Credit Julia Zave
THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS
A Story of War and What Comes After
By Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
276 pp. Crown Publishers. $26.
In stories of war, there is supposed to be an order to things, a standard narrative with stock characters. During the fighting, there are perpetrators (warlords, rebels, governments) and victims (innocent civilians who wind up hurt or killed). There are also refugees, who find shelter in camps, thanks to intervening aid workers. After the fighting ends, the refugees are often left with nothing and sometimes no one, but they piece their lives back together, relieved to have survived and, especially if they are fortunate enough to make it to the United States, eager to begin anew.
After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Clemantine Wamariya became one of those refugees. At 6, she and her older sister, Claire, fled their grandmother’s home in Butare, near the Burundi border, to avoid killers. The siblings wound up traversing seven African countries on their own for more than six years, moving from refugee camps to slums to satellite settlements and back to camps, as they searched for a stable existence. In her sharp, moving memoir, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads,” Wamariya and her co-author, Elizabeth Weil, a writer at large for The Times Magazine, describe Wamariya’s idyllic early childhood in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and the madness that followed with an analytic eye and, at times, a lyrical honesty. “It’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all,” they write. “You are unwanted, by everyone.”
But Wamariya was not “a nice poor African refugee girl,” the authors assert; she was angry, bitter, suspicious of kindness. The war she survived fit no traditional narrative. Neighbors in Rwanda — the innocent civilians — turned on one another with astonishing brutality; the violence may have ended after 100 days, but trauma lingered. The pain and daily humiliations endured by Clemantine and Claire, as they struggled to hold on to their dignity and stay alive, shaped Wamariya’s outlook and choices long after she moved to Chicago to start a new life. At her first camp, in Burundi, she struggled to stay fed, clean, healthy. In a refugee camp, “others were invested in your suffering,” the authors write. “Their jobs and self-worth depended on your continued abasement, on your commitment to residing in a social stratum below them, the same old neocolonial scheme.”
Wamariya was constantly preoccupied with the question of survival. (“I was the most tired 11-year-old in the world,” she recalls.) Adapting to a new environment became a skill: figuring out how to blend in, how to get by. But she and her sister were routinely forced to leave a refuge just when they got comfortable, prompted by violence or a sense that life was better elsewhere. “All that night we walked,” she says of one hasty departure. “I felt such rage. I’d finally mastered my life here. … And now we were walking away.”
Nothing was easy. Even Wamariya’s relationship with Claire, who at 15 assumed the role of her guardian, was achingly strained. Their mutual resentment, tangled with love, made Wamariya’s journey all the more isolating. “Nobody in my world was tender and protective of me anymore,” she says. “Certainly not Claire.”
The sections of the book describing the sisters’ search for safety in Rwanda are told in impressionistic sketches from a 6-year-old’s point of view: a confusion of unknown menaces and destinations. Only later do we learn the specifics of the mass killings. The technique doesn’t fully work when the narrative turns to Wamariya’s stay in a lakeside town in Zaire — later the Democratic Republic of Congo — initially a happy period, beautifully detailed in the book, that descends into terror when that country, too, erupts into conflict. The passages on war here are vague, a litany of violence and despair presented without context or explanation.
Yet Wamariya is piercing about her alienation in America and her effort to combat the perception that she is an exotic figure, to be pitied or dismissed. (A mention of her difficult relationships with African-Americans is disappointingly left unexplored.) She says that she lacked a language to recount her story until she read Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, “Night”: “I was fascinated by Wiesel’s determination to view himself without pity, shame or sentimentality, to spell out the horrors he lived through and place himself in the fallen world.” Wamariya tells her own story with feeling, in vivid prose. She has remade herself, as she explains was necessary to do, on her own terms.