The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya, Elizabeth Weil, authors; Robin Miles, narrator
Although Clemantine is still relatively young, she has lived a lifetime in that brief time, and her memoir is inspiring. In the face of enormous terror and danger, she survived, and actually, she eventually achieved great success. Somehow, she was always able to morph into the person she perceived she had to be in each traumatic situation, even when just a young child, barely kindergarten age. She managed to survive with the help of her sister Claire, who, 9 year older, always managed to figure out a way out of difficult situations, to keep them safe, although not always clean and fed. Often lice infested and starving, living under the sky, if no shelter was available, they lived from hand to mouth, lived on the good graces of kind people. They did not find freedom for 7 years and did not see their parents again for 8, when they appeared on an Oprah Winfrey show honoring winners of an essay contest. Clemantine had entered and won a place. Oprah surprised them with their parents whom she brought in for a weekend visit. Eventually, Claire was able to bring them back to America.
Both sisters grew up during the Rwandan uprisings. The majority government was made up of Hutus who were murdering the Tutsis without reason. They called them cockroaches and said they had to be eliminated. If someone was not willing to kill them, they too were labeled cockroaches and marked for death. To protect them, their parents sent them to live with their grandmother where they believed they would be safer. Their parents remained behind with their youngest brother.
When the revolution spread, their grandmother sent them running, alone, with no adults, but hoped that they would be able to escape the horror and survive. She entrusted them to G-d’s hands. What followed was more than a half dozen years of escaping from place to place, country to country, until they settled finally in the United States where Clemantine, because of her youth, was awarded all benefits possible. Claire, on the other hand, had married an aide worker at one of the camps they found themselves and had already had two children with a third on the way. Her husband was a no account who tended to violence because of deep feelings of insecurity brought about by his loss of a future because of the war.
Claire does not seem to blame anyone but herself, if they don’t survive. She is very resourceful and looks for ways to support them and feed them, to house them and clothe them, no matter where they wind up, and usually she finds a way. She never gives up, although Clemantine has to be her maid which she resents, although, caring for the children and taking care of all chores that have to be done enables Claire to hustle while on the run, and, even in America.
When, finally, Clemantine is placed in a series of foster homes with several women who change her life, providings her with material comfort and a wonderful education, supporting her emotionally and physically, she improves and begins to be a bit more trusting of others. She is sent to a reputable boarding school, and although one of the few black students, she makes friends and achieves success. She adapts to each situation she faces with deftness. She somehow knows what is expected of her and she performs.
When Clemantine speaks of Rwanda, it is touching. It is hard not to picture the peace and beauty of her early life. Her father owned a car service. She describes her home as lovely, with gardens and laughter. Although they did not show affection or emotion, as was the custom in Rwanda, since women were taught to be very reserved, not even expressing emotion at funerals, she knew she was loved. Food was plentiful and life was good. She was young, she played outdoors and was a happy child. However, although girls were valued and were able to get land and other valuables because they were child-bearing, they could have their lives ruined if they were raped which rendered them valueless.
When the uprisings came, she was too young to understand what was happening. She never adjusted to the way they were treated by Rwandans or the world. She experienced so many years of suffering that she believed that no one could truly identify with her pain, unless they were there with her. She resented their empathy.and compared her experience to those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust after reading Elie Wiesel’s “Night”. Clemantine blames the Rwandan Genocide on the colonization of the country by Belgium. She believes that they created divisiveness. The tribes used to live together, work together and get along. After Belgium left and the economy worsened, the tribes went into their corners, no longer working together. A violent, terrifying war was launched. People were hacked to death, murdered in their beds; they were being forced out of their country. She arrived in America, emotionally scarred from her devastating experiences, but she did not dwell on them and quickly adapted to her situation. She accepted it and was determined to conquer it.
In the end, she was afforded every advantage that even Americans were not given. She had a fine education, full freight at Yale, first class travel to conferences, and was invited to speak and tell her story at various venues. Still, she was often angry and arrogant because she felt misunderstood, abandoned by the world.
The title refers to a story told to Clemantine. She considers herself the girl who smiles beads, the girl who fits in, makes the best of situations.