The war that broke out in Rwanda in 1994 had many victims. Clemantine Wamariya was only six years old when the genocide started. She had her family ripped apart as she and her sister fought for survival. The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After is a memoir by someone who witnessed the war and has to deal with its after effects.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads opens up with Clemantine at the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006 with her older sister Claire. She narrates her life with her parents and siblings, Claire and Pudi her older brother in Kigali, Rwanda. Their lives can best be categorised as that of a middle-income family that had cars, fleet of minibuses, house help, their own house with a sandbox as a garden. When the rumours of the killings begin to spread Clemantine and Claire are sent to their grandmother’s place. A few days later, their nightmare began as they are told to run across the field, and they continued running in search of a place to call home again.
Clemantine told her side of the story in two halves. The chapters oscillate between her time in the United States of America where she eventually settled and became a citizen and her journey through various African countries in search of refuge. She wandered to seven African countries (Burundi, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia) seeking safety. In the chapters about her time in the USA, she is attempting to find closure about what she experienced as a child and in a way explain it to the people around her. In the other chapters she takes us on a journey of running, leaving people behind and simply trying to be alive the next day.
There is the temptation to feel pity and treat people like Clemantine as fragile human beings that need to be pampered and treated delicately, in this book, we learn that it might not be what the person wants at the moment. They are aware that they appear to be vessels of need but they possess a strength that few have. Clemantine also writes about the deplorable conditions under which refugees live, which often includes unsanitary conditions, inconducive living quarters and limited food.
As a result of the genocide, Clemantine lost touch with her parents and the only relative she had was her sister Claire, who is nine years older. Claire ws an enterprising young lady who provided and protected Clemantine as well as her own children. However, she also got married to an abusive man. In the book, Clemantine relationship with the sister is strained; however, she is constantly afraid that Claire would abandon her. Even though the sisters reunite with their parents’ years later; their relationship is different. They have three younger siblings, and the years apart seem to have eroded the bond that parent and children had.
Clemantine weaves sadness, courage, healing and love in all its various interpretations in a quest of not only sharing her story but also finding some form of closure. She now has a platform where she is invited to share her story, whether it is before presidents or people like Oprah, other victims of war or people who can never fully comprehend what she went through. The Girl Who Smiled Beads is not just another memoir of a war victim, but behind the letters and words, there is a person. A person who is trying to knit back her life and accept that things will never be the same again. It is also a remainder that war has many victims beyond those who die whose figures are often documented. However, the figures of those who remain and are affected for the rest of their lives are rarely known. Clemantine’s memoir will help us remember those people and also know that the road to healing is sometimes a long, painful but never a hopeless one.- PN
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK
Release Date: 26 April 2018