Wamariya in 2017
|Born||1988 (age 30–31)|
|Occupation||Author, speaker, human-rights activist|
Born into a Tutsi family, she was forced to leave her home in Kigali and her parents at the age of six due to the Rwandan genocide. She sought refuge with her grandmother in the south of the country but was forced to flee again when the genocidaires targeted the family there, killing her grandmother. She escaped the country and spent several years travelling through Africa before being granted a refugee visa to the United States.
She settled with a family in the Chicago area and began formal schooling for the first time at the age of thirteen. She gained international attention in 2006 through an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show which featured a surprise reunion with her parents. After graduating from Yale she pursued a career as a public speaker with engagements including a TED talk. In 2018 she published a book recounting her life experiences, titled The Girl Who Smiled Beads.
Early life and experience in the Rwandan genocide
Wamariya was born in to a Tutsi family and grew up in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Her father was a businessman in the taxi sector and her mother was a gardener, growing fruit and flowers at the family's home.
The Rwandan genocide began in April 1994, when Wamariya was six years old. The family began hearing loud noises from the gunfire, which her brother Pudi attributed to thunder, and they noticed that their neighbours were absent. Realising the danger, Wamariya's mother sent her with her sister, Claire, to the south of the country to live on her grandmother’s farm. But that too was not safe, and the family were targeted for killing. As the genocidaires knocked on the door, she and Claire were told by their grandmother to run away. By travelling at night and hiding during the day, surviving on fruit, they managed to escape from the country and became refugees. Many of her relations, including her grandmother, were killed.
The first safe haven the sisters reached was a refugee camp in Burundi, but they were unable to settle in any one place for long. A combination of violence within the camps and a desire to find a location with a more prosperous outlook meant they spent many years travelling between camps. Over the next six years they moved from Burundi to Zaire, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and eventually to South Africa. From there, in 2000, the sisters applied to the International Organization for Migration for assistance, and were granted refugee visas to the United States. They were settled with a family in the Chicago suburb of Kenilworth.
Once settled in the US, Wamariya began attending school for the first time at the age of thirteen. She studied from the sixth grade at a local Christian school, before moving to the New Trier High School in nearby Winnetka. After graduating from New Trier in 2008, she studied at Yale University, where she obtained a BA degree in Comparative Literature in 2014.
Appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show
Wamariya first became known on the national and international stage when she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006, while still a student at New Trier. Along with her sister Claire, she was booked to appear on the show to discuss her experience during the genocide. But unbeknownst to the sisters, Winfrey had planned a surprise reunion with their parents. Both her father and mother had survived the genocide, and she had communicated with them by phone, but had not seen them in person for twelve years. The show's producers arranged the parents' flights from Africa and their reunion was televised. Wamariya was invited as a guest on the Oprah show on three further occasions during the subsequent years, and her appearances on the show gained her international attention.
Wamariya developed an interest in public speaking during her school years, as she shared her experiences with fellow students. After her appearances on Oprah, event organisers, especially in the humanitarian aid sector, invited her to speak. Her engagements have included a TED talk, titled War and What Comes After, lunch and dinner speeches, and appearances at fundraising events.
Following her appearance on Oprah, and while a student at Yale, Wamariya carried out speaking engagements across the US for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). In recognition of this, and her work with refugee organisations at Yale and in New Haven, Connecticut, she was appointed to the board of the USHMM by President Barack Obama. She was re-appointed for a second five-year term in 2016.
After completing her degree at Yale Wamariya moved to San Francisco, where she met New York Times journalist Elizabeth Weil, who lived in the same area. She recounted her life experiences to Weil, and the two started drafting a feature-length article. They received a positive reception, and decided to expand the work into a full book. They spent two years working on it, and it was released in 2018. The title of the book is The Girl Who Smiled Beads; this refers to a story told to her by her nanny as a child, in which Wamariya controlled the plot and destiny of the characters. In a Q&A with the book's publisher, she cited Elie Wiesel's holocaust memoir Night as an inspiration, having read the book when she was in school.
Wamariya lives in San Francisco and is married with two daughters.
- Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint (19 January 2019). "LITTÉRATURE SANS FRONTIÈRES: Le témoignage bouleversant de la jeune Rwandaise Clemantine Wamariya". RFI (in French).
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- Alexis Okeowo (7 May 2018). "From the Rwandan Genocide to Chicago: A Young Author Survived to Tell Her Story". New York Times.
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- "Clemantine Wamariya: Author and Human Rights Advocate". re:publica.
- "Q & A with Clemantine Wamariya". Thompson Rivers University. 11 March 2014.
- Clemantine Wamariya (13 February 2015). "10 Things I Have Learned as a Public Speaker". medium.com.
- Nora Krug (18 April 2018). "A moment on 'Oprah' made her a human rights symbol. She wants to be more than that". Washington Post.
- "War and what comes after". TED.
- "President Obama Appoints Five Members to United States Holocaust Memorial Council". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 9 November 2011.
- "Bio - Clemantine". Clemantine.org.
- Gregory McNamee (12 December 2018). "Clemantine Wamariya". Kirkus Reviews.
- "The Girl Who Smiled Beads". Penguin Random House.
- "Clemantine Wamariya will be In Conversation about her New Hardcover ~ The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After". Rainy Day Books.