From Genocide Refugee to Inspiring Advocate: Her Story Should Be Read ... and Heard
When Rwandan refugee-turn critically acclaimed memoirist, Clemantine (pronounced Clem-en-teen) Wamariya arrived at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. one sun soaked, lazy Wednesday evening, the energy level throughout the store took a noticeable upward surge. Firstly, she didn’t just walk in. With a beaming smile and a prance in her step, she unabashedly and eagerly began taking photos with the display of her books and sign, making it obvious she was excited and proud. Secondly, she was dressed casually, but undeniably fashion-forward, showcasing a pair of shoes and a purse that had a story all to themselves. The 30-year-old writer and activist was not content to just exchange handshakes and pleasantries with the staff and customers, she embraced each one she met and listened intently to their feedback regarding her recently released book, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads.” One gets the sense that sort of cosmic shift is probably the norm wherever this vivacious, yet humble young woman goes. Maybe given her personal history of surviving war, separation and dislocation, one expects her to be serious, sullen and beat down. Instead she defies expectations and is a friendly beacon of strength and gratitude, a breath of fresh air in the book tour circuit.
In 1994, the Hutu majority government began a 100 day long bloody and senseless campaign against the minorityTutsis community. An estimated 500,000 to one million people were slaughtered and some two million people displaced. Among the displaced was Clemantine, then six years old, and her fifteen year old sister, Claire. It was at the start of the uprising when their parents scurried them away from their village to safer territory with their grandparents village in an attempt to flee the encroaching massacre. The siblings initially assumed their parents would soon join them at their grandmother’s home, but after some time, unavoidable circumstances put them on the road again. Despite long treks among thousands of others as they went from village to village, and seeking refuge in one country after another, they managed to maintain a united front, but never connecting with their parents and brother along the way. As a result, they assumed the worst had taken place. In total, they spent several years in six countries before landing in Chicago, by the time she was 12, her sister 21 and married, with children.
Beginning our “In Conversation” style presentation I had little, if any, preconceptions of the direction things would go, but I definitely did not expect it to commence with the docile tones of Nina Simone. Admitting to being a bit tense, Clemantine pulled out her portable speakers and selected a favorite from her musical collection. Clemantine felt confident that starting off musically would be a therapeutic way to allow herself as well as the audience to regroup, focus and relax as we all entered a tough topic. After we go from a few minutes of music and then silence, Clemantine indulges my questions pertaining of what life was like as a young refugee, going from country to country before landing in the U.S. “It’s a strange feeling to go from having a home, being part of a family, having that security, to not only being without your family and home, but being without a country.” In her book she gives a heartbreaking account of how life on the run for several years took its toll on her. “I lost track of who I was. I’d become a negative, a receptacle of need. I was hungry, I was thirsty, I needed a bathroom, I needed a place to sleep ... You had to try to hang on to your name, though nobody cared about your name. You had to try to stay a person. You had to try not to become invisible.”
Throughout the book, Clemantine goes from flashbacks of the different phases in her young life, commenting as much on the vulnerability of memory as any social or political issues. This includes her life before the genocide, fleeing her war-torn homeland and the first several years in America. Each aspect is vivid and achingly personal, and although her life was full of challenges that most of us will never come close to experiencing, her story never comes across as depressing. It is raw, real, and yes, sometimes harsh, but it is humane and courageous, a truth worth telling and reading. Her ability to rely on her inner strength and ambitions, as well as the kindness of others, permeates the pages and inspires the reader. A great example of this is when Mrs. Kline, the friend of her American mother, takes her shopping for school clothes. “I did not know how much I was broadcasting my pain, how obvious it was to Mrs. Kline that I needed help loving myself. I tried on the clothes thinking, uncharitably, ‘this is nice, but why should I care?’ But the truth is I needed Mrs. Kline. I needed the confidence and positivity she wanted to instill in me.”
While in Chicago with her American family, she and her sister were eventually reunited with her parents and brother as it was famously broadcast on The Oprah Winfrey Show, for better or worse. Although Clementine was beyond grateful for the reunion, their time together, post broadcast, was a whirlwind weekend filled with awkward moments and understandably conflicting emotions before her family returned to Rwanda. Since then, Clemantine has maintained contact with her family, having a couple of occasions to travel back to her homeland. As she grew in American and grew in confidence, she soared academically, ultimately getting accepted into and attending Yale University. It was while there, that she was invited to participate in an outreach project in Rwanda. To return to her past was difficult, she faced the challenge and prevailed. Later, she would be appointed to the Board of the Holocaust Museum by President Obama, and even join a delegation from the museum to go to Rwanda for a memorial in honor of the genocide’s twentieth anniversary.
Since graduating, Clemantine fell in love with the San Francisco Bay Area and its resemblance to her native land, with it’s bucolic setting of rolling hills. She lives in the area full time where she continues to write, fulfill public speaking engagements, participates on boards and delegations as a refugee/immigrant advocate. She unabashedly enjoys downtime when she isn’t traveling and promoting the book. Speaking of books, she referenced Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” of which she’s read numerous times while presenting at Book Passage. She has not only met Wiesel on several occasions, but has had the honor of introducing him for a special event at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. She described her connection to Wiesel and his widely influential book while at Book Passage and for Medium.com.
“My copy of Night is dog-eared. The pages are filled with plastic colored “flags” that are blue, green, purple, and yellow. Vocabulary is in the margins; phrases and sentences are underlined, some with pencil, and some with pen. Many words are circled. At the end of every chapter, I asked Mr. Wiesel questions, never suspecting that someday I would get to ask them of him in person. My English teacher’s email address and home telephone number are on a post-it note inside the back cover for when I needed help. A recent addition is a note from Professor Elie Wiesel himself.
I still remember where I was sitting when I first opened Night. I hung on to every word in the text. I also remember shutting the door to my bedroom. It was past midnight (way past my bedtime) and I wanted to keep on reading. I stayed up all night reading, crying, and not believing that I had found a language that expressed what I had been feeling for many years, telling of experiences that my sister and I tragically knew so well, but had not shared with each other or anyone for ten years. “The days were like nights, and the nights left the dregs of their darkness in our souls….”
The book’s title, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” refers to stringing the pieces of Clemantine’s memory in the right light, the right order. If done correctly she believes she can create a “narrative that is beautiful and makes sense.” For those of us, fortunate to experience this story through reading it, we are changed and enlightened. And even more so if we witness her energy and light through meeting Clemantine and hearing her present her story and her life in progress. She had successfully infected us all with the vital realization of how memory shapes our present and future. No matter how difficult to face, the results of embracing the past are rewarding. By night’s end, we were all smiling beads.
Photos of Clemantine courtesy of Julia Zave- juliazavephotography.com
Clemantine Wamariya- clemantine.org