The Girl Who Smiled Beads – Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

All notations are from the 2018 hardcover version from Crown Publishing Group.

“To this day I do not know how to respond and be polite. No, I want to scream, it’s not like the Holocaust. Or the killing fields in Cambodia. Or the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. There’s no catchall term the prove that you understand. There’s no label to peel and stick that absolves you, shows you’ve done your duty, you’ve completed the moral project of remembering. This—Rwanda, my life—is a different, specific, personal tragedy, and inside all those tidily labeled boxes are 6 million, or 1.7 million or 100,000 or 100 billion lives destroyed. You cannot line up atrocities like a matching set. You cannot bear witness with a single word.” pg 93-94 

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil is a non-fiction book that follows Wamariya’s life from the age of six when the Rwandan Genocide began in 1994. From April 7, 1994 to mid July of 1994 it is estimated that 500,000 to 1,000,000 people were murdered. The majority of them being Tutsi, an Ethnic group in Rwanda, Burundi and The Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire.) It’s estimated that up to 70 percent of the Tutsi population in Rwanda were exterminated during this time period. For Wamariya and many others this meant that they became refugees in the surrounding countries to avoid the certain death that would await them if they stayed in Rwanda. Wamariya and her sister, Claire, fled Rwanda leaving their family behind, hoping that one day they would be reunited with each other. From here they became refugees staying in several different refugee camps and in cities located surrounding countries from Zaire(DRC) to South Africa. Eventually the two find their way to the United States. Claire by then is married with kids, Wamariya is placed into the home of Mrs. Tomas which allowed for her to attend school, eventually going on to earn her Bachelor’s Degree in comparative literature from Yale University.

Going into this book I knew a little bit about the Rwandan Genocide, most of my knowledge coming from charity groups that visited my high school from time to time. With my limited knowledge I learned many things that I did not know before from the conditions the refugees insured to what caused the genocide to happen in the first place. I had no idea that it stemmed from the Bulgarians and their issuing of identification cards that marked someone as Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. These cards were handed out solely physical appearances like the circumference of one’s head, for example. How crazy it is to think that something that happened after World War I could cause such an extreme movement to happen almost a century later. Wamariya’s memoir focuses very little on politics, most likely because she was only 6 when the Genocide started.

At times the switch between the past and the present can be a little jaring and left me wondering how things came to be. However, by the end, all of my questions were answered, making this construction work for me for the majority of the time. When it didn’t it was very minor things that overall held small importance in the overall narrative.

Watamari’s beautiful language choices lead some passages to invoke philosophical ideas. Such as when she talks briefly about the Kinyarwanda word for rape, “konona” or being ruined. Expressing the overemphasis that is put on keeping one’s virginity in her culture. A woman is valuable for her body, and that value can be taken at any point and without it your family cannot get anything for you when you marry. No land. No animals. And there is no way to go back. Wamariya says that she works “everyday now to erase that language of ruin, to destroy it, and replace it with a language of my own.”(pg. 61) Having to change her own philosophy on how she was brought up to feel. Ending with “my body is destroyed and my body is sacred. I will not live in that story of ruin and shame.” (pg. 61)

Wamariya proves that our past does not have to define us, out of conflict she rose to become a strong and educated woman. Someone who could easily be a role model. Yes, war did have an effect on her life, she does not shy away from this fact at any point during her story. Poignantly saying, “when you’re traumatized, your sense of self, your individuality, is beaten up. Your skin color, your background, your pain, your home, your gender, your faith, it’s all defiled. Those essential pieces of yourself are stolen. You, as a person, are emptied and flattened, and that violence, that theft, keeps you from embodying a life that feels like your own.”(pg. 220) But her struggles allowed her to become who she is, meeting Oprah, Elie Wiesel, and becoming a humanitarian speaker. She further proves her point when talking about a story that her childhood nanny, Mukamana, told her. The story in which this book’s namesake is: The Girl Who Smiled Beads. Mukamana always started the story the same but when she reached a certain point she would ask Wamariya what she thought would happen next. Here Wamariya would make up her own story, molding it to be whatever she wanted it to be. The past is always going to be set in stone, but the future, the future can be what you chose to make it.

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