Becoming Clemantine Wamariya

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when the Rwandan genocide began in 1994. She and her sister Claire became separated from their family and lived on the run in refugee camps in seven different countries before immigrating to the United States in 2000. After starting her formal education at the age of thirteen, Clemantine went on to graduate from Yale University in 2014 with a degree in comparative literature.

Since her early teen years, she has traveled throughout the country sharing her message of personal resilience and advocating for action to advance human rights. She has spoken at the United States Holocaust Museum, the United Nations annual commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, the US Department of Homeland Security Human Rights Law Conference, and at numerous schools and universities. She has been a special guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and at Chicago Ideas Week.

In 2011, President Obama appointed her to serve on the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Recently, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls organization described Clemantine as “a compelling storyteller and fierce advocate for girls worldwide.” 

Ayiba’s Eyitemi Popo interviews Clemantine to find out what makes her tick and how she overcame the odds to reclaim her future.

What are you most grateful for having in life?

I am really grateful for my experiences, my very tough experiences. I am grateful for growing up in refugee camps, growing up homeless, and as an orphan. I am absolutely grateful for that. But most of all, I am grateful for my sister, Claire, who taught me that even when you are on the bottom, you have power. I am grateful for her strength and her ability to make life seem beautiful even when it really wasn’t. My experiences make me who I am and they have given me stories to strengthen others.

What brings you joy?

People bring me joy. All kinds of people. I am attracted to people who love life. I love hearing people’s stories. Everyone has a unique story and a different way of telling it. You get someone’s story from their hand gestures, their accent, or the emotion in their voice. I could listen to people telling their stories all day.

Can you think of one defining moment in your life that has changed your thinking?

I was eight years old and living with my sister and niece in South Africa. It was a very unpleasant life. We had a little nine-by-nine room. The kind that had a mattress you could bring down when you wanted to sleep and put back up during the day. Anyway, I remember my sister coming into the room and saying “Clemantine! Clemantine! Put the mattress down.” I immediately thought we were going to go to sleep without eating. My sister, Claire, used to work as a parking attendant and so we depended on the tips she made each day. Claire then reached into her pocket and pulled out lots of change and threw it on the bed saying, “look how rich we are?” Mind you, it was no more than $5, but in that moment we were so excited and truly believed we were rich because of how Claire had created the scenario. I think back to that moment because it taught me that when life throws you down, you need to get back up and keep moving. You can’t mope around feeling sorry for yourself. It is one of the greatest lessons I have learned. I thank my sister for not only living by example, but for bringing that spirit of perseverance out in me at such a young age.

What are you proudest of in life?

I am proud of choosing Clemantine. I am proud of loving myself and what I do. I am proud that I have chosen my life, so that no one can choose it for me. I wanted my life to make a positive impact on that of others and if my life were to end today, I know I have done that. I am living the life that I want and doing what I love while helping others.

What is your superpower?

I have many, but the one I use most often is my ability to tap into the powers of others. I can reach inner powers that they don’t always know about, powers that they can use to grow and create a positive impact in our world. I use my words, my voice, and my experiences to do this. When I talk to people, I want to motivate them and wake up their inner light. I want people to know that it is ok to let their light shine because by doing so they can help someone else unleash theirs.


When have you felt most beautiful?

I was on a trip to Rwanda with some friends from school. It was my first time back since the genocide. I woke up one morning around 5 am to catch the sun rise. I remember seeing the sun coming up slowly until the light filled the sky. The way the sun felt on my face and the shadows it created made me feel so beautiful. It was a different kind of beauty, one beyond the flesh. The beauty I felt came from being a part of nature and being a part of my beautiful country. I have a picture of that moment actually. I’m glad that moment was captured.

What is the greatest challenge you are facing right now?

My greatest challenge is having other people try to tell me who they think I should be. With all the respect I have for them, it’s hard not to listen. I can see clearly who I want to be and the challenge is to convince these people of that. I feel like a lot of people can probably relate with me on this. I will say I’m tackling the challenge though. I want to be the Clemantine who won’t shut up about poverty, oppression, and wars. I keep choosing that Clemantine and I hope that it will be enough.

Name a moment when you almost gave up, but didn’t. What made you persevere?

I am constantly struggling, but what makes me push forward is remembering who I am. I am connected to everything and everyone. Beyond skin color and ideology, I am a part of something bigger than myself, a repetition of positive creation. As a child, I went through so much and didn’t give up then, so I don’t have it in me to give up now.

What do you think your purpose is?

My purpose in life is to remind people that there are others who are struggling to exist within spaces of war and poverty. I would do anything to make people understand and see that. I want to take the stereotype of what a refugee is or what a war survivor looks like and say, “that is me.” I believe that my mission in life is to bring awareness to the experiences I have lived. There are so many who did not survive, but I am here because my life was spared and I was given all the opportunities. I am just one in a million.