It was a quintessential “Oprah” moment. In May 2006, Clemantine Wamariya, an 18-year-old refugee from Rwanda, sat in the studio audience, one of 50 winners of a national high school essay contest. As her host listened, an emotional Clemantine explained that she had been searching for her parents since she was 6, when war separated Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, from the rest of their family. The sisters had spent the next six years on the run, wandering through seven countries, dodging bullets, suffering illness and living in refugee camps before landing in the United States, empty-handed, in 2000.
“So, Clemantine,” Oprah asked. “Before you left Africa, did you ever find your parents?”
Clemantine knew they were alive but had not found them.
But guess who had?
Moments later, a curtain lifted and out came Clemantine and Claire’s parents — healthy and impeccably dressed — along with several of their siblings.
Oprah has said the reunion was “one of the deepest, most joyful moments” she has ever experienced.
For Clemantine, the emotions were more complicated. There was certainly relief, joy and gratitude, she said over a recent lunch in Washington. But there was also something else: “I felt guilty.”
In her new memoir, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” (Crown), Clemantine writes candidly about the moment that turned her into “the Oprah Girl,” and how that role has been both a blessing and a burden.
Clemantine had not only survived war, she had come to America and succeeded: She was taken in by a well-to-do family and became a high school cheerleader and activist. After her “Oprah” appearance, Clemantine became a sought-after voice — and face — in the humanitarian community. There have been luncheons, fundraisers, a TED talk, work with Harpo Productions and Oprah’s leadership academies; David Brooks cited her courage in a column. In 2016, President Obama appointed Clemantine to the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“I was the clever child who induced the fairy godmother to bring her parents back to life,” Clemantine writes. “I was often cast as a martyr or saint. I was special, very special. So strong, so brave, a genocide princess. . . . It felt strange and rewarding to become such a useful character.”
While she is grateful for the recognition and proud of her role, Clemantine feels a void, too. “Even the kindest individuals with the best intentions rarely made room for the particular person I was,” she writes. She hopes her book will help change that.
“My name is Clemantine,” she says emphatically in conversation. “I don’t want to be called the genocide survivor anymore. No. It’s a label. I am human.”
Even Clemantine admits this is a difficult point to make when your work consists of telling your personal story in the service of a larger cause. But she says she wants her book, co-authored by Elizabeth Weil, to serve as a megaphone: “I want to be so loud about the experience of killing each other. I want to tap into everyone’s senses, to touch on our human sensibility.”
Her book achieves that. Like Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone,” on being a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, or Joseph Kim’s “Under the Same Sky,” on escaping North Korea, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads” is at once terrifying and life-affirming. And like those memoirs, it painstakingly describes the human cost of war.
The tale begins in Kigali, where Clemantine enjoyed a comfortable life: There were fresh flowers on the table and nannies to care for her; Claire dreamed of attending college in Canada. Then slowly Clemantine’s world began to fall apart: “The electricity flickered on and off. The water stopped working. There was shushing, so much shushing, so much pressure to be quiet and still.” As the ethnic conflict intensified, Clemantine and Claire were sent to their grandmother’s house, where they hid in a pit in the ground used for making banana wine. “Colors and sounds bloomed, then exploded,” Clemantine recalls. “I didn’t sleep.”
The situation quickly worsened. Soon there was a knock at the front door of their grandmother’s house, and the girls were told to run. Clemantine carried with her only a towel. She reached a banana grove and witnessed for the first time others also fleeing, “most of them young, some of them bloody with wounds. . . . We heard laughing and screaming and pleading and crying.” The noises “were human and not human.”
Over the next 200 pages, Clemantine recalls her and Claire’s harrowing, dramatic journey: joining a mass exodus from Rwanda to a refugee camp in Burundi and then on to Zaire (now Congo), Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa. Over six years Clemantine and Claire covered thousands of miles, by foot, truck and once via a boat in which they nearly drowned. Sometimes strangers took them in, only to kick them out soon after. Clemantine learned to eat grasshoppers, fend off lice and forage on farms. While Claire found ways to make them money, Clemantine took care of Mariette, the baby her sister had with her husband, a CARE worker she met at a refugee camp.
Clemantine, who was called “Cassette” as a child, lives up to her nickname as she vividly records the sights and sounds of her experience. Of that first migration out of Rwanda, she writes: “We walked, this mass of desperation, no longer distinct people. We walked until we stopped and fell asleep. . . . The clearing became a colony and people started dying. I had never seen that many flies and bugs of all kinds, day in and day out. Cholera, dysentery, infected wounds. People bonded together into groups for safety. . . . Nobody spoke of the past or the future. Time balled up into a knot.”
The book, which publishes April 24, moves back and forth through time, interspersing scenes like this with Clemantine’s later life as a student at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., and at Hotchkiss, Yale and beyond. Although sometimes awkward, the structure allows Clemantine to emphasize the vast differences between her two lives and the challenges she continues to face bridging them.
The most difficult obstacle has been reconnecting with her biological parents beyond the spotlight. A few days after the “Oprah” show, they had to go back to Rwanda, and though they have since immigrated to the United States, “time had created such an intense gap,” Clemantine says. “The relationship that we had was gone, and I couldn’t really rewind time.”
Clemantine refers to her host mother as her mother and speaks glowingly of the opportunities she provided, including typing up that Oprah essay. When Clemantine arrived in the United States, at age 12 — brought here through the help of World Relief — she spoke no English. (For her facility with the language she thanks hours of “Sesame Street,” as well as ESL courses.) “Everyone came together and took care of us,” she says. “At first, I was like, what do they want from us? Do they want us to wash their dishes?”
Clemantine, now 30 and living in San Francisco, continues to speak out about human rights issues. She is still hopeful for immigrants and refugees, even in today’s political climate. “There are a lot of great people everywhere,” she says. “And there are also a lot of not so great people. It’s all over the world. But when we stepped out of the airplane, we had people waiting for us — smiling, saying, ‘Welcome to America.’ People were happy. Many countries were not happy to have us. Right now there are people at the airport still holding those banners.”
Clemantine remains committed to helping people like herself. She is working with Claire to aid female refugees from Africa and with the Holocaust Museum on interactive projects. But she is just as committed to carving out her own identity. “I’m telling this story to save myself,” she says through tears.
Her book may make your eyes well up, too. But as Clemantine puts it: “My mom says tears are good for your skin.” And maybe your soul, too.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World. On April 27 at 7 p.m., Clemantine Wamariya will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. She will be in conversation with Madhulika Sikka, PBS public editor and creator of the “52 Weeks, 52 Books, 52 Women” podcast.
Crown. 274 pp. $26