The Girl Who Smiled Beads – Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

Rating: 5/5

Genocide – The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.

“The word genocide cannot tell you, cannot make you feel, the way I felt in Rwanda.

“The word genocide cannot articulate the one-person experience – the real experience of each of the millions it purports to describe.

“The word genocide cannot explain the never-ending pain, even if you live.

“The word genocide cannot help the civilians.

“The word genocide is clinical, overly general, bloodless, and dehumanising.”

What is described as the Rwandan genocide began on April 7th 1994 and lasted for 100 days after Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi were killed when their plane was shot down over the country’s capital Kigali on April 6th. An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed during this short period as extremist Hutus slaughtered about 70% of the minority Tutsi population, as well as thousands of Hutu moderates opposed to the killings.

The ethnic tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis can be traced back to the arrival of Belgian colonists in 1916, who issued identity cards to classify people according to their ethnicity, with the Belgians considering the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus. Although the Belgians would eventually concede power and grant Rwanda independence in 1962, the ethnic divide would remain, with the majority Hutus taking the place of the Belgians.

“Colonisation is built on the idea that we are not the same, that we don’t possess equal humanity.”

The mass killings in Rwanda finally ended when the Tutsi-controlled Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagame seized control of the country. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has sentenced more than 60 people for their involvement and nearly 2,000,000 people have stood before Rwandan community court. A humanitarian crisis occurred as a result of the war, with an estimated 2,000,000 displaced Rwandans becoming refugees.

“The war had no logic, no direction, no discernible objective, no face. It was everything, everywhere, all at once, and it stood for nothing at all.”

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil is Wamariya’s memoir about surviving the Rwandan genocide and describes how she and her older sister spent six years travelling through seven African countries to find safety, before being granted refugee status in the US. The book captures the horrific effects of war, as well as its traumatic aftermath. Wamariya describes the barbaric behaviour of the extremists and the appalling conditions that people were forced to endure. As starvation and desperation became a way of life, the book highlights how easy it became for children and adults to be manipulated and depraved.

“You had to try to hang on to your name, though nobody cared about your name. You had to try to stay a person. You had to try not to become invisible. If you let go and fell back into the chaos you were gone, just a number in a unit, which also was a number. If you died, no one knew. If you got lost, no one knew. If you gave up and disintegrated inside, no one knew.”

As well as being a painful account of being a refugee, Wamariya is frankly honest about her feelings towards her family, particularly her sister and mother. The book opens with Clemantine and her sister being reunited with their family on The Oprah Winfrey Show and depicts the reality when the fairy tale moment on television is over. She and her family don’t have a happy-ever-after ending and instead her family are flown back to Rwanda just days later. A slow process then begins to get their family back to the US to live as immigrants before the family try to adapt and find a way to integrate into each other’s lives again.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a terrifying and horrific account of one of the greatest war crimes against humanity. It is a book about identity, survival and hope. It is a powerful read with an important message about equality and it is one that I will never forget.

“Survival, true survival of the body and soul, requires creativity, freedom of thought, collaboration…We need each other. We need to say: I honour the things that you respect and I value the things you cherish. I am not better than you. You are not better than me. Nobody is better than anybody else. Nobody is who you think they are at first glance. We need to see beyond the projections we cast onto each other. Each of us is so much grander, more nuanced, and more extraordinary than anybody thinks, including ourselves.”

After being granted asylum in the US, Clemantine went on to receive a BA in Comparative Literature from Yale University and became the youngest ever person to serve on the United States Holocaust Museum’s Memorial Council, appointed by President Barack Obama. Now thirty, she is a member of the Board of Directors at Women for Women International and is an experienced speaker, storyteller and human rights advocate.