences as a refugee. She repeatedly told her family's tale of woe and then triumph. But she felt no one knew her as an individual; she was a stand-in for millions of refugees with equally difficult stories. Wamariya was determined to use this opportunity to advance herself and, she recounts with candor, she constantly looked for a place where she felt she belonged. She applied to colleges; Yale accepted her but required her to get more writing instruction. 

A Promising Future

Wamariya went to boarding school to work on her writing. Her parents were in Chicago, and she was in Connecticut. Their times together during her school breaks were uncomfortable. The apartment was overstuffed, and the family was tense. Wamariya believed that the tensions grew because everyone suffered an unspoken sense of betrayal. She pushed herself hard at school, but her past trauma bubbled to the surface. She lost her temper in a philosophy class after her teacher asked the classroom to think about whom they would save in a sinking boat. Realizing that no one there understood her experiences – that she had survived that sinking boat – she dropped the class. She writes, “I had not picked bugs out of my feet and watched my beaten sister nurse her baby while fleeing from one refugee camp to another to be lectured about human ethics by a man in corduroys.”

For a long time, Wamariya confesses, she couldn’t channel her energies productively. She could only broadcast anger and pain. Art was helpful; she began braiding bead bracelets. She decided to make 100 of them and give them away. With each gift, she let go of something painful or destructive that she was still holding inside.

Beads and Thunder

Later, while Wamariya was at Yale, Winfrey invited her and her sister to speak at her South African high school for girls. In the school’s hallway, Clemantine saw three dolls covered with beads. They jarred a vague memory. Claire reminded her of the story that Clemantine – as a child – had always asked her to tell about “the girl who smiled beads.” In the fable, a woman who could not conceive prays so loudly for a baby that her prayers drown out the sound of thunder. The thunder agrees to give her a child to keep her quiet. She has a daughter so beautiful that when she smiles, she smiles beads. Fearing kidnappers, the mother locks her child away. One day the girl walks out, trailing beads. The thunder corrals all the girls and makes them smile. In this way, he finds his daughter and takes her with him to the sky. 

When her nanny had told young Clemantine the story, it never had an ending. She would ask, “What happened next?” For Wamariya, the girl who smiled beads was a hero-figure who went everywhere safely. She was strong, like a goddess. The girl provided a counter-narrative to the realities of war, rape and homelessness.  Wamariya explored her memories to find a clear sense of self. She took a seminar to study W. G. Sebald, who wrote extensively about memory, particularly Germany’s “mass amnesia” after World War II. She sorted out her thoughts and recollections.

Wamariya eventually traveled to Africa to speak about the Rwandan genocide. She spent a summer in Kenya learning Swahili. There, she felt again the degradation she had felt as a refugee and a female in Africa. She had nightmares, and returned early to Chicago. Later she joined a Yale project installing water tanks for a Rwandan community of orphans. 

President Barack Obama appointed Wamariya to the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and she represented the museum in 2014 in Rwanda on the 20th anniversary of the genocidal conflict. The commemoration was in Kigali, her hometown. The army patrolled the streets to give citizens confidence and a sense of order. Rwanda gave itself 100 days to mourn the genocide – a grieving season. Its president pushed the narrative that the former rulers, Belgian colonialists, had infected Rwandans with racist views. Now that the Belgians were gone, he said, Rwandans could live in peace. This was part of a campaign of forgiveness, so that neighbors could again be neighbors. Claire forgave everyone out of her Christian faith, but Wamariya worried that if you forgive people for doing unforgivable things, other people will think it’s okay.  

The End of the Beginning

Wamariya helped Claire’s children get scholarships. She moved to San Francisco with her boyfriend Ryan, but resisted letting him emotionally deep into her heart. He wanted to marry, but she didn’t. Wamariya took her mother on a trip to Europe to try to close the chasm that time and war had opened between them. In the end, she writes, they had been through very different traumas and the gaps were too large to create a bridge of understanding. In Rome, her mother knelt before a statue of St. Brigid, who protects babies. Wamariya heard her prayer of gratitude  for her children's survival. To her it was a miracle, and the miracle belonged to God.  Hearing that this story worked for her mom, Wamariya set out to find a narrative that worked for her.

A Moving Autobiography

Because Clemantine Wamariya writes in such a clear, lyrical matter-of-fact voice, your admiration for the woman she has become and her current accomplishments as a writer and human rights campaigner may dawn on you slowly. As you read her story, it unfolds in two dimensions: a paradigm of the universal refugee experience and a personal autobiography of struggle and triumph. Her moving and meaningful words inspire compassion. If you ever hear her speak – Wamariya has a TED Talk – she will step out of these pages and persuade you of the humanity of all those who struggle against genocide, hatred and displacement.

About the Authors

Human rights advocate and public speaker Clemantine Wamariya uses storytelling to bring communities together. Elizabeth Weil is a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine and an award-winning journalist.


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