The Girl Who Smiled Beads
When Clemantine Wamariya attended The Oprah Winfrey Show she seemed, on the surface, a normal American teenager: she was a cheerleader and lived with a prosperous, supportive family. But Wamariya, who had arrived in the United States aged 12 after fleeing the Rwandan genocide, had not seen her own parents in years. On live television, Oprah revealed that not only were her mother, father and siblings alive, but they were right there, on set. “In my TV clothes and blown-out hair, [I] ran toward my Oprah-produced family arms outstretched,” remembers Wamariya in her book The Girl Who Smiled Beads. It was, she says, “as though we’d won a game show”.
Co-written with contributing New York Times journalist Elizabeth Weil, The Girl Who Smiled Beads is both the story of Wamariya’s journey to safety and of her coming of age. Growing up, she struggles to make sense of the loss of both family and country, as she goes on to attend Yale and become a successful human rights campaigner.
Born into a comfortably middle-class existence in Rwanda, Wamariya was six during the 1994 massacre against the Tutsi. Separated from her parents and other siblings, she and her elder sister Claire spent the next six years travelling from country to country, living in refugee camps, often hungry, ignored and maltreated. She describes the horror of being a small child, unable to comprehend the magnitude of war, in almost dreamlike language: “We heard laughing and screaming and pleading and crying and then cruel laughing again.” Dead bodies, to her, were sleeping, and the loud sounds of guns were “thunder”. Eventually, only the adults wept; all the children, she writes, had stopped crying.
In the latter half of The Girl Who Smiled Beads Wamariya examines what this cost her. Friends in the US “saw my life as a movie”, her memories of childhood often felt fragmented, and identity, at least in her years in refugee camps, was critical for survival: fading into invisibility could mean becoming lost, or simply dying.
Most interesting is Wamariya’s unpacking of the word genocide, a word she resents and reviles as “tidy and efficient”. “It holds no true emotion. It is impersonal when it needs to be intimate; cool and sterile when it needs to be gruesome. It’s hollow, true but disingenuous, the worst kind of lie,” she writes. “The word genocide cannot tell you, cannot make you feel, the way I felt in Rwanda.” EA
Hutchinson, 288pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 21, 2018 as "Clemantine Wamariya, The Girl Who Smiled Beads". Subscribe here.