The True Story of What It’s Like to Become a Refugee

As a child in Rwanda, Clemantine Wamariya lived a comfortable, middle-class life. Then came the genocide. In the space of months, Clemantine—who later escaped and became a human-rights advocate—went from being a six-year-old surrounded by home and family to a refugee.

The True Story of What It’s Like to Become a Refugee

Clemantine Wamariya co-authored her new memoir, excerpted below, with writer Elizabeth Weil.

Photo by Rachel McCord

When I was a regular child, I lived in Kigali, Rwanda, and I was a precocious snoop. My nickname was Cassette. I repeated everything I saw or heard, including that my sister Claire, who was nine years older than me, wore shorts under her skirt and played soccer instead of doing family errands after school.

When she did follow directions—go buy tomatoes, pick up six Cokes for guests—she spent only a quarter of the money my mother gave her, because Claire, even at 14, could look out for herself. She understood value. She knew confidence was currency. She realized that if she told the tomato vendor she’d pay him less today but return every week and buy only from him, he’d accept the bargain, she’d pocket some money, and they’d both walk away happy.

She also knew life was harder and more costly when I tagged along. I talked too much. I tattled. I asked too many questions. I also had a lisp and was difficult to understand. She told me to repeat words, and laughed.

We lived in a gray stucco ranch house on a gravel road, up the hill from the market, near one of the few tennis courts in the city. The houses in our neighborhood sat close together, each with a red roof and fenced with creosote bushes, thick and dense, and trimmed weekly into tidy partitions.

In the front yard stood a mango tree, old and wet, with sturdy leaves. You could sit in it and it would hug you. Every day when we came home from school, my brother Pudi and I climbed up and stood in the branches, in what was then my whole world, shaking the leaves, pretending the tree was a bus that would take us to Butare, where our grandmother lived, about three hours away, or even to Canada.

My mother was short and curvy and regal and poised, with high cheekbones, like my grandparents, and bright white teeth with gaps between them, which Rwandans consider beautiful. We have a word for it in Kinyarwanda: inyinya. She’d fallen in love with my father and they’d decided to marry against his family’s wishes.

In the front yard stood a mango tree, old and wet, with sturdy leaves. You could sit in it and it would hug you.

My mother spent her mornings at church, just up the hill, and her afternoons in the garden, which was her Eden. There she taught me the names of plants—cauliflower, bird-of-paradise—and how to care for each, which ones needed to be in the cool soil under the mango tree and which needed direct sun. She grew oranges, lemons, guava, and papaya; hibiscus, plumeria, sanchezia, anthurium, geraniums, and peonies. I would pluck the stamens off the tiger lilies and rest them above my lip, the orange pollen leaving a bright powdered mustache.

She also took in girls from the country, young women who, before they married, wanted to spend a year or two in a big city with malls, office buildings, cathedrals, and paved roads, earn a little money, and see the world. These women worked as nannies, or they helped in the kitchen, or they cleaned and laundered clothes. My mother insisted that Claire and I learn how to do these chores alongside them. We were never to think we were better. I didn’t mind the work. I wanted order in my world. Even at four, I was compulsively neat, straightening the shoes by the door and re-sweeping the slate in the courtyard.

Claire hated housework. She did not want to be slowed down. She had big plans and could not wait to break free—to go to college in Canada, where many Rwandans dreamed of moving because it was like America except that they spoke French. French was the second language Rwandans learned in school, as the Belgians had colonized Rwanda. If not Canada, Claire wanted to travel to Europe—anything to live in iburayi, Rwandans’ all-purpose expression for “abroad” or “away.” Claire had a godmother who lived in Montreal who sent her the most fabulous gifts: a watch with a silver band, a green rain set with matching slicker, umbrella, and boots.

My dreams, at age four, were far less adventurous. I wanted to be fed ice cream and pineapple cakes. I wanted to wear a teal-blue school uniform and grow into Claire’s clothes.

My dreams, at age four, were far less adventurous. I wanted to be fed ice cream and pineapple cakes. I wanted to wear a teal-blue school uniform and grow into Claire’s clothes.

My mother dressed tidily, modestly, always, as if to say, I’m here but I’m not here. Don’t look at me. She wore a T-shirt and bright kitenge, or long wrapper, to garden, and a long pleated skirt with a high-necked blouse and sensible black low-heeled shoes to church. Her heels never made noise. She never wore makeup, only a bit of Vaseline to brighten her lips. She’d absorbed the potent Catholic-Rwandan-postcolonial ethos: You want to stay as invisible as possible. You don’t want eyes on you. Mastering that was my job growing up: to learn how to be proper, how to be quiet. I was an unenthusiastic student.

Many of our neighbors’ families were exuberant and different—Muslim instead of Catholic, Congolese instead of Rwandan. I wanted to taste how they prepared their beans and study the designs on their plates. I wanted to celebrate Ramadan and the Indian holiday Diwali. Some days, when I visited neighbors’ homes, I picked through their bedrooms and bathrooms, looking at their hairbrushes, toothbrushes, medicines, and soaps. I wanted to know their secrets—not the deep dark ones, the little human ones. I wanted to know what their bodies were like.

My mother would try to discourage my curiosity, reproaching me with the words ushira isoni—you are not shy. Rwandans, especially girls, were supposed to be reserved, contained, nearly opaque. When I walked with my mother into town I’d point to each house and ask, “Who lives there? How many kids? Is anybody sick?” I didn’t fit in.

One day, when she was in her kitenge in the garden, she heard on the radio that a friend had died, or kwitaba imana—the idiom means “responded to God.” She started to cry. That was the first and only time I saw my mother cry. Adults in Rwanda do not cry. Children can cry until they learn to speak. Then it’s time to stop. If you absolutely must cry after that, you have to cry like you’re singing, like a melancholy bird.

I begged my mother to let me go to the funeral. I wanted to know how funerals worked. My nanny, Mukamana, who I loved and adored, ironed my best cotton dress and buttoned me into it, and I took my mother’s hand as we walked down the gravel road and across the bridge toward town.

Rwanda is all hills. Mukamana said that the creator, Imana, hadn’t wanted to stretch out the land, as he wanted Rwanda to be unique. Near the church, we joined 50 people sitting on long benches arranged in a rectangle under a tree. Everybody was silent or whispering. My mother, like the rest of the adults, remained calm and composed. I sat there, staring at the adults’ faces, very confused.

I did not hear God talking to anybody. I just heard a priest offering comfort, some hymns. After the service I asked a few of my mother’s friends if they’d heard or seen God, and they took my hands in theirs and patted them, as if to say, You’ll understand soon enough.

But soon enough was too far off. I wanted to understand right then. In my short life, death was an idle threat, a sibling’s joke—Pudi or Claire saying our mother would kill me if I picked too many roses.

Clemantine and her sister Claire fled the Rwandan genocide, eventually ending up in the United States.

Clemantine and her sister Claire fled the Rwandan genocide, eventually ending up in the United States.

Photo by Ina Jang

My days were filled with the indignations of being young and spoiled. Daily, maybe hourly, I begged Mukamana to tell me stories to help make sense of the world, like that the gods shook out the ocean like a rug to make waves. My favorite was that there was a beautiful, magical girl who roamed the earth, smiling beads. When Mukamana told me this story, she said, “What do you think happened next?” and whatever I said, whatever future I imagined, Mukamana would make come true. Mukamana wrapped her long, curly hair in a magnificent cloth, and she slept in my room with me, each of us on our own bed. She taught me songs to get me through my morning ritual: rise, pray for the day, make my bed, brush my teeth, wash my face, fix my hair, get dressed, greet everyone. I refused to do anything until she told me a story, and she used my desire to get the upper hand. “Well, if you take a nap, I’ll tell you a story. If you don’t do it then I won’t tell you.”

When I was five, I started kindergarten. My school was beautiful, nestled on the hillside, with a glamorous teacher who wore high heels that clicked against the hallway floor. The place smelled like crayons. We sang, made clay bowls and mugs, and ate lunch in the shade.

Each day, with my lunch, I carried a green thermos of milk tea. I considered myself the most special child there, maybe the most special child in all Rwanda, because one day Mukamana picked me up carrying the green umbrella, slicker, and rain boots that had belonged to Claire. It was monsoon season, warm and pouring. I slipped on Claire’s green boots, and I begged Mukamana to take the long way home, around the next hill through town, not directly over the bridge. I wanted to be a one-girl parade showing off my posh rain gear.

But Mukamana told me that we couldn’t take the long way because it was flooded. I was furious. I forgave her only when I found Pudi waiting to play. The rainwater was gushing off our red roof into the slate courtyard. He stole the soap from the kitchen and slicked up the slate. We ran and slid until my mother snapped and demanded that we come inside.

Shortly after that, Mukamana disappeared. I asked my mother why and she said the intambara—the conflict. That word had no meaning to me, no story attached.

You know those little pellets you drop in water that expand into huge sponges? My life was the opposite. Everything shrunk.

After the service I asked a few of my mother’s friends if they’d heard or seen God, and they took my hands in theirs and patted them, as if to say, ‘You’ll understand soon enough.’

First I was forbidden to play in the mango tree. Pudi tried to entertain me in the house, fake-reading to me in French. Next I was forbidden to play with my friend Neglita. She was my oldest playmate, one of my few friends my age, and I thought she was perfect. We made up fairy worlds. She let me set the rules. We collected petals and bits of moss, and the fairies wore the petals as dresses and lived in the moss.

The radio was now on all the time, a horrendous hiss. Houses were robbed, simply to prove that they could be robbed. The robbers left notes demanding oil, or sugar, or a TV. I asked adults to explain, but their faces had turned to concrete, and they nudged me back into childish concerns. Sometimes the men left grenades—that’s what I heard, though I didn’t really know what a grenade was. I just knew they could cut you into a hundred pieces. I thought there must be hundreds of tiny fires inside. How else could one blow up a whole body? That little thing, that much power?

Our curtains, which my mother had always thrown open at five each morning, suddenly remained closed. The drumming started up again, loud and far away. Then the car horns. My father stopped working after dark. My mother saw men, not boys, wearing Rambo-style boots and marching near the church. She stopped going to church. Instead she prayed in my room, where my siblings now slept sometimes, because it had the smallest window.

No one came over for dinner anymore. My mother served carrots and lentils, so many carrots and lentils. The potatoes she once used for stews came from the market, and nobody in my family went to the market anymore.

The electricity flickered on and off. The water stopped working. There was shushing, so much shushing, so much pressure to be quiet and still. Checkeka—shush, be silent. My parents said checkeka to me a hundred times a day.

There were more nights than days. I cried when the sun went down. Someone left a grenade at our neighbor’s house. By then I was six.

I heard conversations I didn’t understand about them coming. Them—always them, plural, spoken with a hiss. Guests had always been important. Guests were special. When guests arrived my mother put out roasted nuts and Coke. Them was not guests.

There were more nights than days. I cried when the sun went down. Someone left a grenade at our neighbor’s house. By then I was six.

We sat in the house. Lights off. Everyone prayed, but nobody talked. No more teasing from Claire and Pudi that I was adopted, no more fearmongering that when my tooth fell out a new one wouldn’t grow in its place. There was nothing—no parable for the world closing in on itself, no fantastical story like the sky kissing the ground to make the morning dew.

It thundered a lot in those days. Every time we heard an explosion Pudi said, That’s thunder, and when I looked confused he added, Haven’t you heard thunder when it’s not raining? He told me that if anything worse than thunder happened, I should climb up into the space between the ceiling and the roof. It would take a long time for anybody to find me there.

My parents’ faces turned into faces I had never seen. I heard noises that I did not understand—not screaming, worse. My mother cried again. My parents whispered and I eavesdropped. I heard them say that some robbers had ransacked yet another neighbor’s house. They stole their money, tore their pictures from the walls, destroyed their furniture and lit it on fire. They nailed a note to the front door saying they’d soon return for their girls.

Then one day my mother told me and Claire to pack a few things to go to my grandmother’s farm in Butare, a few hours south, toward the Burundi border. A friend of my father’s arrived in a van early the next morning. It was still dark. I wanted to show my grandmother a ceramic cup I’d made at school. I asked my mother to take it off the shelf where she kept our artwork, but she insisted I leave it behind. I was furious. My mother didn’t care. She just handed me a bag of clothes and put me in the van alongside Claire and made me promise to behave. As we left she said, “Please do not talk.”

Clemantine Wamariya, 30, graduated from Yale University and now works as a human rights advocate.

Clemantine Wamariya, 30, graduated from Yale University and now works as a human rights advocate.

Photo by Julia Zave

On the way out of Kigali, we stopped to pick up two of my cousins, girls Claire’s age. The driver knocked on the door. Nobody came out. We stopped at other houses; other girls entered the van. We all squished together in the middle of the bench seats, away from the windows. Sometimes we crouched on the floor. We rode up and over the hills, the curved slopes soft, like a body, past the stands of trees, the rice paddies, the hibiscus flowers, the homes with the red roofs and the homes with the tin roofs, the university.

The ride took forever. Claire insisted we play the silent game whenever I asked a question. We didn’t eat kabobs or buy the soap that we always brought to my grandmother as a gift. We didn’t even stop to use the bathroom.

After we arrived in Butare, every hour I demanded an update on when my parents were coming, or at least my brother, Pudi. I missed him. My grandmother, cousins, and sister all just said, “Soon.” Nobody would play with me. I felt outraged at my mistreatment. I stopped eating and bathing and refused to let anyone touch my hair. After a few nights my grandmother took me, Claire, and my cousins to a different house to sleep.

The following night she took us outside and told us to climb inside the deep pit in the ground reserved for burying the wooden cask she used to make banana wine. Colors and sounds bloomed, then exploded around me. I didn’t sleep.

When it happened, we heard a knock on the door. My grandmother gestured for us to be silent—checkeka checkeka checkeka. Then she motioned for us to run, or really to belly-crawl, out past the beaming sunflowers through the sweet potato field. I carried a rainbow blanket, which turned out to be a towel. Claire pulled my arm. The earth felt soft and lumpy, a bucket of broken chalk.

It thundered a lot in those days. Every time we heard an explosion Pudi said, ‘That’s thunder,’ and when I looked confused he added, ‘Haven’t you heard thunder when it’s not raining?’

Once we reached the tall trees we ran, for real, off the farm, out of the ordered rows, and deep into a thick banana grove, where we saw other people, most of them young, some of them bloody with wounds. I had so many questions. The cuts looked too large, too difficult to accomplish, gaping mouths on midnight skin.

We walked for hours, until everything hurt, not toward anything, just away. We rubbed the red-brown mud and eucalyptus leaves on our bodies so we could disappear. Prickers grated my ankles. We walked up and over and around and down, so many hills. We heard laughing and screaming and pleading and crying and then cruel laughing again.

I didn’t know how to name the noises. They were human and not human. I never learned the right words in Kinyarwanda. I hope they don’t exist. But without words my mind had no way to define or understand the awful sounds, nowhere to store them in my brain. It was cold and green and wet and then bushes and my legs were shaking and eyes, so many eyes.

My thoughts and senses became jumbled. Time felt hot. Silence was dizzying. My fear was bright blue.

It’s strange how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all. The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out. No other place takes you in. You are unwanted, by everyone. You are a refugee.

Adapted from The Girl Who Smiled Beads, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. Copyright © 2018 by Clemantine Wamariya. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

>>Next: Far From the Tourist Trail in New Delhi, a Traveler Finds Magic

Joyful Clemantine Wamariya (born 1988) is a Rwandan-American author, speaker, and human rights advocate .
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