Visible Women

Clemantine Wamariya experienced the Rwandan genocide, but she is not a victim

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Moya Crockett
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. Here, we talk to writer and advocate Clemantine Wamariya, the author of new memoir The Girl Who Smiled Beads.  

Clemantine Wamariya is a natural storyteller. Over the course of our forty-minute conversation, she frequently breaks away from giving a straightforward answer to instead dive back into her past, returning to the surface with fistfuls of detailed, beautiful, funny and heartbreaking anecdotes like so many cracked pearls. She tells me about her favourite college professor, about a lovely Syrian taxi driver she met recently, about Didi, the heartbroken old woman she knew as a child in Rwanda who introduced her to the concept of pain. She laughs a lot, and at one point, she cries.

“I don’t think in a linear form,” she explains. “My answers are circular. I’m an Afro-centric thinker: I grew up in eight different countries in Africa and I’ve lived in 10 [countries]. We speak in circles, because we’re thinking of everybody and we’re thinking of everything.”

This innate gift for narrative is on clear display in Wamariya’s memoir, The Girl Who Smiled Beads, set to be published later this month. Her first book, it bobs and weaves through the story of her extraordinary life. She was six years old when she and her elder sister Claire fled her grandparents’ house to escape being killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. They travelled for 100 days, hiding in forests until they crossed the border from Rwanda into Burundi, and spent the next six years living in refugee camps across eight African nations. 

Eventually, the Wamariya sisters were granted refugee status to the US, arriving in Chicago in 2000. Claire got a job as a hotel maid, and Clemantine went to school. Six years later, she entered and won an essay competition on the Oprah show, and it is here that her story diverges from that of most refugees. 

Unbeknownst to the sisters, the Oprah producers had tracked down their family in Rwanda and flown them to the US. On national television, they were reunited with their parents and three siblings – including two they had never met – for the first time in 12 years.

The reunion was packaged as an uncomplicated, feelgood moment. Two bright, likeable refugee girls being reunited with their lost family: what could be more uplifting than that? But the truth was infinitely thornier, murkier, more tangled. In a 2015 essay titled Everything is Yours, Everything is Not Yours, Wamariya writes: “I felt gratitude, sure, but I also felt kicked in the stomach, like my life was some sicko psychologist’s perverse experiment: Let’s see how far can we take a person down, and then how far can her raise her up, and then let’s see what happens!” Her family flew back to Rwanda shortly after the show was taped.

This refusal to stick to the expected story is what makes Wamariya so compelling. It would be perilously easy to pigeonhole her, to reduce her to a trite, patronising example of what a ‘good’ refugee should be. After graduating from high school, she got a scholarship to Yale University; at just 23, she was appointed to the board of the US Holocaust Museum by President Barack Obama, making her the youngest person and the first African ever to hold that prestigious position. Today, she lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco, and supports local refugee organisations as well as global charities such as Woman for Woman International through her advocacy work.

Her story could be packaged as the fairy tale of a young woman who overcame tragedy to beat the odds, yet she rejects this narrative entirely. The Girl Who Smiled Beads isn’t a story with a happy ending: it’s much more complex and interesting than that. 

She might deny that her story is a fairy tale, but Wamariya is also fiercely opposed to the idea that refugees should be seen as victims, even when that view comes from a theoretically benevolent place. “The idea of somebody suffering is really painful to every human,” she says. “In our collective language, we all too often see those who are suffering as a victim to be pitied, to be feared, and even sometimes to be despised. I want to redirect that narrative.

“We’re all humans first before something happens to us, right? I want to lift those labels [of refugee and victim] and put them aside, so that we can see each other as humans, because someone who may not have a home can heal you in ways in which you never thought.”

This brings her to the story of the taxi driver who picked her up after a recent trip to IKEA. As they drove, he told her that he was from Syria, and had been living in the US for a year as a refugee. “He was like: ‘The people who were in this car [before you], they said that my car was not clean’,” she says, sounding appalled. “I said, ‘I’m so sorry if that hurt you.’”

“This was his first car in America,” she continues, “and he understood me. He understood me so well. If I had sat in his car and done exactly what the other people did to him, I would have missed the gift that he shared with me.” At this point, her voice becomes thick with tears. “He just got to America. Do you know how hard it is to finally have a car in America when you’ve lost everything? You’ve lost everything, you’ve lost everybody?”

As with all of Wamariya’s anecdotes, there is a point to this story. “You have to be so very gentle, because he lifted my spirits, and then I, in turn, lifted his spirits. If we believe that a person seeking refuge is to be pitied, feared, despised and looked down upon, we are doing ourselves a disservice.”

After the dust has settled from the publication of The Girl Who Smiled Beads, she hopes to continue with her writing and advocacy work, sharing her own stories and enabling others to share theirs.

“I want to create or be a platform for people who have been labelled as a victim,” she says. “I’m not going to be their voice; that’s their voice. I want to allow people to voice their life beyond labels.”

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil is published by Hutchinson, priced £16.99 (out 26 April).

Images: Julia Zave / Courtesy of Penguin Random House