"Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. It was 1994, and in 100 days more than 800,000 people would be murdered in Rwanda and millions more displaced. Clemantine and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, ran and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries searching for safety. They did not know whether their parents were alive. At age twelve, Clemantine and Claire were granted asylum in the United States. Raw, urgent, yet disarmingly beautiful, this book captures the true costs and aftershocks of war: what is forever lost, what can be repaired, the fragility and importance of memory. A riveting story of dislocation, survival."--
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And still, mixed in with all the examples of extravagance are times when it's clear that Wamariya is your “everyday” refugee. The moment this first became clear to me was nearly 100 pages in, when Wamariya examines the word genocide. “The word genocide cannot articulate the one-person experience—the real experience of each of the millions it purports to describe.” As she tears apart the word over the next two pages, I understood that even though she was a very small child, even though the trauma may be significantly different than it was for those much older, the brutality must have touched her. Throughout the book there are these moments of insight, padded by tales of extravagance. I was torn, both by the heartache and by my true feelings about this book.
To her credit, Wamariya never denies the extraordinary outcome of her situation. She knows she is an exception and this is refreshing. Because she accepts this, there's some degree of humility in her narrative. Add to this her introspection, so articulately rendering the horrors of mass murder, that one may assume she understood more than her age might have let on.
Weeks after finishing this book, I still have these mixed feelings. On one hand, here is a voice of the conflict in Rwanda, a small child who flees to become a young woman who's handed the so-called “American Dream,” and I think, why does it have to be her? On the other hand, here is a refugee whose entire childhood was torn apart by a ridiculous war, a young woman who is trying to make something of her life while battling these demons, and I think to myself, why did it have to be her?
Millions of lives were torn apart by the short-lived, but brutal conflict in Rwanda. The Girl Who Smiled Beads may not offer the most common of these stories, but it does present one voice of the millions. And despite her age, despite her distance from the most brutal moments of the genocide, and despite being placed in a very affluent situation while still young, Wamariya has not escaped the struggles. This is a story of girl who was given a piece of the world, but who had peace of mind ripped away from her. It, too, is an important story. I'm glad she told it.
The memoir begins with a guest appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show: the girls had finally settled in Chicago, Claire on her own with three children and Clemantine with a kind family. I have to admit that I found the book a bit hard to stick with, mainly because of its structure. Not only do the chapters alternate between the past and the relative present, but the two threads of the timeline are each presented somewhat non-chronologically. I imagine this was intentional, to demonstrate both the confusion that surrounded the girls for six years and the effect their ordeal had and still has on them. Still, it's a worthy read, especially in what it reveals about a person living in constant fear and hardship, separated from family with no place to call home and not many places willing to take them in. Clemantine notes, for the rest of the world, that the word "genocide" takes the individual out of the experience. Her memoir is an effort to correct that mindset.
After those long six years, both sisters, with husband and children in tow were given permission to enter the US. A land they had heard marvelous things about, but the Clemantine who was, is now a completely different person, her experiences have hardened her. She feels alone, not seen, not understood. And indeed how can those who have not suffered as she understand?
"This---Rwanda, my life---is a different, specific, personal tragedy, just as each of those horrors was a different, specific tragedy, and inside all those tidily labeled boxes are 6 million, or 1.7 million or 100,000 lives destroyed.
You cannot line up atrocities, like a matching set.
You cannot bear witness with a single word."
This was said in a response to people making the comparisons of Rwanda to the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia or the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. It is true, we can be empathetic, we can try to understand but can we really, when we only read words, watch the movies? We can't, we can't feel what it is like to live through something like this, to feel the disconnection between a new life and what one has suffered. She makes her struggles perfectly clear, but she does move on though always questioning, always anslyzing how she feels, how she thinks. She and her sister forge different paths, their will be some victories, quests, steps taken, personal losses but she never stops trying.
A moving, powerful story, a story about resilence and survival,but also about the toll taken on the human pysche after living through such horrific times.
ARC from Edelweiss.
There’s no label to peel and stick that absolves you, shows you’ve done your duty, you’ve completed the moral project of remembering. This – Rwanda, my life – is a different, specific personal tragedy, just as each of those horrors was a different, specific, personal tragedy, and inside all of those tidily labelled boxes are 6 million, or 1.7 million, or 100,000 or 100 billion lives destroyed.
You can not line up the atrocities like a matching set.
You can not bear witness with a single word.
In a nutshell
Clementine is just six when the genocide in Rwanda begins. Her parents send her away from her comfortable middle-class home to stay with her grandmother under the care of her sister Claire, not yet sixteen herself. Too quickly the troubles follow them, and Claire and Clementine set off again on what will prove to be a journey of six years up and down Africa sleeping in fields, refugee camps and poor accommodation. Ultimately, they secure sponsorship to move to the US where they continue to struggle to make peace with each other and their experiences and form new lives. The story follows Clementine through her schooling and into a career in activism and story telling.
The most powerful element of this memoir is that Wamariya and her co-author Elizabeth Weil tell her story through the eyes that Clementine first experienced the things she writes about. In so doing the emotion shoots off the page and is raw, painful to read and moving in turns. We see the confusion of a six-year-old who does not understand the dead bodies in a river; a child struggling to remember the numbers allocated to her and her temporary accommodation; a nine year old desperately ploughing her love and fears into her niece; a twelve year old fearful of male eyes; a high school student struggling with language and a need to articulate her experiences and pain, a young adult fearful of abandonment, an adult desperately trying to reconnect with her mother.
I found this to be an incredibly honest story. Wamariya does not hide her anger whether it be at her family, her school mates, aid workers or even the Rwandan governments attempts to recognise and move past the genocide. It makes for uncomfortable reading at times but was all the more powerful for it – it brought to mind some of the ideas I read about last year in The Good Immigrant about assumptions that people have about first and second generation immigrants or refugees.
The story is not told chronologically, it jumps between the authors experiences in Africa and the US. I thought that this was incredibly effective – it hints at the possibility of a safe resolution in the midst of devastation but also underlines the refugee plight of finding somewhere to fit in and put down roots.
I could prattle on about all that I loved in this book for hours but rather in conclusion I would say this is a beautifully written insight into a set of experiences we would not wish on any child which is unfortunately still too many children’s story. Go read it, be moved and figure out how you we bear witness.
How the sisters found asylum in the United States, and went on to create new lives in America, is the rest of this amazing journey. This is a beautifully written memoir, by a very strong and courageous young woman. It gives the reader an insider's look at the consequences of a brutal war and the ensuing refugee crisis, which is a continuing plight for many dispossessed people. Highly recommended.
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
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. Her sister was not given the same opportunity since she was an adult, now with children.
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.
Clemantine (Clement -teen) was six years old when the Rwandan war broke out. Her life had been one of privilege before the war and she was sent for safety reasons to her grandmother's house. But soon she and her older sister, Claire were forced to flee leading to six more years of traveling eastern Africa (Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zaire) as refugees. The descriptions of the refugee camps, food, physical harm, and travels are hard to read. Yet, along the way, sometimes they are met with warmth and support from individuals who really have nothing more than they do.
The chapters vary between the African story and the American story--her experiences and feelings after arriving in America. There is a lot of introspection especially in the American stories. Her feelings toward those that are attempting to help are often mixed. There is a sense that people help only from guilt or to gain something for themselves. Who am I to judge?
I didn't find the book quite as gripping as I had hoped. And, I felt there were many unanswered questions. Her path from refugee to Yale is not straight, but at other times she seems to have become a "typical" American girl - being a cheerleader, manager of a soccer team, marching band, etc. There seems to be too much taken for granted.
Still, I'm glad I read the book. It gives no answers to the terrible mess the world is in, but I will try to remember the story of her mother dividing an orange. If there is not enough pieces of orange for everyone, cut them in smaller pieces -- sharing what we have is essential.
What is prevalent all
I find the book interesting and shows how her behavior is like once she moves to the US. Clemantine constantly seeks new opportunities but it feels as if she’s doing so to learn more about herself or to constantly fill herself so she can feel wholesome. Every time she accomplishes something, she goes out to do more. It’s never ending. It’s an admirable trait if you look from another perspective but if you don’t know her real background, you would assume she’s a normal, overachieving teenager.
Claire’s strength is admirable throughout the story. Despite all the chaos going around her, she is constantly trying to improve so she can get out with Clemantine. The sad part is, because of what was happening around them, they didn’t really have the chance to be actual sisters. Claire looked out for everyone, Clemantine stayed home and held the fort.
No matter how hard you try you can’t really put yourself in their perspective. You can’t really know how it is until you’re actually there experiencing it too (and no one wants that obviously) you can only wish Clemantine and her family will continue to lead on successful and fulfilling lives like they rightly deserve just like everyone else.
The final part that I did like was how in the audiobook version Wamariya had a chapter she read on her own. Her accent was strong and thick along with pauses in the middle of her phrases that led to a certain authenticity I appreciated. Her reading her own book would not have worked for many but adding her voice at the end was exactly what I needed to understand why I got the sense that she didn’t like to be the spokesperson for many. It was a nice little touch that made it so I didn’t completely dislike this book.
Instantly, I was hooked by Clemantine's voice. Her story is a strong one. Yet, it is not without sorrow. Imagine being in a refugee camp and being thankful for "flour". A simple
However, this book is not about sorrow or even triumph. It is about being a survivor. Back to Clemantine. Her voice really resonated with me. Thus, the reason I enjoyed this book.
In 1994, when war came to Kigali, Clemantine's mother told her fifteen year old sister Claire to take six year old Clemantine and flee to relatives where the child and the teenager would hopefully be safe. But eventually the men came there too and Clemantine and Claire had to flee again, and again, and again. These children of war sought safety in seven different African countries, living and moving on from refugee camp to refugee camp, trying to build a life over six long and hunted years before finally being granted asylum in the US. They fled war and unfriendly authorities both, witnessing great acts of kindness and unimaginable atrocities. They lost contact with their family, never knowing if their parents and other siblings were alive or dead. And even in the relative safety of the US, Wamariya didn't feel settled, living with her sister and her sister's family only at weekends and with sponsors during the week.
This is the story of Wamariya's life, her own experience of "war and what comes after" narrated through the voice of a child. The child's perspective is authentic given that she was only six when her whole world imploded but that perspective sacrifices even the slightest background of the war for those readers who aren't already familiar with it. And perhaps that backstory doesn't matter in the beginning but its lack gives no reference to how huge and tragic this was for so very many, focusing it solely on one young woman and her sister and their personal, horrific experiences. The memoir moves back and forth in time between Wamariya's life in the US and her life trying to survive the horrors of war and displacement, giving the narration a fragmented feel. And although this is a terrible story, one that the reader can hardly believe was perpetrated on anyone, never mind a child, there is something of an emotional remove to it. Maybe this is because Wamariya, understandably, can't or won't fully revisit the horror and it feels terrible to have wanted more depth, but I did. It seems almost trite to say that she is resilient and impressive and incredibly intelligent, scarred and hurt, and yes, lucky, but she is all those things and this memoir is her way of owning all the pieces of who she is. Critiquing a memoir of such tragedy and inhumanity is difficult and this one is no exception. It is an important story, one that I'm glad was told but the confusing back and forth of the narrative line makes it more difficult for the reader to truly comprehend the sheer scope Wamariya's story. The subject matter is interesting but the writing just didn't quite grab me as much I'd hoped.
I always admire people who can take their pain and do something positive with it. So I greatly admire the author.
I had downloaded an audio edition thinking I’d listen to it as I read the hardcover edition but I didn’t like the voice or the speed. If the author had narrated it I’d have read the audio, and it sounds as though it might contain some commentary by her but it wasn’t worth listening to the whole book to hear it/see if it was there. Re the speed, 1.0 was too slow and 1.25 was too fast. The hardcover on its own worked best for me. I don’t recommend the audio. I couldn’t tolerate the audio of this book; the narrator didn’t work for me at all.
I love maps in books and there was a great one in this book, in this case a map of the journey through 7 African nations over a 6 year period, taken by the author and her older sister.
She perfectly describes trauma and dissociation and PTSD.
She writes wonderfully/beautifully and is a good storyteller. There is a cowriter and I always wonder how much they actually write. Perhaps all of it? But either way it’s the author’s story and at the least I assume she told it and it’s such a compelling life story and I love what I assume to be the author’s real voice no matter who put the words down on paper. I always want to know who wrote what. In the end it ended up not mattering to me. This woman’s life story is what’s important and I felt that was well and honestly told.
This account made me think and it has me looking at things in different ways or at least I found myself trying to do that.
At some point I didn’t want to put it down and just kept reading.
I found it interesting to read the place Elie Wiesel, Oprah, etc. people known to me held in the author’s life. After I read about it, I watched the Oprah segment when the family was first on the show. (Though I really detest that kind of on air “surprise” that people are forced to live out on some tv shows.)
I’m impressed with Claire and how she provides for herself and how she won’t place herself either below or above anyone else and Clementine taking care of herself and her sister’s two kids too and their mother for promoting sharing, for giving them that lesson of sharing vs. giving or receiving.
I was glad that there was some humor. I laughed out loud when talked about the American boy who without irony wore a tee shirt that said he’d survived baseball camp. I appreciated all the humor because I felt so depressed and scared and lonely so much of the time I was reading this book.
After Rwanda 7 countries (ages 6 & 15 to 12 + 21) until U.S. 8th country I sometimes got confused what country she was in and what time period it was. The narrative goes back and forth in time. There were dates on the page but I was so immersed in reading I think sometimes I didn’t notice and maybe my confusion reflects how it must have felt for them to be on the move and basically homeless for all those years. I always figured it out though and fault myself not the storytelling for my occasional confusion.
Genocides during my lifetime hit me hard, and reading about individuals’ experiences during them and other difficult times is something I feel I should do and I always take away something important from doing so. It horrifies me and comforts me and educates me. I have to say when I read accounts such as this I’m amazed people even want to try to keep living. It astonishes me what people are willing to suffer in order to go on. It truly impresses me when someone goes through such atrocities and horrors and when that period is “over” does what they can to thrive and heal and not simply survive, those that are able to do that.
When I learned its meaning I loved the title of the book.
Highly recommended for adult and high school aged readers who want to learn about the Rwandan or any genocide, like and appreciate difficult coming of age stories, want to read a book that might make them think deeply about how humans can treat other humans, terribly and well.
Throughout there's a very definite focus on getting to grips with her inner self; the difference between what westerners deem a refugee to be versus the reality. And the fact that each of us must make sense of what life gives us, tell our story in the way that works for us.
She complains to her sister: "When you share about our experiences, you always say 'I'. You don't say 'we'. We were together." "But you know", Claire said, "when I remember our experiences, I'm alone."
She tells of the 'fairytale' moment when the Oprah Winfrey show managed to find her parents and bring them to USA to be reunited after twelve years apart. And how the magic actually translated into silence later: "they didn't know me and I didn't know them, and the gap between us was a billion miles wide."
Authors of memoirs often come across as saintly, long suffering victims. I felt the author here, was a real person...not a sweet, grateful 'refugee' - I'm not actually sure I particularly liked her as a person - but certainly an erudite, thoughtful individual who had (with her endlessly resourceful and determined older sister) come through unimaginable horrors to forge a new life.
I read this one because it was given an Alex Award last year, and I get that stories like Wamariya's are crucial narratives for all of us
What I appreciate about the book is that it helped me see a glimpse of what it could be like to be a refugee. Obviously this is one story, told as an adult thinking back to a childhood, and told by someone who eventually "escaped" that world (though it never leaves her) and finds American success. Her pain is real, her relationships are all very hard. She does not know how to handle the brokenness. And who does? She does conclude with realizing it is essential to turn her experience into a narrative for herself. We need to see our lives as a story.
I appreciate the peek into a life that is not my own, an experience I cannot relate to. It leaves me feeling helpless, because I can do nothing to make any of it better. And if I don't recognize that I can't take Clemantine's story and apply it to other refugees, then I've not understood the book either. For example, Claire (her older sister and the only one who went through a similar experience , at least superficially) does not have the same story, the same way of dealing or living. Her mother has a totally different approach again. No one will deal with it the same way. We want simple answers and explanations, to draw lines from A to B. This book tells us that is not possible.
Not a simple read, (not graphic), not an easy situation to digest or accept. But a part of our world.
Clemantine was only six years old in 1994 when violence between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes in Rwanda
I remember reading Romeo Dallaire's account of the woeful UN response to the Rwandan genocide, Shake Hands with the Devil, and being horrified but since then not much has appeared about Rwanda. So this book is very necessary.
They grew up, 9 years apart, in what could be deemed an upper middle class life. Somewhat privileged and doted upon. Claire, curious beyond politeness, would not take the easy answer for life’s questions. Her nanny would placate her with symbolic stories and songs. These moments would later help her through the too many devastations of her life.
Things start to change. Like “little pellets you drop in water that expand into huge sponges." she laments “My life was the opposite. Everything shrunk.” They sequester away in their home. School is stopped, the market no longer visited, days are cut short and boarded up inside. The noise outside increased, no stories could calm the unease culminating daily. Tense whispers of “them” coming unsettled Clementine. Guests had always been looked forward to. At 6, so much did not make sense.
Then they fled. First, the girls were sent to their grandmother’s home, but soon fled there, as well. Thus the exodus began. From pampered to refugee, malnourished, exposed, forsaken. Always on the run. 6 countries and years later, they arrive in America. Claire, now married with 2 children of her own, and Clementine. A host family welcomes them all. A new life awaits them.
But that’s not before life in their first refugee camp. As dismal as you can imagine, Clementine tries to retain her identity when so much has been taken away. And the yoyo unwinds. From refugee camp day to day, to the fresh start, stateside. Chapters break the dread, one to the lesser other. The innocence of a child, surviving horrific circumstances to a savvy teen, creating her own. From one spot of solace chased into another. Learning as she went to allow nothing to give comfort, as tomorrow, it may be gone.
As much a story of perseverance as a book of theology. Wonderful tidbits of wisdom worthy of a bumper sticker or journal cover. I could fill this entire page with the words of wisdom gleamed, but with it being an ARC, they may not be there when you read it, so I abstain.
My qualm was it was all in snippets. Synopses. Chapters that never got finished. While, in its own way, it was probably for the better, but there were things I wanted more of. Did she give out all her bracelets? How was her trip to Oprah’s school? I wanted to feel more of her happiness. I wanted to know she was ok. The repetition of not knowing herself, hiding herself throughout life. Was she ever complete?
A very evoking telling of the horrors suffered by a very little girl in a very big war. God Bless you, Clementine. May you find your inner happiness at last.