There are so many layers to Clemantine Wamariya’s life, it’s hard to know where to begin her story.
There is her epic journey as a six-year-old, when she and her 15-year-old sister, Claire, were forced to escape Rwanda without their parents during the 1994 genocide. It is a tale of heart-rending moments and images both horrifying and poetic: dead bodies silently floating on the river, which Wamariya, still full of childhood innocence, believed were people sleeping. There are desperate years she and her sister spent in refugee camps; her adolescent years growing up in a middle-class family in America; her highly publicized reunion with her parents — on Oprah! On live television! — and her struggle to reconcile her past with her life in America while she was a student at Hotchkiss, then at Yale.
All of this is revealed in The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, a memoir she co-wrote with Elizabeth Weil, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, that was released last spring by Crown Publishers. A New York Times bestseller, the book has been translated into six languages. But the memoir is just part of her story. “There is much I wasn’t able to fit into the book,” says Clemantine, who prefers to go by her first name only. She now lives in San Francisco and is a human rights advocate on behalf of conflict survivors.
Clemantine, now 30, is striking. She has a warm, beautiful smile and an effusive personality that belies the sadness and loneliness she experienced as a child refugee and as a marginalized 12-year-old in America. When Hotchkiss Magazine caught up with her over the phone in between her book tour and speaking engagements, she was eager to talk about her life moving forward, and shed light on the backstory of her memoir.
Being in survival mode for so long created an emotional numbness, a barrier that took her years to her overcome. Her knee-jerk reaction to questions about her past was to tell people: “At age six, I ran away with my sister to escape the Rwandan massacre. We spent seven years as refugees. What do you want me to do about it? Cry?”
In her memoir, she describes the alienation she felt when she was asked to speak to a group of high schoolers about her experience. She decided it would be easier to narrate it as an adventure. “They just thought I was cool,” she wrote.
When she finished telling her story, one of the students asked, “Did you have any animals? Like, did you have elephants?” Another girl said, “You didn’t shower for days? Gross!” She pretended she didn’t hear.
“So few people knew who I was,” she wrote. When she arrived at Hotchkiss for a postgraduate year before going to Yale, she found herself alone, for the first time in her life, in her single room on the third floor of Wieler Hall. She was 20 years old. “I had lived so many places, adapted so well, but I had never lived alone,” she wrote. “I had the skills to get into those long halls filled with portraits of pale, square-jawed men. I had the ability to work the system there. But none of that could protect me from my inner life. I felt so old and so young. I’d always been alone, but I’d never been alone. I was so many people and nobody at all.”
Looking back at her Hotchkiss experience, she feels incredibly grateful for the education she received and to the faculty who embraced her complexity and treated her with patience when she broke the rules.
Instructor in English Christina Cooper recalls having Clemantine as a student in her creative writing class, where she first began to hone her skills as a storyteller: “I remember vividly her attention to detail, and the way she was unafraid to confront, in painfully honest ways, the emotional complexities of her story: life on the run from war-torn countries of Rwanda, the Congo and Burundi, her relationship with her sister, and the blurry margins and complicated relationships and loyalties with the people and places she called home, both as a child and emerging young woman. Her classmates and I were a rapt audience.”
But at times, her anger was irrepressible. In her memoir, Wamariya recalled one incident at Hotchkiss during a philosophy class in which the instructor asked the students to game out a scenario:
“You’re a ferry boat captain. The ship is sinking. How do you decide who lives and who dies?”
For her, this was not a hypothetical question. “I’ve been in a boat so overloaded with desperate humans fleeing from starvation and war that people had to start throwing their luggage into the water so we all didn’t sink and die. I lost it in that class and started screaming, ‘You have no idea, do you? You’ve never been in that scenario. What gives you the right to even talk? This is real. That’s me and I have a name and I’m alive and there are people out there who are dead, or they’re living but they’re checked out and they hate the world because people in your country sat there and watched all of us getting slaughtered.’’’
"She stormed out of the classroom, not for the first time."
After graduating from Yale, where she earned a degree in comparative literature, and lured by the tech industry she moved to San Francisco, where she began to slowly make peace with her fears and her anger. One day, she was hiking in the Berkeley Hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay when she suddenly felt like she was back in Rwanda.
“I paused on a hike and I looked across the hilly landscape. I thought I could have been home in my childhood neighborhood,” she recalls. It was the first time she paused to really listen to herself, to examine her emotions.
“It’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all. The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out. No other place takes you in. You are unwanted, by everyone. You are a refugee.” — The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After
In 2011, President Obama appointed her to serve on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Then, in 2014 she traveled with a museum delegation to Rwanda to attend a commemoration of the 20-year anniversary of the genocide. During the event, she sat with more than 50,000 other people in a stadium, where she watched a performance depicting the time- line of the Rwandan genocide. There was no dialogue, just music and movement, but it deeply moved the audience.
“Many Rwandans are silent about what happened then,” she said. “But at that moment, watching the performance was like watching a horror movie, only without the blood. People watching it in the stadium started screaming and crying, and that’s the first time many of them released their feelings about what happened. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. For the first time in my life, I cried, too, for my country.”
She cried for two days nonstop. After the visit to Rwanda, she knew she couldn’t return and simply slide back into her American life. She needed to share her story, to add to the timeline.
“So often,” she says, “we don’t write about the human emotions of conflicts; we write about the political and economic aftermath. I wanted to write about those feelings.”
She returned to San Francisco determined to change her life. She found a therapist, a yoga instructor, a meditation coach – "anything to help me connect with my strength beyond suffering,” she says — and she contacted a publishing agency that introduced her to Elizabeth Weil, who became her rock for three years while they worked on the book. “She was a mother to me, and as a writer, she met me at my most human self,” says Clemantine.
Less than a year later, they produced an article published in Medium, “Everything is Yours, Everything is not Yours,” which the two used to shop for a book publisher.
With the memoir’s success, Clemantine has begun a new chapter in her life. But her refugee childhood has left unseen scars: she collects seemingly insignificant items, like bus tickets, a lingering reaction to not being able to hold on to any of her child- hood belongings during her years of being constantly on the move from refugee camp to refugee camp. Instead, she collected rocks and marbles from each camp and stashed them in a Mickey Mouse backpack, which became her lifeline.
Today, her apartment holds memories of the seven countries she migrated through before arriving in America. There is a rug the color of the soft, grey sands of the Democratic Republic of Congo; a woven basket from Rwanda; and a wall painted the golden brown hues of Cape Town, South Africa. In the kitchen are the colors and rich aroma of herbs from her mother’s garden.
And, in the dining room, she says, “I have the biggest dining room table because I have so many, many people coming over,” she says, laughing. Making peace with her fears has been a strengthening experience, and one of those fears was not having a home. “My apartment has become my home, and I share it with everyone, no matter who,” she says.
Meanwhile, she continues to work as a human rights advocate, an author, and storyteller who brings her perspective to various organizations, from TED Talks to the boards of Women for Women International and Refugee Transitions. She has come to terms with the realization that hate is part of being human, that is is generated by fear, and that we need to identify that fear to curb the hate.
“We’ve created these categories that divide us as humans, and in doing that, we miss each other. I want to bring people together and remind everyone that they have permission to know themselves and others beyond labels,” she said.
On a more personal level, she is deeply committed to finding joy in her life and sharing it with others. “There is so much human pain and suffering in the world. I want to honor all those difficult experiences and acknowledge their aftermath,” she says. But at the same time, she adds, “I want to really live in the present, and find love and joy in the world around me.”
She still has the same spirit of the little girl who grew up in a close-knit family, eating pineapple cake and playing in her mother’s tropical garden, the little girl who believed the story her nanny, Mukamana, told her about a girl who roamed the earth, leaving a trail of beads behind her. She would leave it up to young Clemantine to imagine how the story would end, and whatever she said, Mukamana would make it come true.
“Growing up, I wanted to be like her,” says Wamariya. “I wanted to tell stories and dance for others like she did.”
It seems, at last, she has bridged the past with the present. She talks excitedly about a huge community gathering at her apartment, where she has invited many friends who have offered to share their talents: a chef from the Congo will cook for 50 people. There will
be a DJ playing African music. Her uncle in Rwanda is sending her a crate of passion juice —and on and on.
And yes, she will be dancing.