In 1994, Clemantine Wamariya, then aged six, and her fifteen-year-old sister Claire, fled the Rwandan genocide from their home in the country’s capital, Kigali. They spent the following six years in seven different African countries, ‘searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindnesses, witnessing inhuman cruelty.’ The sisters had no idea, during this period, whether their parents were alive, or what the fate of their other siblings had been. Wamariya’s experiences are recorded in The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads has been described as ‘urgent, and bracingly original.’ Wamariya’s memoir, states its blurb, ‘captures the true costs of war… But it is about more than the brutality of war. It is about owning your experiences, about the life we create: intricately detailed, painful, beautiful, a work in progress.’
I was personally very young during the Rwandan genocide, and learnt nothing about it until long afterwards. This is the first memoir which I have picked up about the horrifying conflict and its many victims. When the conflict begins, Wamariya explains that she was in much the same boat; she noticed that things were changing around her, but nobody thought to even attempt to explain why this was the case. She says, two years before she fled, ‘In my four-year-old imperiousness, I believed I could handle the truth. I thought I deserved to know. I demanded it.’ She is left to work things out by herself: ‘Houses were robbed, simply to prove that they could be robbed. The robbers left notes demanding oil, or sugar, or a TV. I asked adults to explain, but their faces had turned to concrete, and they nudged me back into childish concerns.’ To Wamariya, the conflict – at first, at least – is therefore comprised of a series of things which are suddenly forbidden, or taken away from her; for instance, her days at kindergarten, her best friend, electricity, and no more dinner guests.
The girls are taken in the dead of night from Kigali to stay with their grandmother, who lived near the Burundi border; they settle in, but soon have to move from here, too. The sisters run into a nearby banana grove, which other people are already using for shelter, ‘most of the young, some of them bloody with wounds… The cuts looked too large, too difficult to accomplish, gaping mouths on midnight skin.’ Her experiences of suddenly being homeless, and her change in status, are still difficult for Wamariya to articulate. She writes: ‘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.’
The sisters were granted refugee status in the USA when the author was twelve years old, and they settled in Chicago, Illinois. Even when they move, and feel relatively safe, ‘the war’ is something which is very rarely mentioned between the sisters. The memoir opens at an interesting point, when the family is reunited on Oprah’s talk show, after Wamariya enters an essay competition. After this, the entire family, complete with young siblings that neither Clemantine nor Claire had ever met, assemble at Claire’s apartment. Wamariya writes of the awkwardness and heartbreak of this situation: ‘I sat on Claire’s couch, looking at my strange new siblings, the ones who’d replaced me and Claire. They looked so perfect, their skin unblemished, their eyes alight, like an excellent fictional representation of a family that could have been mine. But they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them and the gap between us was a billion miles wide.’
Of her experiences, and the difficulties which she has in recalling everything which she went through, Wamariya writes: ‘… my own life story feels fragmented, like beads unstrung. Each time I scoop up my memories, the assortment is slightly different.’ Looking back upon her experiences, she says: ‘I did not understand the point of the word genocide then. I resent and revile it now. The word is 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. The word is hollow, true but disingenuous, a performance, the worst kind of lie.’
The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a powerful memoir, filled with poignant scenes and musings. Wamariya never glosses over any of her experiences; nor does she overdramatise them. From the outset, she exercises her wise voice, and imparts her deepest and most private thoughts. ‘I think back to this after,’ she writes, ‘in trying to make sense of the world – how there are people who have so much and people who have so little, and how I fit in with them both. Often I find myself trying to bridge the two worlds, to show people, either the people with so much or the people with so little, that everything is yours and everything is not yours.’