Interview with ‘08 grad Clemantine Wamariya

Wamariya speaks on best-selling novel and human rights advocacy



Wamariya returns to the new building of the Winnetka campus

On Mar. 14, Clemantine Wamariya, Class of ‘08, returned to New Trier as one of nine recipients of the 2019 Alumni Achievement Award.

After New Trier, Wamariya graduated from Yale University with a BA in Comparative Literature. Wamariya is presently an accomplished human rights advocate and a New York Times bestselling author. Her memoir, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads,” was written with Elizabeth Weil, and debuted in Apr. 2018.

In 2011, President Obama appointed her to the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, making her the youngest board member in the organization’s history.

While at New Trier, Wamariya was active in theatre and charity work, like collecting change for Habitat for Humanity. She found the stage an ideal place to learn about herself.

“I would say between theatre and dance, and just being in a art room, was my favorite [part of being at New Trier] because every person in theatre, we all had a question about ourselves, about our identity, we weren’t confirming to us a certain type of being,” said Wamariya.

Wamariya has a love of storytelling, nurtured early in her life by the stories her nanny told her. Her book is named after one such story, and she found theatre to be a great place to share a story.

“It was really fun to do costumes together, or to be able to do lighting together, or to be able to do setting together. You know, to gather everyone and to be able to see how each one of your efforts adds into a story, and that story being on stage is absolutely amazing,” she said.

Wamariya’s path to New Trier is a story of survival and accomplishments. 25 years ago, more than 800,000 Rwandans were killed over a 100 day period as the Hutu majority slaughtered the Tutsi minority. Fueled by ethnic differences, and flamed by government propaganda, neighbors killed neighbors.

Wamariya’s book recounts her six-year journey from her homeland, through six African countries, before being granted asylum in the United States.

She was just six years old and her sister Claire was 14 when the violence broke out in Rwanda. Her parents sent them to their grandmother’s house hoping that they would be safer there. The violence soon followed them and they were on the run after soldiers killed her grandmother and the rest of those in the house.

The trek, mostly by foot, was over a thousand miles, often at night.

Stops at various refugee camps brought relief, but also many difficulties. Not knowing the fate of their parents, Claire’s determination to find a home with dignity kept them moving until they were granted asylum to the US.

The Chicago area welcomed her and Claire, and soon she was living with a family in Kenilworth. She began her first formal schooling at the age of thirteen on the North Shore.

Wamariya’s entrance on the national stage happened while she was in high school. She entered an essay-writing competition organized by the “Oprah Show” about why “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s book about the Holocaust, was still relevant at that time.
Wamariya’s essay was about her experiences in Rwanda. Her essay was one of the winners so she and her sister were invited to appear on the Oprah show.

In a moment Oprah once described, according to the Washington Post, as “one of the deepest, most joyful moments I’ve ever experienced,” Wamariya was surprisingly reunited with her Rwandan parents and siblings.

For Wamariya, a high school student at the time, this emotional moment which played out in front of millions, brought varying feelings.

“[It was] both the most beautiful thing, but it was the most terrifying thing. I’m so grateful for that moment because I learned that there are stories around me and I need to be extremely careful on which story that I want to be in, or what I want to embrace,” she said.

Today, Wamariya is dedicated to inspiring others through storytelling. Recounting her story of her childhood in Rwanda, her journey with her sister through different countries and refugee camps, Wamariya wants to inspire others to persevere, whatever their challenges.

“Joy and peace all come from within, when we try to find joy and peace outward and think ‘if I get this purse I am going to be more peaceful,’ just get that thing because it’s fun, or colorful, or because it’s new. We are always peace and joy, we are already love, but we are also the opposite of that. It depends on where you put your time and your energy and awareness,” she said.

Wamariya puts a morning notification on her phone to remind herself to be present to joy that day. In addition, at night there is a notification to remind her to forgive. “The brain is all muscle and you need to train it,” she said.
Wamariya recommends New Trier students read “Sister Outsiders” by Audre Lorde and to keep an open mind to ideas around them.

“My hope is that every New Trier student, if they would like to read, to know, or be really open to not knowing. And to be able to have stories in whichever form. Food is a story. Music is a story. Colors are stories. Words, everywhere around us, are stories.”