From the opening pages of The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine Wamariya creates an image of being the most privileged refugee to have come out of Rwanda. I knew I was being judgmental, but it bothered me that even in this—genocide—it is the privileged who are given the opportunity to tell their stories. I tried to shake this animosity. Good for her, I told myself, though I wasn't sure I completely believed it. But the more I read, the “better” her situation became. Wamariya left Rwanda too young to really comprehend what was going on; by the end of the book, she has told the reader all about her extravagant shopping sprees, her acceptance to Yale, and her appearance on The Oprah Show. It was frustrating, because I had wanted to hear the story of a refugee sans celebrity status.
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.