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Thanksgivingukkah in Rwanda

Heaven Served Latkes in Rwanda © Tina Rupp

Growing up Jewish in suburban Connecticut, I always thought of this time of year as a time essentially to consume: Thanksgiving’s food binging and then Hanukah’s week long gift-a-thon. But my home lately is in the heart of Africa, on a hill in Kigali, Rwanda. My wife, Alissa, and I moved to Rwanda nearly a decade ago for what was to be a two-year stint. We fell in love with the land, its people, and we stayed. 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. But when we moved here, there were no big stores of any kind. Water and electric outages were a several-times-a-day routine. Jobs were also terribly scarce. Alissa realized that what the orphans of the genocide needed most was employment. Rwanda’s government was calling for private investment, not just traditional aid, so we took the plunge to create some jobs and provide hospitality training. It took all of 48 hours to register our new business. We then mortgaged our New York apartment, and Alissa built Heaven, a restaurant with an open-air terrace and beautiful views. Our sous-chef is a local—Solange, the first in her family to go to university. She does the best job with our signature dish: a filet mignon smothered in a chimichurri composed of cassava leaves and spices. The cassava leaves are local, as is the beef, which is free range, and organic. That dish, alongside cardamom-infused pineapple with sesame brittle and homemade coconut ice cream for dessert, is a delicious way to reduce poverty.

What Alissa did in creating Heaven has been reflected across the country: Rwanda is bristling with public improvements and new businesses. There’s free wifi on the buses, the roads are all paved, the streets are spotless and safe, and it’s a wonderful, easy place to raise a family. Until the holidays. Then you have to get creative. US Embassy employees have diplomatic pouch privileges that allow for Amazon deliveries and even frozen Butterball turkeys, but the rest of us improvise. Early on, we learned to brine chicken and oven roast it, and it actually tastes better than turkey, or we tell ourselves it does. Out in the villages 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 Frank Gehry turkey pen, and we fattened them right up. Yesterday, it was time to say goodbye to them so we could make a feast for our friends in Rwanda.

Of course, I couldn’t do it myself. Our friend Joel, who narrowly escaped death at the height of the genocide’s frenzy, has no sympathy for these obnoxious birds. I showed him a YouTube video on humane and kosher turkey killing, and we said a little prayer for these birds that will feed dozens.

Tonight, under Heaven’s little-white-lighted trees, Americans, Europeans, and Rwandans will enjoy an American Thanksgiving (we’ll light the menorah too of course). In additional to mashed potatoes, we’ll offer matoke puree, mashed up green bananas with plenty of butter. With a bit of smuggled matzah meal we’ll have crispy potato latkes with incredible potatoes from the volcanic soils up north. And for those in the mood for drink, we’ll have urwagwa – local banana beer – at the ready. The American ambassador and his wife want to come, so they too can give thanks for our little community and the privilege to work in a country with such ambitions and achievements, after such a nightmare.

This holiday season, when you are at your table with your friends or family and raising a glass to the good done and yet to do in the world, we will be raising our glasses, too.

Josh Ruxin is the director of Health Builders and author of A Thousand Hills to Heaven.

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