My wife, Alissa, and I moved to Rwanda nearly a decade ago for what was to be a two-year stint. But we fell in love with the land, its people, and its progress, and we have stayed, now raising our three children here. Out of the ashes of genocide, the country has progressed tremendously––it offers one of the world’s fastest growing economies and least corrupt governments, and it has afforded me opportunity to work on one of sub-Saharan Africa’s best public health systems.
When we first arrived, there was no big store of any kind. Water and electric outages were a several-times-a-day routine. Unemployment was very high and, because my wife worked with coming-of-age orphans, she realized that what they needed most were jobs that could help them afford an education. Rwanda’s government was calling for private investment to boost the economy, instead of traditional aid. We did our part by opening Heaven, a restaurant and culinary training kitchen, which has become something of a gourmet oasis in Equatorial Africa.
For the young American expat community in Rwanda, mostly recent college grads coming to do a stint of public health work, the hardest time is, of course, the holidays, as not everyone is able to fly home to America every year. This put quite a burden on our new little Heaven. It was clear from the beginning that holidays would be at Heaven: our outdoor terrace floats above the city, surrounded by lush trees and the sparkling lights of Kigali.
Turkey, our favorite holiday food, is not a traditional staple of the Rwandan diet. Thus for years U.S. embassy employees, who have always numbered among the expats around our bar and kitchen, used to import honest-to-God Butterball turkeys before we started serving it at Heaven around the holidays.
By sheer luck, out in a village one day, I came across a dozen very skinny live turkeys for sale. I took apart an old satellite dish to make a sort of turkey pen in the backyard. We then fattened them right up, with the kids feeding them and sometimes running for their lives from them.
Under Heaven’s white-lighted trees, Americans, Europeans, and Rwandans enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas. Even Hanukah gets a place, and my kids have improvised a Coke bottle menorah for just that purpose. For food, in addition to mashed potatoes, we serve matoke puree––mashed up green bananas with plenty of butter. And for drinks, we pour urwagwa, a local banana beer, in addition to the local regular beers and the American spirits in their proud bottles that are always a friendly sight, so far from home. The American ambassador and his wife always show up to offer thanks for our little community, which truly is dedicated to making a difference.
Rwanda is but a very small outpost in the American diaspora of aid workers who are taking time away from home to do something deeply meaningful. They are attracted by the country’s ambitions and by all of the advances made in the last several years: free WiFi on the public buses, pristinely clean streets, national health insurance, and gorgeous new paved roads carrying farmers to market and tourists to extraordinary destinations.
Over the holiday season, we can’t help but be moved to raise a glass to Rwanda’s remarkable progress and to all of the people from our own great country who have come to share their passions for enterprise, health, education, and stuffing that tastes like home.
Josh Ruxin is author of "A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda (Little, Brown and Company 2013).