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A Story for the Broken

As a child, Clemantine Wamariya survived the Rwandan genocide. Now, in a new memoir, she tries to mend the rest of us.


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After six years spent fleeing the Rwandan genocide with her sister, Clemantine Wamariya was brought to live with a family in suburban Chicago, where she at times struggled to assume a “normal” teenage life.

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Wamariya (far right) and friends pose before one of her dinner salons, this one held at MacRostie Winery in Healdsburg.

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The year was 1994, and Clemantine Wamariya lived in a stucco ranch house in a nice neighborhood in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Clemantine was a precocious kid, forever inventing fairy worlds and clambering in her family’s mango tree. They called her Cassette, because she repeated everything. She was five years old.

When the changes began, Clemantine experienced them through the haze of childhood. Walking home from kindergarten one afternoon, she noticed a strange gathering of sweaty men holding flags and blocking traffic. She noticed other confusing things, too: drumming in the distance, car horns blaring, unfamiliar expressions on her parents’ faces. Soon she stopped going to kindergarten. She was forbidden from playing in the mango tree, then from playing outside altogether. A nanny of hers disappeared, then another.

Life closed in on itself. The curtains were always shut, the radio always on. The family ate with the lights off. Be silent, the kids were constantly told, checkeka—be still. Everybody slept in Clemantine’s room, which had the smallest window. Strange burglaries swept through the neighborhood, the intruders leaving behind ominous messages. Clemantine began to hear awful, incomprehensible noises—“not screaming,” she would write much later. “Worse.”

When at last all of this reached her door, it did so abruptly. One day Clemantine’s mother ordered her and her 15-year-old sister, Claire, to pack for their grandmother’s farm, a few hours away. There was no explanation. Their grandmother took them in, but the country proved unsafe as well. Within a few days there came a knock on the door, and their grandmother motioned for Claire and Clemantine to run.

The two girls took off, belly-crawling through their grandmother’s sweet potato field. “The earth felt soft and lumpy,” she would write, like “a bucket of broken chalk.” They kept going, walking for hours, rubbing mud on their bodies to make themselves disappear. They saw others walking, bodies bloody with gaping wounds. At the Burundi border they saw corpses floating in a river. Clemantine thought they were sleeping. The sisters walked and walked. At night they heard screaming and pleading and crying and then cruel laughter. They fell in with others, pressing on through forests and over hills.

The sound of the group was the sound of children crying for their mothers. Mama. Ma-MA. Mama mama mama. I did not say it myself. I did not dare. That sound filled my brain and never drained.

Clemantine and Claire belonged to an exodus of two million Rwandans fleeing the largest mass killing since the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s. In under 100 days, an estimated 800,000 people would be exterminated, mostly by machete. Neighbors hacked neighbors to death. Hutu men slaughtered their Tutsi wives. Some 250,000 women were raped. “To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats,” a radio announcer declared just before the violence began. Among the murdered were 300,000 children.

Clemantine wasn’t one of them. Between 1994 and 2000, she and her sister wandered from Burundi to Zaire to Tanzania to Malawi to Mozambique to South Africa, then back to Mozambique and Tanzania and Zaire, and then on to Zambia. They survived on leaves and insects at times. Along the way, Claire would get married and give birth to two children. Eventually, they would all be whisked off to the United States on refugee visas. Clemantine would be taken in by a family in suburban Chicago, where she’d graduate from high school and then be accepted into Yale.

Last month, Crown published her memoir, The Girl Who Smiled Beads, a searing chronicle, cowritten with San Francisco journalist Elizabeth Weil, of her escape from Rwanda and all that followed. The book is orthogonal to the stock refugee narrative, neither sensational nor inspiring. In it, Clemantine is enraged and lost and complicated—a fragile but resilient, shattered but hopeful human. Twenty-four years after crawling through that sweet potato field, Clemantine lives in a tall deco building in Pacific Heights. Recently she invited me over for tea. “No matter what is happening in your life,” she said, “you always offer tea.”

It was a crappy gray morning
when I rang her bell, a day when the world seemed to be teetering along an idiotic and awful cliff. Twenty-four hours earlier, Donald Trump had lobbed one of his most overtly racist vulgarities yet, bemoaning the wave of immigrants from “shithole countries.” I wondered how Clemantine, having gone over such a cliff, would be taking it.

She buzzed me in and threw open her door. “What a beautiful day!” she exclaimed. We stepped into her living room. At 30, she somehow looks both sage and childlike, her darting skepticism reorganizing from moment to moment into something like wonderment. A curtain of ropy braids is swept over her left shoulder. She’s beautiful and quirky—she claps when she laughs, listens to audiobooks while reading the physical book at the same time—and has the kind of tractor-beam charisma that blots out the rest of the world when she speaks. Her apartment is compact and tidy, dried flowers in the bathroom. She served us tea on a platter.

We sat on a gray denim daybed, the absurd gulf between us politely unremarked upon. By the age of 11, Clemantine had experienced a hell most Americans will never fathom. We all know the playbook: Awaken to the tragedy. Sequester the tragedy. Swear we’ll never ignore such a tragedy again. Move on.

But there’s one last stage. Unable to grasp or bear the enormity of that awfulness, we turn to a spokesperson. Like Malala Yousafzai before her, like Valentino Achak Deng before that, like Elie Wiesel before that, Clemantine lived to tell. With the publication of The Girl Who Smiled Beads, she steps into that strange role invented by the modern West: translator of the faraway atrocity. Required of the position are not just survival skills but also media ones, as well as a tolerance for difficult questions. Will her story meaningfully rouse people, or merely serve them a helping of pity over breakfast? Will it wake the world to what occurs on its watch, or just offer a kind of cathartic absolution?

That morning in her apartment, I did what outsiders always do: attempt to reconcile her unimaginable past with the woman here now, the one who gives TEDx Talks and sits on museum boards and has her photo in Vogue. She’d had to reconcile these two selves, too. “When you’re in survival mode, you numb yourself,” she said. She pulled some steaming sweet potatoes out of the oven. “When it came time to write the book, I had to dive back under to all my feelings.”

She and Weil spent three years sitting on the couch, taking walks, eating foods that might unearth memories, and otherwise excavating all that had been buried. “One day we were in Redwood Regional Park. We were walking and I just paused. It looked like many of the places where we fled. Suddenly I was like, ‘This is how it happened. This is how we hid,’” Clemantine said. “I was a ketchup bottle. [Weil] would take it and flip it upside down, and gradually it would come out.”

The document they produced is shattered and furious, clipped and searching. Here Clemantine describes her first refugee camp, at age six:

You had to try to stay a person. You had to try not to become invisible. If you let go and fell back into the chaos you were gone, just a number in a unit, which also was a number. If you died, no one knew. If you got lost, no one knew. If you gave up and disintegrated inside, no one knew.

She was given every opportunity to do so. In those first months, Clemantine would draw her name in dust on buses, hoping her mother would see it and recognize her handwriting. “All my toenails fell out,” she wrote later. “We lived on fruit. Days were for hiding, nights for walking.” Hope gave way to practical survival. Here was a house with its door ripped off, a bed to climb under. Here was a boat to escape with and nearly drown on. Here were six years of wandering and never knowing what horror or relief would come next. And then, one day, thanks to the International Organization for Migration, she’s on a plane to Chicago, and a thing called sixth grade, and a new existence altogether.

So many times, in our former life, I’d had to become someone else in order to stay out of a refugee camp or out of jail, to stay alive.... Now I had become this strange creature: an American teenager.

It grinded on her, all of it. And she records her repulsion and her befuddlement: the son from her first host family in Chicago wearing, without irony, an “I Survived Basketball Camp” shirt; being drilled on the word genocide on a vocabulary list. On September 11, Clemantine, then 13, watched the towers fall on TV. She felt nothing, and blurted out to her adoptive mother that this type of thing happens to people everywhere. “These were not the words of the nice poor African refugee girl she’d invited to live in her home,” she’d write.

Whoever she was, it would change with her discovery of Wiesel’s Night. She was bowled over by the Holocaust survivor’s “determination to view himself without pity, shame, or sentimentality.” Something clicked, touching off a series of events. Clemantine dictated to her American guardian an essay that would eventually land her on Oprah. There, in front of cameras, she’d be united with her real parents; miraculously, they had survived the genocide, in body if not spirit. Their reunion was not uncomplicated, but in spite of the family discord that would ensue, Clemantine would go on to graduate from Yale, and with Weil she’d write a long essay for the web magazine Matter, which would lead to a book deal and a promotional tour and more speaking engagements.

So it is that the translator of the faraway atrocity has become a great American success story. But childhood trauma doesn’t just vanish, nor is it vanquished through the act of writing. It took a while for me to see what was lurking behind her outward cheer: She’s destroyed. She is also rebuilt miraculously, but she is destroyed. One morning a couple months after we first met, she was telling me over the phone about her new life on the publicity circuit. Interviewers had begun to re-traumatize her with their casually prying questions. “‘So, were your family members killed?’ That one just freezes my brain,” she told me. “When I hear it, I get transported to this beautiful day, my aunt’s wedding. I was a flower girl, and I had these beautiful lilies in my hands, and then I turn around to see all my relatives there and—”

The line went silent—I thought we’d been cut off. Then I realized she was quietly sobbing. “I turn and they’re vanished. My family is gone.”

It was the only time she broke down with me, and soon she’d composed herself again. “I’m training to talk with the media,” she mused a few minutes later. “Are they training to talk with me?”

As awful as it is to behold Clemantine’s pain, it’s clear that survival is her keenest instinct. Her next version of it involves rescuing not just herself, but all of us—conveying the exquisite truth she’s come to discover, which is that we, too, are broken. Deeply broken, way down in the mainframe. Our brokenness allowed the massacre in Rwanda to transpire and now allows 65 million refugees to roam the world. Brokenness explains the school shootings, explains how we attack our fellow citizens, explains how we mistreat ourselves. We have forgotten how to love, she says.

The good news: The condition is reversible. Living proof was sitting in front of me, pouring a second cup of tea. Crack the code and crappy gray days become beautiful, human suffering rectifiable. I asked what the code was. Easier just to show you, she said.

It was a Saturday evening
the next time I rang the buzzer to Clemantine’s house. The tall Gambian American woman who opened the door had been roasting pears in the oven. A medical student named Hannah was sitting on the daybed. A Pakistani American couple from elsewhere in the building arrived shortly, as did a man visiting from China. Clemantine’s world-changing program was to begin promptly at seven.

The Saturday Supper started during her Yale years. The idea is for strangers— acquaintances, neighbors, someone Clemantine met in a Lyft—to pass an evening together, discovering commonalities and transcending differences. What appears casual and straightforward about the dinner party is, for Clemantine, a carefully constructed path toward healing. It’s an antidote to the kind of dehumanization she’s seen.

After some chitchat, everyone took seats around Clemantine’s meticulously arranged dinner table, a sprig of rosemary on each plate. “This is so good,” she said, diving into her own chicken. “Am I allowed to say that?” She set a lively tone, and conversation pinballed. Not everyone knew Clemantine’s story. At one point, a woman who worked at a startup politely asked what her book was about. Clemantine hesitated only slightly. “It’s about what gets in the way of people’s families,” she said.

It wasn’t the first vague answer I’d heard from her. Professionally, she describes herself with a Silicon Valley fuzziness: She’s a connector, a communicator, a storyteller. Indeed, as she has moved into public speaking, she has increasingly been welcomed into the tech world and its inspiration-heavy gatherings. But any fuzziness on Clemantine’s part seems born of a fierce ideology, one bent on resisting the urge to categorize, to divide, or to constrict our humanity (she doesn’t even like to use the term refugee).

For a collection of more-or-less strangers, the evening grew surprisingly warm. Even the inevitable dinner party snafus bounced off harmlessly, as when one of the guests slipped into what felt like a mansplanation of trauma. He had a theory that people can’t really retain the memories of traumatic experiences—the pain of childbirth is soon forgotten, he said, as was the grind of his recent Mount Kilimanjaro climb. I glanced at Clemantine for a reaction, but she simply steered things in a new direction at the first lull. When everyone said good night, there were heartfelt hugs all around. Was the broken world repaired in some small way? Are eight humans slightly less likely to inflict harm? I don’t know. I have thought of that dinner repeatedly since, and of the dinners Clemantine will host in the years ahead, the talks she’ll give, the interviews she’ll grant, and the ways she’ll attempt to reframe the stories we tell ourselves. “I’m trying to deprogram our perceptions. I’m a hacker,” she told me over the phone a few days later. “It’s not the conversation we have. It’s the colors, the sounds, the lighting. It’s people twirling their rosemary, smelling it. All of these elements bring us together and remind us how to be.”

There’s a moment in The Girl Who Smiled Beads when Clemantine describes what I’ve come to see as her first hack. Her previous life obliterated, she had no choice but to engineer a new one.

To continue to exist, as a whole person, you need to re-create, for yourself, an identity untouched by everything that’s been used against you. You need to imagine and build a self out of elements that are not tainted. You need to remake yourself on your own terms.

I had to read it twice to see that she was only partly talking about herself.

Originally published in the May issue of
San Francisco

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