Memoir/Biography/Autobiography · Nonfiction

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

I was intrigued by the title of this book before I even knew what it was about. I wanted to know who the girl who smiled beads was and what it even meant to smile beads. After reading the description, I realized it was completely different than what I was expecting (though I am not really sure what I was expecting instead), but was compelled to read it anyways, based on the subject matter. I am trying to read more nonfiction, to learn about different life experiences in a more real way (not that realistic fiction is not often equally as illuminating), and though I knew about the Rwandan genocide, it happened when I was very young, and is not really taught in basic schooling, so my details about it are vague and hazily horrific. This book seemed like exactly the way to address this particular hole in my knowledge and understanding.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya (and Elizabeth Weil)


“Every human life is equally valuable. Each person’s story is vital. This is just one.”

This is the story of Clemantine Wamariya. Although I had not heard of her before this, the publication of her memoir, she was a guest on an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s show in 2006, when she and her sister, Claire, were [briefly] reunited with the rest of their family (who they had last seen in 1994). In the time in between, Clemantine and her sister traveled in a years-long odyssey across Africa, from country to country, refugee camp to refugee camp, one trauma and degradation after another, after escaping the genocide in Rwanda. Interspersed with this story is another, of Clemantine and Claire after their arrival in the United States, granted asylum through a program set up for refugees of the genocide, and what that adjustment was like.

“It’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all. The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out. No other place takes you in. You are unwanted, by everyone. You are a refugee.”

“…I was – nothing, reduced to nothing, and yet still contained a galaxy of horrors.”

“Life just kept shattering, the bricks of decency falling in a pattern both so illogical and so regular that we didn’t even try to trace the chain reaction of destruction back to any particular origin anymore. There was pain. People felt threatened. Someone inflicted a wound.”

This was a profoundly affecting memoir, both in the ways you might expect and in ways that you might not. First, and most obviously, is the straightforward trauma of violence and war and dehumanization and refugee camps that Wamariya (then 6 years old) and her older sister experience in their flight from Rwanda and journey through Africa. It’s tangible and appalling, as it should be. However, if you are here for a voyeuristic glimpse at another’s pain, look for another book – this is not that kind of morbid literary tourism. Wamariya’s depictions are expressive and communicative in a different kind of way, one that is every bit as moving and disturbing, perhaps even more so, as she lived through all this as a young child, and her sister not much older. And then there’s the real meat and importance of the story, in my opinion anyways. Not to take away from the clear terror of war and deprivation, in any way, but the look at the long-term consequences of those experiences. The difficulty Wamariya has in processing what she experienced, how she learns not to trust anyone, how she loses her sense of self and place in the world, and the impossibility of emotionally dealing with any of this in a way that allows for “full” recovery.

“We failed, every day. How could we not fail? Our lives were structured for defeat.”

“To be a refugee was to be a victim – it was tautological. And not just a victim due to external forces like politics or war. You were a victim due to some inherent, irrevocable weakness in you. You were a victim because you were less worthy, less good, and less strong than all the non-victims of the world.”

“The human mind is an amazing, resilient, self-deceptive thing.”

“[Claire] thought lingering in a good camp was even more dangerous than staying in a bad one. We could not start to believe this life was okay.”

There were so many parts of this book that really speak strongly to the reader. Wamariya’s explanations about the history of colonialism in Rwanda. In straightfoward and unequivocal terms, she places the blame for this genocide squarely at the feet of the western (Belgian) colonizers/powers and their completely arbitrary guidelines about society and creation of superior and inferior sects of the population. She follows this up with a wider accusation at the world, who promised to never allow this again after the Holocaust, and then turned their backs completely, essentially saying, in her words, “We Africans could kill each other if we wanted. We were not anybody else’ problem.” And though it may be hard to read this, and the instinct is to get defensive, one truly cannot hide from the truth she speaks. Her sense of betrayal at this, and, closer to home, at the interpersonal experiences of abandonment/letdown from Claire’s husband, make it little wonder that she has such anger and struggle to allow people close throughout her life. In addition, her musings about losing herself and what that meant – becoming just another face in the crowd at a refugee camp, learning to just become the person everyone wanted you to be (once she got to the US), and more – is truly heartbreaking. To this end, the connection she makes with Elie Wiesel’s story, and later the man himself, is so important and touching, as it allows her the first steps toward claiming her rightful emotions, including, and primarily, anger. She, and everyone who lives experiences like these, deserves that recognition and release.

“I did not understand the point of the word genocide then. I resent and revile it now. The word is tidy and inefficient. It holds no true emotion. It is impersonal when it needs to be intimate, cool and sterile when it needs to be gruesome. The word is hollow, true but disingenuous, a performance, the worst kind of lie. It cannot do justice – it is not meant to do justice – to the thing it describes. […] The word genocide cannot articulate the one-person experience – the real experience of each of the millions it purports to describe. The experience of the child playing dead in a pool of his father’s blood. The experience of a mother forever wailing on her knees. The word genocide cannot explain the never-ending pain, even if you live. […] You cannot bear witness with a single word.”

One other thing that stuck out to me, personally, was actually more focused on her sister. Claire lives through all the same things, while also having the responsibility of caring for Clemantine, and never once gives up or settles for what they have. Even in situations that could be considered “better,” she does not fool herself into thinking that’s all they deserve/can achieve. She maintains her standards and is so creative and aggressive in reaching for them. Yet with all that, she still falls prey to so many traumas specific to women, particularly at the hands of her husband, yet culturally she accepts all that for so much longer than, at least as a reader, her demonstrated inner strength “should” have. The tragedy there is heartbreaking to read for so many reasons. Then, upon arriving in the US and being too old for mandatory schooling (as opposed to Claire) all that gumption and business-sense is wasted because the system places her in a position where there is no chance of using it. Claire loses not only her youth, during the conflict, but any of the chances Clemantine has afterwards, simply due to her age during each individual circumstance. And it’s not like Claire is the only one with that kind of loss of life potential. On top of everything else…that’s such a universal loss for the world. Between that, and the clear mental health issues they both face in dealing with what they’ve seen, this book makes it clear, more than anything I’ve seen/read before, how woefully under-served/acknowledged/addressed this community (refugees’) needs are. And it’s an important lesson in the importance of not taking things (like Oprah’s reunion show or Wamariya’s good behavior at school after immigrating) at face value because trauma is persistent and insidious.

“All the things we do not say create not just space but a force field between us, a constant, energetic pressure. Two people in pain are magnets, repelling each other. We cannot or will not reach across the space to connect.”

“I’ve seen enough to know that you can be a human with a mountain of resources and you can be a human with nothing, and you can be a monster either way. Everywhere, and especially at both extremes, you can find monsters. It’s at the extremes that people are most scared – scared of deprivation, on one end; and scared of their privilege, on the other. With privilege comes a nearly unavoidable egoism and so much shame, and often the coping mechanism is to give. This is great and necessary, but giving, as a framework, creates problems. You give, I take; you take, I give – both scenarios establish hierarchy. Both instill entitlement.”

Wamariya speaks of physical, mental and emotional trauma with equally searing terms – expressive and sincere in their brevity and transparency. Speaking not just of the war and genocide itself, but the following years of dehumanization, violence, fear, mistrust and pain that continue in the aftermath, and forever, is the real power here. “Escaping” to America may be great, sure, but then what? What about the land and the people and the connections you’ve left behind; what about processing what you’ve been through; what about adjusting to a new country/culture/set of expectations? It’s not only the first survival, but every one after that that makes a person’s story. And Wamariya speaks of this in a way that makes it so clear that the struggle is not over just because you “get away,” but that the struggle simply changes shape. And that’s what struck me so hard about this memoir. The story doesn’t end where you’d think, assume, or want it to…that message, and its implications, are everything.

“It’s truly impossible to hold all the single experiences of suffering in the world in your mind at the same time. The human brain can’t handle that much pain. You cannot differentiate and empathize with each of those distinct people. You cannot hear each of their stories and recognize every individual as strong and special, and continue on with your day.”

“Trying to circumscribe and commemorate the pain of the entire country is not really possible.”

Wamariya’s struggle to comprehend and understand what all she has experienced, and what it means, are impossible to imagine but also so clearly articulated. This is an incredible story and a memoir I definitely recommend.

6 thoughts on “The Girl Who Smiled Beads

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful review. I read A Long Way Gone years ago and it is not a stretch to say that it completely changed my emotional and intellectual relationship with the concept of genocide and what it really means. I think I will have to read this one now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. And yes – I read that one a few years ago as well. It’s a very different perspective than this one, so I definitely think they are both important to read, for depth of understanding. I hope you are able to pick this one up soon. If you do, please stop back by to let me know what you think.


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