The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Received: Publisher
Published: April 24th, 2018
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Recommended Age: 16+
Pacing: Normal
Genres & Themes: Nonfiction, Memoir, War, Culture, Africa, Survival


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.” 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 asylum in the United States, where she embarked on another journey–to excavate her past and, after years of being made to feel less than human, claim her individuality.


”Here’s my story,” I said. ”Use it now or later. When you need it, it’ll be there for you. Maybe someday you’ll be facing a challenge, and you’ll think of my story. You’ll think of Claire. You’ll remember to put your ego in a bag and throw that bag away. You’ll remember to be kind and generous and a better human.”

It’s hard to review this book, because this is not a book that was written to be reviewed.

This written work, in itself, is a review. Clemantine is reflecting upon her past, present and future, but especially her past with her sister Claire. How does one review another person’s life?

Normally, I have no problem discussing memoirs, and offering my thoughts on them, but I have not been through anything remotely similar to what Clemantine has been through.

I have never lived through war. I was never a refugee. I am not black. I don’t know what it’s like to live estranged from my mom. I don’t know what it’s like not to have a home. I thought I did. When my family and I came to Canada, we stayed at our cousins’ house for a month, and I didn’t feel welcome. But that’s NOTHING compared to what Clemantine has been through.

So I cannot comment upon her lived experiences, because I know that would be wrong. I have no right to do that. I have no right to tell her she should have done this or that differently, or offer my opinion on the war that ravaged her life when I don’t know enough about it to do so.

But what I can do is tell you what this book has taught me. It has taught me that our educational system is flawed, because never has a high school History teacher told me that colonization is life-shattering. I learned that later on. Now, I don’t know if that’s because my History high school teachers were mainly men and white or maybe they weren’t allowed to use such strong and seemingly subjective terms, but I remember feeling very detached from and unconcerned about the concept of colonization.

It has also taught me that the human species can get used to anything, and can also overcome anything. Just look at Claire, Clemantine’s sister. She started a dozen businesses, trying to survive, in a world where women are commodities—possessed, disrespected, raped. She never let herself believe that she is scum, even if many people gladly told her so. She persisted. She fought.

In this memoir, Clemantine is sharing so much with us. Some of it is gruesome, some of it is nightmarish, and some of it is inspiring and beautiful.

I have consumed this book. I have swallowed every word. I didn’t analyze, because the author does that for us, but I did consider and think and try to imagine. It was hard. It SHOULD be hard. If trying to imagine a child growing up in the midst of a war, and feeling the effects of it every second of the day, were easy, then we’d all be doomed. We SHOULD feel shocked, and sad, and impressed by these two sisters and welcome them in our hearts.

I welcome them in mine.


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