The Girl Who Smiled Beads
I am here. I need you to see me. I need you to see that I am here. You, world, cannot make me crumble. I am alive. I am alive. I am alive.
Clemantine Wamariya was born in 1988 in Rwanda and led an idyllic childhood until 1994, when civil war broke out between the Tutsi and Hutu (the two main groups of people residing in the country). Clemantine, six years old at the time, and her 15-year old sister, Claire were sent to live with their grandmother in the southern region of the country but when the war spread, the two young girls began a 6 year journey migrating through seven South African countries before being granted refugee status in the United States in 2000.
Sponsored by a family in Chicago, Clemantine, still a child at 12, started middle school and attended private high school, Hotchkiss, and then Yale, graduating with a degree in Comparative Literature. Now 30 years old, Clemantine, a storyteller and human rights activist, looks back to try to make sense of a life that was marred by tragedy and terror with a fairy tale ending.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil tells Clemantine’s story from the perspective of a very traumatized human being looking back at how she survived and came to be the person she is today.
The story begins in 2006 when 18-year old Clemantine was invited to be on the Oprah Winfrey show after her essay on Elie Wiesel’s book Night was selected as one of the fifty winners of Oprah’s high school essay contest. From there the story unfolds over 22 chapters alternating between the years she and her sister, Claire migrated though South Africa and the years Clemantine spent growing up after she migrated to the United States.
Most readers have seen the movie “Hotel Rwanda” and know about the genocide that took place but not everyone knows the history of the country and what happened after World War I when Rwanda was colonized by Belgium, who retained control until 1962. During those years, most historians report the Belgians supported an ethnic divide between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes which many believe led to the war between the two tribes and the genocide of an estimated 1 million people in Rwanda.
In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine blames the Belgians for fostering the imagined difference in physical stature and intelligence between the two tribes and thus, creating a hatred between Rwandans and setting up a perfect storm for an internal civil war. She also places blame on the world for not getting involved, for not stopping the bloodshed, for not preserving the life she so fondly remembers before her fellow countrymen started killing each other. And, yet, she also writes:
It is truly impossible to hold all the single experiences of suffering in the world in your mind at the same time.
Clementine is grateful and angry; she is a dichotomy. She vacillates between gratitude and resentment for the people who helped her; she loves and hates her sister, Claire who took care of her but also depended on her; she loves her mother but feels abandoned because she lost her childhood; she loves the family that took her in and treated her as one of their own but resents their “easy” life; she appreciates the people who taught her but scorns their opinions because they didn’t share the same experience as her; she loves her boyfriend but remains deeply suspect of what love is. She wants everyone to see her but she also wants to be able to run and hide. She hates being black in a white world but knows her race helped save her. All of this emotion makes the book difficult to read at times, but also necessary.
I want to make people understand tha boxing ourselves into tiny cubbies based on class, race, ethnicity, religion – anything, really – comes from a poverty of the mind, a poverty of imagination. The world is dull and cruel when we isolate ourselves.
We are all guilty of looking the other way or insulating our lives to avoid seeing what makes us uncomfortable. We are by nature drawn to people like ourselves. By shielding ourselves we don’t have to confront our fears or tread in discomfort or admit we are contributing to a horrible situation by looking the other way (or not looking at all), or not taking responsibility to help those who are weaker or being preyed upon. Clemantine’s anger may make readers uncomfortable or think she has a chip on her shoulder to which I would say: What child wouldn’t be angry after going through 6 years of refugee life?
Ask yourself how you came to have all the things you carry: your privilege, your philosophy, your nightmares, your faith, your sense of order and peace in the world.
Throughout the book, I oftened wondered about mental health care. In one sentence, the author dismisses therapy (and religious faith) as ineffective and claims writing was her therapy. For a child who had been through so much trauma and who demonstrated so much outward anger, it’s hard to believe that writing solved it all. There almost seems to be a missing link in the story.
In Viet Thanh Nguygen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer, the author writes about the dual identity of the narrator of the story – that of a spy and of an immigrant (who escaped Viet Nam and settled in the United States). Based on his own personal experiences, the author explains the fear and anger of a young child separated from his parents, all in the name of helping an immigrant escape the trauma of war and getting resettled in a new country.
The insensitivity of the world and specifically the “saviors” to the trauma inflicted upon a young child separated from his or her family is devastating and has life long effects on the child’s psyche, and doesn’t always set the child up for an allegiance to his or her adopted country or to move forward with healthy relationships. Although the unnamed protagonist in The Sympathizer and Clementine Wamariya appear to have little in common, they actually share a great deal: they were both the innocent victims of internal civil wars and were assisted by people who were trying to do the right thing but fell short.