The Nobel Peace Prize winning author and Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006 where Oprah played clips from an interview they had done on site at Auschwitz. In addition, on the same episode, Oprah was recognizing fifty winners of a high school essay contest who had written about Elie Weisel’s Night and its’ current day relevance. Clemantine Wamariya was one of the winners and was called up on stage to talk with Oprah. Clemantine was a Rwandan refugee who, along with her older sister, was separated from her parents and feared they were dead. For many grueling years the girls trekked through Africa during the genocide, escaping murderers and rapists, living in refugee camps and unsafe places, battling lice, starving and sleeping outside, and ultimately, after being granted asylum, ending up in the Chicago area and started new lives. Clemantine has said that “Night was the door that opened up the world for me. It made me feel not alone. Wiesel had words to express experiences I couldn’t articulate. He shared thoughts and feelings that I was too ashamed to name.” Thinking she was on the show for her essay, she was in the front row and Oprah started asking her some questions about her family. Clemantine and her sister had not seen their parents since 1994, and in 2005, one year prior to this Oprah Winfrey Show episode, had learned they were still alive. On this day, as a surprise, Oprah brought Clemantine’s parents and younger siblings from Africa to Chicago and as a colossal surprise in an emotionally charged moment, she reunited them on stage. See the video here.
The visceral joy we see in the video is the joy of a six year old girl being returned to her parents, yet the relationships of the family members had become much more complex due to everyone’s traumatic experiences of the past 12 years.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads is Clemantine’s personal story; a six year old’s journey in war torn Africa, and coming of age as a teenager in the United States living with the demons of the past while searching for self worth and purpose in a country with unlimited opportunities and excess. Clemantine’s story is just one of many who survived the genocide in Africa in the 1990s – so heartbreaking and also deeply hopeful. I am a huge fan of Clemantine’s, her strength and will to honor her experiences, create and stand up for her own identity, and her commitment to finding joy. This is a must read!
About the Author:
Clemantine Wamariya is a storyteller and human rights advocate. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, displaced by conflict, Clemantine migrated throughout seven African countries as a child. At age twelve, she was granted refugee status in the United States and went on to receive a BA in Comparative Literature from Yale University. She lives in San Francisco.