Thanksgiving Dinner in Rwanda

Through a gourmet restaurant in Kigali, one couple thinks they’ve identified a better model for eliminating poverty.
An employee at Heaven restaurant in Kigali, Rwanda prepares turkey on November 28. (Josh Ruxin)

If you needed more evidence that Thanksgivukkah—the mash-up conceived on a highway near Boston for this year’s coinciding Thanksgiving and Hanukkah celebrations—has spread far and wide, here it is: Seven thousand miles away from Beantown, 150 guests, including the U.S. ambassador and his wife, gathered on Thursday night at a restaurant overlooking Kigali, Rwanda for a Thanksgiving dinner featuring oven-roasted turkey, apple-and-sausage stuffing, pumpkin pie—and potato latkes. Maya Ruxin, the daughter of the restaurant’s owners, even lit a Coke-bottle menorah to mark Hanukkah during the meal:

Maya Ruxin lights a menorah during Thanksgiving dinner. (Josh Ruxin)

It was just another night—albeit a special one—at Heaven, a gourmet restaurant started by Alissa Ruxin and her husband Josh, a public health professor at Columbia University, in 2008. The establishment, located in an upscale, expat-friendly neighborhood of the Rwandan capital, now employs around two dozen people. And in his new book A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda, Josh makes the case that the project—an agile, private enterprise that employs Rwandans and builds local capacity—represents a new and more effective way of thinking about poverty eradication on a small scale.

It’s a “venture capital approach to development,” Ruxin told me over the phone, while munching on a Heaven burger at the bar as the staff prepared Thanksgiving dinner. “When you employ one person in a place like Rwanda, there are at least a dozen people who are completely dependent on that person’s income for education, health, shelter, food, you name it.” He says job creation is particularly important in a country where families and communities are so tight-knit, and where people are still rebounding from the devastating 1994 genocide (one of Heaven's cooks, a Tutsi, lost his brother in the violence and served as an administrator in the impromptu court system established after the massacre to mete out justice).

Humanitarian organizations, Ruxin claims, could learn a lot from the private equity investors rushing into East Africa to capitalize on robust economic growth in the region. They could, for example, devote more resources to financing small- and medium-sized businesses like Heaven. As he noted in a recent interview, Heaven is “not aid. It’s a business.”

Elie Sibomana prepares turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Heaven’s cooks used 17 turkeys, 10 chickens, and one duck for the meal. (Josh Ruxin)

Ruxin, who’s originally from Connecticut, frames the issue even more bluntly in his book:

Why, after all the fundraising and new charities and billions in foreign aid from successful countries and full-hearted volunteers heading off to all corners of the world and donated goats and sponsored children, is there still so damn much poverty in the world?... It suggests that poverty programs are created for our own satisfaction and rationalization, not for true and permanent results. While most development assistance has evaporated without a trace—eaten up by business-class plane tickets, hotel stays, conferences, and never-to-be-read presentations and pamphlets—there are also too many abandoned schools and clinics and other things of great human value littering the landscapes of the poor—facilities funded by well-meaning people with short attention spans and no true belief that poverty can actually be eliminated.

Large, established relief organizations do important work, Ruxin argues, but they’re too hulking, too bureaucratic, and too focused on responding to emergencies to combat poverty in long-lasting, self-sustaining ways. “There are people who are starving and people who need immunizations and fertilizer and improved agriculture, and kids who need access to education,” he says. “But very few people are thinking about the other side: What then?”

Presented by

Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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