The eye-opening, true story of two sisters who escape the Rwandan genocide and start life anew in Chicago.
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Why I love it
Author, A Woman Is No Man
As a full-time writer and woman of color, I choose my books carefully. I am naturally drawn to vivid narratives from underrepresented voices, and, for me, Clemantine Wamariya’s memoir of life after the Rwandan genocide is a revelatory example of just that. In her story, as in her life, she is extraordinarily well-spoken and fiercely courageous. She grabbed me and refused to let go.
Clemantine was only six years old when her home country of Rwanda erupted into genocide, forcing her and her older sister to flee—for six years—from one refugee camp to another. After crossing seven African countries and enduring hunger, prison, and abuse, they were granted refugee status and sent to Chicago. There, with the help of a new, generous family, Clemantine began to put her life back together. She was a success story, and yet, in her heart, she still felt like a refugee—scattered, afraid, belonging nowhere.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads left me with a disarming truth: Survival is not just about staying alive. I love Clemantine’s story because though it’s deeply personal, it forces us to reckon with our own humanity—it smacked me awake to the injustices of the world. A raw, magnetic account of loss and dislocation, trauma and reconciliation, I am a better person for having read it.
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 migrating 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; there, in Chicago, their lives diverged. Though their bond remained unbreakable, Claire, who had for so long protected and provided for Clemantine, was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, while Clemantine was taken in by a family who raised her as their own. She seemed to live the American dream: attending private school, taking up cheerleading, and, 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.
In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of “victim” and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks. Devastating yet beautiful, and bracingly original, it is a powerful testament to her commitment to constructing a life on her own terms.
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Oklahoma City, OK
Clementine’s story was remarkable, and with everything she had been through it’s inspiring that she is choosing to share her story. This book made me step back and think with a different perspective.
Heartbreaking, while at the same time inspiring. Sometimes there are people who just make you realize that ‘strong’ is a relative term - as exemplified here by such incredible strength and resilience.
What a story. The author does a great job of allowing the reader to dive in to what war torn countries and their inhabitants deal with—things most of us couldn’t fathom. A story of amazing courage.
Was an excellent read. To know what happened and to hear from someone who lived it and didn’t give up. Cried at mothers quote at the end, pg 263. Shows the suffering full circle & trying to reunite.
What a privilege to read this story. It’s humbling to be able to read through details of someone’s story, and the loss, heartbreak, bravery, and persistence these sisters showed was/is remarkable.
Columbia City, IN
Another great one! I love reading about life in different countries and cultures. This book really opens up your eyes to the struggles of others. I would definitely recommend if you haven’t read yet!!
Bothell , WA
This is a memoir that doesn’t wrap everything up in a bow. She creates a narrative from her experiences but is quick to point out it doesn’t tell the whole story. Read this expecting to be changed.
This novel forces us to stop and consider a part of history that often gets overlooked by the media. People we pass everyday have gone through things we can’t imagine, but we need to learn about it
Los Angeles, CA
Excellent first person account of Rwandan genocide and the endless fallout victims experience decades after. Clemantine delicately walks the tightrope between hope and hopelessness in life after hell
I loved how the author jumped back and forth between the present and the past seemlessly. The process of watching her figure out how to process her emotions is a great guideline for us to do the same.
Absolutely heartbreaking. I know so little of the Rwandan genocide as I was also just a kid when it happened. It's so important to read this brave woman's story and to acknowledge why/how it happened.
This is an amazing/sad/horrible/needed-to-hear story. The strength of Clemantine and her sister, despite everything, is amazing. I actually purchased a nonfiction book referenced in here to learn more
Wamariya unflinchingly revisits her childhood trauma through the lens of youth. Her story seared itself into my memory with an empowered, reflective voice. A true work of art that sings of sisterhood.
Im not done with this book yet but so far its amazing. Reading what people went through during this time is just astonishing. I should never complain about anything. Ever. Her writing is my favorite.
Eye-opening and brutally honest look at life as a refugee. Wamariya has a unique and emotionally raw voice as a narrator that allows the reader to connect and yearn to learn more about her experience
Boynton Beach, FL
The book was very well written. It was heartfelt. Their experiences were unbelievable and the fact that they came out of it as such extraordinary people is a credit to their strength and determination
Lawrence , KS
This was not just a look into the horrors she faced as a refugee in Africa with a happily ever after as she moved to the US. She also revealed the struggles of coping and living with trauma after war.
San Francisco , CA
Tragic and important book about perseverance. Clemantine’s story highlights some of the darkest parts of humanity while also showing that, within that darkness, we can still find hope and kindness.
North Mankato, MN
Wow, what is there to say? This memoir was eye-opening, heart-wrenching, and humbling to say the least. A tale of a young girl fleeing the Rwandan genocide - the before and after. Classroom material.
This book made me think. Author has so much emotion without actually having it. I could not imagine her experience. Thank you for sharing your story. This is something we Americans cannot relate to.