Updated: Nov 12, 2020
In mid-May, to launch her book The Girl Who Smiled Beads in the UK, Clemantine was at Foyles in Charing Cross Road, an impressive forum for a literary soirée. Across the road from the bookstore, Chicago was being performed at the Phoenix Theatre. This was so apt. Chicago was Clemantine’s home when she first arrived in the United States after a long trek as a refugee in eastern and southern Africa.
Clemantine was in conversation with June Sarpong, TV presenter and author of Diversify: Six Degrees of Integration. They were both relaxed on stage, even when they needed to reflect for a few moments. Clemantine’s story is hard to listen to, but it must be told and heard. And yet, despite the suffering that she endured as a child, and a life of desperation for many years, Clemantine has a giant smile and always maintains her composure.
She even joked about her exhausting journey with her sister Claire, saying that they were “shopping around for the best refugees camps, but couldn’t find any, so they left and went to America”. This was a throwaway comment from the days when they were seeking shelter, but, like the sisters, it has survived and tells us a lot about their strength and their ability to see beyond their immediate circumstances.
As a child, growing up in the camps, witnessing all kinds of horrors, Clemantine became reluctant to communicate. But she was resilient, and has long since put these times behind her. She has been talking about her life story for some years, now, in her TED talks and beyond. Unravelling her life story. Giving voice to the child who had no voice, no reason to sing. Clemantine is now sharing with us what she has become, how she has developed. Her story is hugely uplifting. For Clemantine, communicating is now her working life. She is there to smile beads, but also to tell hard truths. Comforting and challenging. In both ways, she is serving others.
Later in the week, in a brilliant interview on BBC Breakfast – Clemantine had less than ten minutes to tell us about her Story of War And What Comes After (the subtitle to her book), but the session on the BBC couch was enlightening and far reaching. Full of wisdom and understanding, drawing deeply on a painful past but expressing herself succinctly and powerfully.
Clemantine Wamariya at the BBC
Clemantine described how, in a refugee camp, your humanity is “completely robbed away every single day”. The very act of assigning people as refugees is “An abuse of humanity”, which destroys people even after they have already suffered so much in the hostilities and the aftermath which caused them to leave in the first place.
Clemantine’s response to the question she posed herself – what do you do? – was “Not be silent”. She wrote the book for every survivor. Also for all those lost in the wars. Clemantine is standing up for everyone who suffered or could be at risk, but particularly women. She also urges women to draw on their own strength and resourcefulness:
“I come from a long line of people, especially women, who bring life to earth”.
And with links to current, powerful campaigns led by women in other areas of life, Clemantine calls for all who have suffered to speak out and say:
“Me too on wars!”
“Me too on refugee camps!”
On a personal note, throughout her life many people have wanted a piece of her, and she has had to protect herself physically and emotionally, and to preserve her identity and sense of self. Clemantine calls out all those who oppress, abuse or make other people feel inferior in any way.
On a national and global scale, the conflicts must end. The victims of the conflicts must be treated better. Along with the smiles and the fairytales, Clemantine is aware of the harsh realities of life, of social injustice, and the need to right wrongs. She is kind and patient, but she is also blunt and is calling for change, with all the power that words can provide. She is dealing with the impacts of colonialism and the ongoing effects of post-colonialism in her own way. By stating the truth and entreating people to be better.
On her still treasured homeland, Clemantine regrets that most people know Rwanda only though war. She longs for the conversation to also be positive and constructive in a way that embraces the need to learn and to engage, and to celebrate the joyful aspects of life:
“If you visit Rwanda, please come and dance with us, come and eat with us, come and listen.”
Going back a little…
In addition to her TED talks, there is a lesser known talk, with no title, which conveys her message even more powerfully. In response to the frequently asked question “What do you do?” Clemantine begins gingerly with “Who I am is not what I do”, and follows up with “What I do is a bit complicated”. And then Clemantine opens up and gives us a full-on enigma:
“I am so many people, and I’m so many places and I’m so many cultures”.
Clemantine Wamariya (photo via Vogue)
If this was an artist talking, or a performer, it might sound pretentious. But in formulating her answer, Clemantine refers to having grown up in 8 countries, speaking 5 languages (7 or more now), and having 10 mothers. This is a complex, composite set of identities, forged in traumatic surroundings. And yet, through her determination and altruism, Clemantine has committed herself to Inspiring others, Connecting people and Uplifting the human spirit. She calls this ICU. This would be a huge challenge for anyone. Even more so for someone who suffered so much in her own life. But she is strong. And, as she stated in the BBC interview, it’s in her DNA to survive and to thrive.
"I am so many people"
Clemantine opening up about her complex identity
This is the challenge she has accepted. The life that is hers. This is the way Clemantine excels. Encouraging others and reminding them to take care of each other. And before any talking, this starts with seeing and listening.
A final thought. The Girl Who Smiled Beads cannot be the only one doing the smiling and the talking. The world must respond, and this starts with individuals hearing the story.
Clemantine with Eddie Hewitt, at Foyles for the UK book launch, May 2018
© Eddie Hewitt 2018
Connected Cultures review of The Girl Who Smiled Beads
Clemantine Wamariya - author's website www.clemantine.org