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  • Eddie Hewitt

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

by Clemantine Wamariya


As well as being an inspirational speaker and humanitarian, Clemantine Wamariya is a born storyteller. A lover of Rwandan fairy tales and folk stories. The thunder and the rain personified. This is more than just fantasy. Clemantine draws on her cultural traditions to inform and entertain, and through this to reveal truths about the human condition and to seek an end to injustice and suffering.

Her life and her stories are intrinsically linked. As a child she would have willingly got lost in her story world to escape the horrors of the reality around her. Clemantine simply had to become The Girl Who Smiled Beads.

Smiling beads. Leaving a trail of beads behind her in every country she visited. A modern day African version of Gretel, with her big sister Claire as Hansel. Running away from the cruelty of an evil war, but always hoping to be found by her parents and to go home.

Clemantine spent her early life travelling from one refugee camp to another. To Burundi, Congo, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia. Many times fleeing and rarely allowed to settle. Never comfortable, never feeling safe. Always knowing it was time to move on. To find somewhere better. Eventually, she travelled to America, which is now both home and not home for Clemantine. A place to re-make her life, but far from her true homeland, Rwanda.

Up and down, back and forth: the route taken by Clemantine and Claire

There are so many memories jumping around with contrasting emotions in this memoir. Between times endured and enjoyed as well as countries stayed in. This, Clemantine says, is how memory works. Memories collide in your head, hide away for a while and come out again. Never in a linear order. Never quite making complete sense. The wonder is the author has found a sense of peace, despite the many devastations along the way.

The horrors are legion. As a six year old child, Clemantine was sent away by her parents to save her life; she left behind a happy and prosperous home. As a refugee, she grew up too fast. We read with horror about the physical suffering, the hunger, the constant threat of assault, disgusting invasive bugs, shaving off her hair, illness and death all around her. The threats to her mental and emotional health. No sense of well-being whatsoever.

And every time things seemed to be getting better, things went wrong again.

“Life just kept on shattering.”

Again and again the sisters would have to find another country where they did not belong and were not wanted. Clemantine had no childhood to speak of. She was a child looking after children. Despite the repeated setbacks and cycles of disappointment, Clemantine survived, under Claire’s protection. Claire, herself a child, was resourceful, tireless and phenomenal. Most of the time, it was impossible to trust anyone else, especially if they were offering kindness. It was just too dangerous. The word “Komera” was essential to both girls. "Be strong” in the Kinyarwanda language.

Clemantine Wamariya

The memoir allows the author to probe her country’s history. One word stands out more than any other. Genocide. Even as a child, Clemantine was acutely aware of the power of language. And now, she is even more determined to establish what this word means and doesn’t mean. She reviles and resents the term because it "holds no true emotion", and is "cool and sterile when it needs to be gruesome". Even if you are told the word, it is impossible to feel what it really means to those who have suffered it. The author ends a long passage denouncing the term genocide by saying:

“You cannot bear witness with a single word”.

At 12 years old, Clemantine was granted asylum in the United States. But even here, she struggled to fit in, being overwhelmed by kindness and offers of comfort. Clemantine recalls being flummoxed in church about what most of us might regard as a basic human feeling:

“People asked me if I was happy. I was still unclear on what happy was”.

In time, Clemantine gained peace of mind through her studies. Now, in her adult life, she is excelling as an inspirational speaker and human rights advocate. Still telling of her troubled upbringing but connecting with people in a positive way.

Clemantine is also driven to speak out, call out, and not accept lies. She is acutely aware of racism and the subjugation of black people, then and now. Within the narrative, she details the history of colonialism in Rwanda. The role of the Belgians. The consequences for, and the reactions of, the Hutus and Tutsis. Being torn apart and abandoned. To Clemantine, it felt that the colonialists were saying:

“We Africans could kill each other if we wanted. We were not anyone else’s problem.”

Clemantine also refers to Claire’s “intuitive sense of the post-colonial aftershocks.”

The author, press release photo for The Girl Who Smiled Beads

And then there is religion. Clemantine does not have a conventional God, but rather sees God in nature. In people. In smiles. The idea of a benign God seems heinous. Given all the suffering, and the madness of war, “How could God exist?”

Clemantine is passionate about telling her own story, and not allowing others to make up a narrative for her. She is also determined to become herself, who she truly is, after all that has happened. Not anyone else’s version of who she is. She has made herself into the Girl Who Smiled Beads, of course, but she is so much more than that.

Adjusting to normality was hijacked at one point. The big, shock reunion with her family on the Oprah Show was fraught with mixed emotions under the lights and in front of an audience revelling in glamorous sentimentality. Clemantine also refers to a giant chasm between herself and her mother. The consequences of war can be deep and long lasting. Shattered lives cannot be easily reassembled.

(L-R) Claire and Clemantine, shocked by Oprah Winfrey and a sudden family reunion

Still, Clemantine’s story is transformative. From the depths of despair to the triumph of hope over experience. Smiling beads is what the author continues to do. First of all Clemantine listens, and then she tells. And enchants. And, despite the harsh realities, she lifts people up.

The memoir ends in the finest way: leaving us wanting to know more. The best may be yet to come for Clemantine. But in some ways, she has already shown us her best. Clemantine survived. And now she is thriving and finding ways to help others to do the same.

© Eddie Hewitt 2018

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is published in hardback by Hutchinson (Penguin Random House)


Clemantine Wamariya - author's website

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