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TEDWomen 2017

Clemantine Wamariya: War and what comes after

Filmed:
829,695 views

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when the Rwandan Civil War forced her and her sister to flee their home in Kigali, leaving their parents and everything they knew behind. In this deeply personal talk, she tells the story of how she became a refugee, living in camps in seven countries over the next six years -- and how she's tried to make sense of what came after.

- Storyteller, human rights advocate
In her work, Clemantine Wamariya is learning and sharing how remembering our life experiences in story form guides us to make sense and appreciate our present moments. Full bio

Words matter.
00:13
They can heal
00:19
and they can kill ...
00:21
yet, they have a limit.
00:24
When I was in eighth grade,
00:28
my teacher gave me a vocabulary sheet
00:32
with the word "genocide."
00:36
I hated it.
00:43
The word genocide is clinical ...
00:46
overgeneral ...
00:52
bloodless ...
00:56
dehumanizing.
00:58
No word
01:03
can describe
01:06
what this does to a nation.
01:08
You need to know,
01:14
in this kind of war,
01:15
husbands kills wives,
01:19
wives kill husbands,
01:22
neighbors and friends kill each other.
01:26
Someone
01:33
in power
01:36
says,
01:37
"Those over there ...
01:39
they don't belong.
01:42
They're not human."
01:44
And people believe it.
01:47
I don't want words
01:51
to describe this kind of behavior.
01:54
I want words to stop it.
01:58
But where are the words to stop this?
02:04
And how do we find the words?
02:08
But I believe, truly,
we have to keep trying.
02:14
I was born in Kigali, Rwanda.
02:21
I felt loved by my entire family
02:26
and my neighbors.
02:31
I was constantly
being teased by everybody,
02:34
especially my two older siblings.
02:38
When I lost my front tooth,
02:42
my brother looked at me and said,
02:45
"Oh, it has happened to you, too?
02:47
It will never grow back."
02:51
(Laughter)
02:53
I enjoyed playing everywhere,
02:54
especially my mother's garden
and my neighbor's.
02:56
I loved my kindergarten.
03:01
We sang songs,
03:04
we played everywhere
03:06
and ate lunch.
03:08
I had a childhood
03:11
that I would wish for anyone.
03:14
But when I was six,
03:20
the adults in my family
began to speak in whispers
03:23
and shushed me any time
that I asked a question.
03:29
One night,
03:35
my mom and dad came.
03:36
They had this strange look
when they woke us.
03:39
They sent my older sister Claire and I
to our grandparent's,
03:43
hoping whatever was happening
would blow away.
03:48
Soon we had to escape from there, too.
03:54
We hid,
03:59
we crawled,
04:00
we sometimes ran.
04:02
Sometimes I heard laughter
04:08
and then screaming and crying
04:14
and then noise that I had never heard.
04:19
You see,
04:24
I did not know
04:25
what those noises were.
04:29
They were neither human --
04:32
and also at the same time,
they were human.
04:34
I saw people who were not breathing.
04:38
I thought they were asleep.
04:43
I still didn't understand what death was,
04:48
or killing in itself.
04:53
When we would stop
to rest for a little bit
04:57
or search for food,
05:01
I would close my eyes,
05:03
hoping when I opened them,
05:05
I would be awake.
05:07
I had no idea which direction was home.
05:11
Days were for hiding
05:16
and night for walking.
05:20
You go from a person who's away from home
05:28
to a person with no home.
05:33
The place that is supposed to want you
05:37
has pushed you out,
05:39
and no one takes you in.
05:44
You are unwanted
05:48
by anyone.
05:52
You are a refugee.
05:56
From age six to 12,
06:02
I lived in seven different countries,
06:04
moving from one refugee camp to another,
06:08
hoping we would be wanted.
06:12
My older sister Claire,
06:18
she became a young mother ...
06:20
and a master at getting things done.
06:25
When I was 12,
06:29
I came to America with Claire
and her family on refugee status.
06:31
And that's only the beginning,
06:39
because even though I was 12 years old,
06:42
sometimes I felt like three years old
06:45
and sometimes 50 years old.
06:47
My past receded,
06:50
grew jumbled,
06:52
distorted.
06:54
Everything was too much
06:56
and nothing.
06:59
Time seemed like pages torn out of a book
07:02
and scattered everywhere.
07:08
This still happens to me
standing right here.
07:11
After I got to America,
07:20
Claire and I did not talk about our past.
07:25
In 2006,
07:31
after 12 years
07:33
being separated away from my family,
07:37
and then seven years
knowing that they were dead
07:39
and them thinking that we were dead,
07:42
we reunited ...
07:44
in the most dramatic,
American way possible.
07:47
Live,
07:53
on television --
07:55
(Laughter)
07:57
on "The Oprah Show."
07:58
(Laughter)
08:00
(Applause)
08:01
I told you, I told you.
08:09
(Laughter)
08:10
But after the show,
08:13
as I spent time with my mom and dad
08:20
and my little sister
08:25
and my two new siblings that I never met,
08:28
I felt anger.
08:33
I felt every deep pain in me.
08:36
And I know that
there is absolutely nothing,
08:43
nothing,
08:48
that could restore the time
we lost with each other
08:50
and the relationship we could've had.
08:55
Soon, my parents
moved to the United States,
09:00
but like Claire,
09:04
they don't talk about our past.
09:07
They live in never-ending present.
09:12
Not asking too many questions,
09:16
not allowing themselves to feel --
09:19
moving in small steps.
09:24
None of us, of course,
can make sense of what happened to us.
09:29
Though my family is alive --
09:38
yes, we were broken,
09:42
and yes, we are numb
09:45
and we were silenced
by our own experience.
09:48
It's not just my family.
09:55
Rwanda is not the only country
10:02
where people have turned on each other
10:07
and murdered each other.
10:10
The entire human race,
10:13
in many ways,
10:17
is like my family.
10:18
Not dead;
10:23
yes, broken, numb and silenced
by the violence of the world
10:25
that has taken over.
10:31
You see,
10:35
the chaos of the violence continues inside
10:36
in the words we use
10:41
and the stories
we create every single day.
10:45
But also on the labels
that we impose on ourselves
10:51
and each other.
10:57
Once we call someone "other,"
11:01
"less than,"
11:06
"one of them"
11:07
or "better than,"
11:09
believe me ...
11:11
under the right condition,
11:16
it's a short path to more destruction.
11:20
More chaos
11:25
and more noise
11:27
that we will not understand.
11:29
Words will never be enough
11:33
to quantify and qualify
the many magnitudes
11:37
of human-caused destruction.
11:42
In order for us
11:49
to stop the violence
that goes on in the world,
11:53
I hope --
11:59
at least I beg you --
12:01
to pause.
12:03
Let's ask ourselves:
12:06
Who are we without words?
12:11
Who are we without labels?
12:16
Who are we in our breath?
12:21
Who are we in our heartbeat?
12:26
(Applause)
12:33

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About the speaker:

Clemantine Wamariya - Storyteller, human rights advocate
In her work, Clemantine Wamariya is learning and sharing how remembering our life experiences in story form guides us to make sense and appreciate our present moments.

Why you should listen

Clemantine Wamariya is a human rights advocate, social entrepreneur and public speaker committed to inspiring others through the power of storytelling. Her personal accounts of childhood in Rwanda, displacement throughout war-torn countries and various refugee camps have encouraged myriads of people to persevere despite great odds. With no formal education before the age of 13, Wamariya went on to graduate from Yale University with a BA in Comparative Literature.

Wamariya was recognized for her dedication to improving the lives of others, especially the underserved. In 2011, President Obama appointed her, as the youngest member in history, to the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and she was reappointed in 2016. She continues to share her experiences of adversity and seized opportunities as a way to reframe the way her audiences think, whether it be about their own privilege or basic human rights -- and she strives to catalyze development personally, locally and globally. Though still a nomad, she is based out of San Francisco, where she is writing her first book, due in spring 2018.

More profile about the speaker
Clemantine Wamariya | Speaker | TED.com