Reservations Requested, Heaven, Rwanda
Little Rwanda, a nation of 12 million people, located smack in the middle of Africa, is one of the last places I know of where the holidays still are as they should be. There’s no black Friday shopping (something familiar to Americans – the insane holiday shopping spree that happens the day after Thanksgiving), no ludicrous race for reservations at Michelin starred restaurants (I’ll come back to that in a second), no gift-guide inspired lists. Today’s Rwanda is pristine and safe. Indeed, Rwanda has legendarily clean streets – you can walk its sidewalks for kilometers without finding a wrapper or errant plastic bag. These are among the many reasons Rwanda is a terrific place to spend the holidays. Furthermore, for those who take no joy from the cold, Rwanda has remarkably consistent and gorgeous weather. While neighbors in Kenya, for example, can face a downright cold season at points in the year, Rwanda’s year is merely divided by a couple of rainy seasons that bring plenty of warmth, sunshine, and the occasional downpour. In fact, right around Christmas week, the highs will be in the mid 20s, lows not below 15!). That weather and Rwanda’s lovely people are what has kept me, my wife, and our three kids here for a decade. Alissa, my wife, built and manages Heaven, one of Rwanda’s top restaurants, which has become somewhat of a gourmet oasis in Kigali. Alissa constructed Heaven eight years ago to create jobs for the nation’s youth. The holidays will include many of our biggest nights of the year, as tourists, expats and locals love coming in this time of year.
For the young American expat community in Rwanda, mostly recent college grads coming to do a stint of social enterprise, business or volunteering, the hardest time is, of course, the holidays, as not everyone is able to fly home to America every year. This puts quite a burden on 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. The holiday season is kicked off with Thanksgiving – a tremendous opportunity for Americans (and everyone!) to give thanks. The loser in this holiday is the turkey which is served up as the centerpiece of the meal. 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 American 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. Now we work with local farmers who raise these amazing authentic turkeys for us. This year we’ll have two dozen of them! We started fattening them up in September with excellent feed…and they in turn feed Americans, Europeans, and Rwandans on Thanksgiving. Alongside the turkeys and 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 always shows up to offer thanks for our little community.
Thanksgiving is the true start of the holiday season and is soon followed by the Jewish holiday of Hanukah. The centerpiece for the Hanukah table is called the menorah – which is an elaborate set of candles. Our kids have improvised a Coke bottle menorah for just that purpose with each bottle serving as a candle holder. For food, we make traditional potato latkes (pancakes), slow-cooked beef, and honey cake.
On the heels of Hanukah comes Christmas and hundreds of thousands of people will be up late on Christmas Eve as they make their way to church. Their beautiful prayers and songs will permeate the hills of the city where skyscrapers are going up, yet there are still micro-plots of land farmed for maize, beans, and cassava. On the very street where we live, our kids love to see the goats munching on the foliage of the neighborhood. Those very goats, not used for their milk, will make it on to many a Christmas day barbeque. In the early afternoon on Christmas day, traditional wood-charcoal fires will light up across the nation. Most will be three-stone fires, some of which will have a metal grate to support the bounty. We’ll have an abundant meal that evening and a popular Christmas day brunch loaded with ikivuguto (local buttermilk) pancakes, crepes, omelettes and loads of local specialties.
While Coca-cola has raised a Christmas tree or two at roundabouts in town, there are few Christmas trees to be found in homes nor lofty childhood expectations of Santa Claus. Among the upper class that has been exposed to Christmas elsewhere, there will be gifts exchanged. But for most, this will be a day for relaxation, prayer, and brochettes. Grilled beef and goat, fried potatoes, and rice will be the centerpiece of most meals – for many families this will be one of the few days of the year when meat will be the part of the meal. There will also be isombe – mashed cassava leaves – and green bananas slowly cooked in tomato sauce. For a kick, brave family members will grab a bottle or tear dropper of Akabanga, an outrageously spicy piri-piri concoction of oil and birds’ eye chile that has become a national condiment.
It will soon be back to work for nearly everyone until the main event of the season: New Year’s Eve. That’s right: New Years is the cornerstone of the holiday season in Rwanda. By far, it is the most exciting night of celebration and festivities. Although last-minute planning characterizes the evening, one thing is certain: everyone will be going out.
Alissa and I learned this the hard way back when we opened Heaven Restaurant in 2008. We ran a beautiful New Year’s dinner with filet mignon smothered in a cassava chimichurri and rum bread pudding covered with caramel sauce. It was a mellow evening, and at around 10PM we were bidding adieu to the few remaining customers when hundreds of Rwandan partygoers began to appear – with no prior reservations of course. We all danced on the floor until the early hours of the New Year, and then retreated to our families and a day off, the only one Heaven takes during the course of the year.
This year we’ll be doing our best to encourage reservations, as our beautiful terrace maxes out around 200 customers. I don’t think we’ll have much trouble filling up that evening, as Rwandans have so much to be proud of and to celebrate in what will be the 21st year of their peace, stability, and prosperity.
Josh Ruxin is the author of A Thousand Hills to Heaven.