The Girl Who Smiled Beads – Clemantine Wamariya
This is the third book I’ve read this year based around the Rwandan genocide. Each book has been haunting, heartbreaking and tragic – this book is no different. I didn’t want to be reminded about that period again but it is compelling and inspirational to see how humanity can survive those atrocities. The scars are permanent and it is with great sadness that we listen to a real story and the impact hatred and destitution has on another human life. While the book is a memoir it is written so well that it reads like a novel and Wamariya has a wonderful use of a phrase which creates such vivid emotional imagery. “A fake painted smile covering a scream”.
Clementine is a young girl who along with her older sister, Claire, manages to escape the gruesome massacres in Rwanda in 1994. They travel through 6 countries in Africa through all sorts of life-threatening danger and unrest, before finally arriving in the USA. The book covers two periods, one as Clementine and Claire struggle to survive in Africa and the other in the United States that takes us up to the present day.
As they flee Rwanda and live in refugee camps in Burundi, every day is monotonous and is filled with “bugs, filth, hunger and death.” When they say bugs they mean infestations of lice and bugs that burrow into your feet. The only way out is to build a relationship with someone on the outside which Claire does through marriage and they move to Zaire (Dem Republic of Congo). While there, Claire has a baby and the racial violence follows them, so they escape to Tanzania, where they become refugees again. This continues through Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia. They were“refugee-camp connoisseurs, sad, nationless, pros.”.
It is difficult to understand how the mind processes horror and interactions with others, where best intentions are often received as insults or reminders of horrors. Sometimes to just want space from everyone’s attempt to help, to feel pressured, harassed and pitied is a wound you can’t afford to let open. Clementine provides us with an insight into how she adapted to protect her feelings and vulnerabilities and perhaps sought isolation. There is just “coming and going and coming and going and dying.” Her account of life in Africa and the reality of how women, refugees and different tribes are treated is powerful. Don’t be fooled with propaganda as it is easier to turn a blind eye to atrocities rather than deal with them. An issue she deals with to the present day.
It is a harrowing yet inspirational story, of how faced with the devastation of everything you thought you were and could be, and how a life can be pieced back together to succeed. Still reminded of those events Clementine tries to connect all the pieces together saying
“Often, still, my own life story feels fragmented, like beads unstrung. Each time I scoop up my memories, the assortment is slightly different. I worry, at times that I’ll always be lost inside.”
In this story, I also absolutely admire Claire as a resourceful, hard-working and determined person that is recognised equally as the main focus of this book. She too has been permanently shaped by the experiences she’s encountered and always sought to drive forward in the face of all obstacles.
I would like to thank Random House UK, Cornerstone and NetGalley for an ARC version of the book in return for an honest review.