Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbours began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety – perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.
When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States, where she embarked on another journey, ultimately graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.
The chapters in The Girl Who Smiled Beads alternate between a chapter set in the 90s when Clemantine was a child refugee, and the 2000s when she’s a teenager learning to acclimatise to her new life in America. It’s equal parts hopeful to see Clemantine’s life gets better but also so sad that even when she is living this new life – perhaps even the American Dream – what she went through has lasting affects on her.
The main thing I’ll take from The Girl Who Smiled Beads is that someone’s life doesn’t automatically get better once they have some semblance of stability, especially when they’ve been to dozens of countries when they are so young, looking for safety. Clemantine doesn’t hold back in describing how what she experienced shaped her as a person and continues to affect her. She takes a long time to trust people and open up to them, because she had to learn to put on a tough exterior when she was a child to protect herself and her family. Her relationship with her sister is interesting and fraught as Clemantine often resents her for some of the choices she made when they were refugees, but also knows she did her best and is so thankful that Claire never abandoned her.
After the age of six, Clemantine never gets to be a child. Because her sister Claire needs to work and get money (her resourcefulness and entrepreneurship is to be admired, especially as she founded so many black markets in refugee camps) Clemantine becomes more of a mother to Claire’s children than Claire was. Clemantine was only about nine or ten when she was caring for her baby niece; bathing her, feeding her, keeping her safe. It’s so much to put on a child but you cant hate Claire for it because she had to go from being a normal teenager to sole-caregiver to her kid sister in such a short space of time.
Clemantine must grow up so quickly and it’s incredibly difficult for her to handle all the emotions she’s feeling and the experiences she’s living. It’s not until she’s in America with her “American mom” and life that’s stable, that she can even begin to access what she’s gone through. And even then, she’s angry and scared and jealous and resentful, and so many other emotions that she struggles to put a name to and to express and understand.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a tough read as it is an unflinching look at the realities of being a refugee and of having no home or place to belong for over six years. It’s about the trauma Clemantine experienced, the threat of death, sickness and violence, and the people she met over the years in different refugee camps, in different countries. It’s an incredible story, and it’s so sad that it’s one that so many people have lived through, and are still living through in the refugee camps around the world.