Once a Child Seeking Refuge, She Now Inspires Joy: Community Service Recipient Joyful Clemantine Wamariya '09

   Photo by Jitske Schols

Clemantine Wamariya ’09 has been selected as the 2020 Community Award Recipient. Clemantine, who recently added Joyful as her first name, is an internationally renowned speaker, a New York Times best-selling author, and an accomplished human rights advocate. Her memoir The Girl Who Smiled Beads debuted in April 2018 and is published in eight languages. The book describes Clemantine and her sister Claire’s journey from an idyllic childhood in Kigali, Rwanda up until 1994, to fleeing war conflicts and seeking refuge in eight different countries throughout Africa, to receiving refugee status in the USA in 2000. 
Hotchkiss was one of many steps Clemantine took as she built her life in America. When she first arrived in Lakeville for a postgraduate year before enrolling at 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 in The Girl Who Smiled Beads. 

Looking back at her Hotchkiss experience, she feels incredibly grateful for the friendships she made, the education she received, and to the faculty who embraced her complexity and treated her with patience as she grappled with her feelings of isolation.

In an article published in the 2018 fall issue of Hotchkiss Magazine, Instructor in English Christine Cooper P’08,’11 recalled 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.” 

In 2014, she received her B.A. in comparative literature from Yale University, where she continued building her career as a compelling storyteller and fierce advocate for the well being of our humanity. Clemantine appeared four times as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2016 to serve on the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. 
After she moved to San Francisco, she felt a need to write her story. A publishing agency introduced her to Elizabeth Weil, a writer who worked with her for three years and co-authored the book.
Clemantine continues to bring her powerful perspective to various organizations, including Women for Women International and Refugee Transitions. She shares her stories as a way to reframe the way her audiences think and share their own personal experience, and she invites all to reexamine how we share basic human needs. 
Currently, she is devoting her time to ‘Joy-full Projects,’ an agency to connect creatives to each other and the resources they need to thrive at every stage of their creativity. 
“There is so much human pain and suffering in the world. I want to honor all those difficult experiences and acknowledge their aftermath,” she told Hotchkiss Magazine.  At the same time, she added, “I want to really live in the present, and find love and joy in the world around me.”

A ceremony honoring Clemantine as the 2020 Community Service Award recipient will be held next fall. She may be reached here.

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