Now and then we come across a story, simply told, about someone who opens a chain of thoughts in our own minds.
This is David Brooks’ inspiring story about his friend Clemantine Wamariya. She was born in Rwanda 27 years ago. When she was six the genocide began and her world started shrinking. The beautiful land she knew was changed forever.
To escape the mass murders, Clemantine and her older sister, Claire, were moved from house to house. One night they were told to crawl through a sweet potato field and then walk away—not toward anything, just away. Away from family, home and friends and not to look back. They left with only the clothes they wore and no food.
They crossed the Akanyaru River living off fruit. Clemantine spent the rest of her young girlhood in refugee camps in eight African nations.
Claire kept them on the move, in search of a normal life. Clemantine wrote her name in the dust at various stops, praying somehow a family member would see it. Their struggles in the camps, for water and much else, gave them a sense that life is arbitrary.
In 2000, Claire got them refugee status in the United States through the International Organization for Migration. Claire went to work as a hotel maid in Chicago. A few years later, Clemantine was one of 50 winners of Oprah Winfrey’s high school essay contest.
In the middle of the 20006 show celebrating the winners, Oprah brought Clemantine and Claire on stage. Oprah asked when was the last time the girls had seen their parents. It had been 12 years. Then Oprah gave them a surprise: “Your family is here!” Her parents, brother and sister had been found in Africa, and now walked onstage. They all fell into one another’s arms. Clemantine’s knees gave out, but her mother held her up.
Clemantine’s story, has a comforting arc: separation, perseverance, reunion and joy. It’s the kind of clean, inspiring story that many of us tell, in less dramatic form, about our own lives, with clearly marked moments of struggle and overcoming.
In David Brooks’ words, “Clemantine is now an amazing young woman. Her superb and artful essay reminded me that while the genocide was horrific, the constant mystery of life is how loved ones get along with one another.”
We work hard to cram our lives into legible narratives. But we live in the fog of reality. Whether you have survived a trauma or not, the psyche is still a dark forest of scars and tender spots. Each relationship is intricate, fertile ground for misunderstanding.
Clemantine displays the courage of small things: the courage to live with feelings wide open even after trauma: the maturity to accept unanswerable ambiguity; the ability to create tenacious bonds.
David Brooks, Op-Ed Columnist, NEW YORK TIMES
July 7, 2015