A Thousand Hills to Heaven

A Thousand Hills to Heaven

by Josh Ruxin


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One couple's inspiring memoir of healing a Rwandan village, raising a family near the old killing fields, and building a restaurant named Heaven.

Newlyweds Josh and Alissa were at a party and received a challenge that shook them to the core: do you think you can really make a difference? Especially in a place like Rwanda, where the scars of genocide linger and poverty is rampant?

While Josh worked hard bringing food and health care to the country's rural villages, Alissa was determined to put their foodie expertise to work. The couple opened Heaven, a gourmet restaurant overlooking Kigali, which became an instant success. Remarkably, they found that between helping youth marry their own local ingredients with gourmet recipes (and mix up "the best guacamole in Africa") and teaching them how to help themselves, they created much-needed jobs while showing that genocide's survivors really could work together.

While first a memoir of love, adventure, and family, A Thousand Hills to Heaven also provides a remarkable view of how, through health, jobs, and economic growth, our foreign aid programs can be quickly remodeled and work to end poverty worldwide.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316232913
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 11/05/2013
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 783,220
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Josh Ruxin is on faculty at Columbia University, directs Health Builders, and contributes to the New York Times and Forbes. He and his wife, Alissa, live in Rwanda with their three children.

Read an Excerpt

A Thousand Hills to Heaven

Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda

By Josh Ruxin

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2013 Josh Ruxin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-23291-3


Getting There

Our plane drifts up over the Atlantic at dusk. We watch a film or two, then doze off. The sun comes up as we float down to Brussels. A cup of coffee there, then we rise over the morning Alps, and then the blue Mediterranean, and finally the torn, brown edge of Africa. There is a thick brown haze below—a midday sandstorm in the Sahara. It takes time to cross the Sahara, as it is about the size of the United States. Africa is big enough to hold all of the United States, including Alaska, plus all of Mexico, all of China, India, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United Kingdom. Even then, you'd have enough land left over for two States of Texas—but Africa has enough trouble. When economists describe Africa as the next China, or the next New World, you have to keep in mind how impossibly big it is, but also how filled it is with energetic, ambitious young people and unmeasured resources. It is too violent, yes, but so was North America once.

In a few hours we are high above the pain and beauty of Darfur, where horrific atrocities are still playing out, and then over oil-rich and therefore troubled South Sudan. Then over Uganda with its booming economy and new construction—its traffic jams are glowing jewelry below, as night has fallen. Beyond that, only a few slash-and-burn fires below relieve the incredible darkness in the heart of Africa. Finally we slide down along the swampy, reed-lined shores of Lake Victoria, which is as large as Lake Michigan, and into Rwanda. The nation of Rwanda is two-thirds the size of Switzerland, or about the size of Massachusetts, but round like a fist and tucked just under the Equator.

On approach to the little nation's capital, Kigali, we fly over the spot where the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on April 6, 1994, triggering perhaps the cruelest one hundred days in human history. Roughly a million men, women, and children were killed, mostly by machete. Then, east of Rwanda, across the Congo border—the darkest spot on the continent—millions more died in the years following 1994, and fighting continues there even now, driven by a lack of government and an excess of militias, gold, diamonds, oil, and memories of murder. It is the nation next door and a constant worry.

But we do not go quite that far. As our plane lands and finally rolls to a stop, four men push a stairway to the door. We hundred people pull down our bags, fumble for business cards for seatmates, relocate passports and yellow fever vaccination cards, and shuffle out. Most passengers seem to be Rwandans or other Africans, coming home or on business. Maybe a quarter of the people are Europeans and Americans, some no doubt coming to work with a charity or church group. A few look like tourists: middle-agers on their way to the misty ridges of the volcanoes in the north of Rwanda, where they will sit among the mountain gorillas like the fellow primates they are. As we exit, there are some very awake people, young and old, whose eyes seem ravenous for every new sight around them and whose smiles are as fixed as if they had just taken a hit of something—Africa is indeed an altered state for those fully open to it.

If you arrived before dark, you would see a green hilly country with farming terraces cut into every slope—even terraced up the sides of the volcanoes, and terraced down into the bowls of them. Rwanda is the most crowded country in Africa, and therefore the most farmed. But one usually arrives late, as it is a long way from anywhere.

Arriving at nine o'clock in the evening seems like midnight. It feels good to walk around on the tarmac after such a lengthy flight. The airplane is massive in the darkness above you, and the miracle of flight seems more real than in a Western airport, where you slip out through a deep corridor, never really seeing the big bird for what it is, and never having that moment to just look up and marvel at it for bringing you such a long way, so quickly and safely. Travelers and explorers of the past had to suffer years of canoe paddling, diseases, and murderous jungle trekking to get here—most not arriving this far inland until well into the twentieth century.

You have used the assembled knowledge of Western civilization to get here more easily, though you are tired. You stand in the cool African air, hear the caws of night birds, smell the signature scent of Africa—a blend of the day's burning of leaves swept from the streets by ten thousand women with straw brooms and gunny sacks, plus the tropical sweetness of flowers and the dust and faint pungency of the faraway open sewers of poverty. There might be a bread bakery in the distance, is how it seems.

Not so long ago this same tarmac saw people running toward the last planes out, as artillery fired from the sides of the runway toward the rebel army perched on Parliament Hill, just over there—now with bright lights on it, and the Parliament building still with holes in it. The holes are intentionally preserved for history, like the cannonballs stuck in Virginia's fine old homes.

For me, when I stand in such a place, I can't help but visualize Rwanda's nightmare. It's not my own memory, but after years here, the memories of friends saturate my thinking.

If you met us now at the airport, you would see my wife, Alissa, our two young daughters, our toddler son, and me. It has become a milk run for us, yet always a very long way to come.

Is it right to raise children in such a place—a crime scene, really? We've lived here nearly a decade, so clearly we've voted with our feet (and frequent flier miles). And there are Abed and Apollo, waving just outside the security area. Abed is the driver for our agricultural and health projects in the rural villages, and Apollo is our family driver. They have both come knowing that we'd be returning with more than two dozen fifty-pound bags loaded with treats from Trader Joe's, wet wipes and diapers, cereal, and cooking supplies for our restaurant. We are deeply grateful for their smiles and help: we are home.

You might think that Rwanda, situated just south of the Equator, would be a constant steam bath, but it is not. The elevation of the entire country is about a mile up, which makes the weather rather like early spring in Southern California, all year long. In the morning, there is nowhere you can look and not see flowers, bananas, fiery orange blossoms in treetops, birds of paradise, lush hillsides and imposing volcanoes, and giant birds sailing overhead instead of airplanes and their jet trails. And it rains a great deal—Rwanda needs two rainy seasons just to get all that rain in. Sunrise always comes at about the same time, as does sunset, and the days are always the same length, with the dark hours equal to the light. If you were us, you might miss the four seasons of New York and Connecticut, and the long summer evenings there, but you would soon embrace this short-sleeved world of flowering landscapes and trees full of birds.

As for the people, there are no kinder in the world than Rwandans.

Kigali, the capital, consists of one hill after another, much like the rest of Rwanda. The constant hill climbing keeps everyone lean, though poverty makes a contribution. The country's nickname for itself is "the land of a thousand hills" or le pays des mille collines. The native language is Kinyarwanda, and Swahili is widely used as well. English is the language used lately in schools and between Rwandans and foreigners who might not know much Kinyarwanda. Further complicating communication, French is the residual language of colonial days under the Belgians and is the lingua franca of many people.

The so-called Hotel Rwanda, made famous by the movie of the same name, is on the same hill as our home and also our restaurant. Its real name is the Hôtel des Mille Collines, and it has been remodeled into a luxury hotel since the troubles. The swimming pool that saved the thousand barricaded people from dying of thirst has nice bamboo furniture around it now, and a thatch-roofed bar. Some things, some, have moved on.



You want to sleep in after that long flight. But the morning birds!

We were still new to our present house in Rwanda—a home built by a Belgian architect who fled with his family during the 1994 genocide—when a strange rainstorm woke us one morning after an arduous flight. It was strange because the rains usually come in the afternoon, but it was also strange because of the women who seemed to come in with it.

Every morning, rainy or not, begins about the same here, and you never need an alarm clock. The glass louvers of your windows are open year-round, but screened to keep out the dangerous mosquitoes. (Most mosquitoes only make you itch, but the varieties with white spots can transmit malaria.) Breezes and the rich smells of ripe fruit and big flowers drift in during the day and night. Your skin enjoys the moist air. The mosquito net over your bed catches the blue dawn like a sultan's tent.

At four thirty, if you are awake, through the silence you will just barely hear the day's first call to prayer from the Muslim section of town, which is perhaps a mile away and around several hills. It is lovely. It is lovely for its own sake, and also because the Muslim section of town was protected from the genocide by the people's refusal to kill and their willingness to protect others—an untold story of the Rwandan genocide. So it is a good sound to begin the day. And then the birds.

The prayer awakens the birds. A few birds have been making simple chirps through the hours, but they are just the night watch. Now arriving, however, are the symphony's main players. They begin with a few peeps, twitters, whistles, and caws, as if tuning up. You might sleep through that, with practice. But then big leaves and pods, heavy with dew, begin to fall on the roof with leathery thumps. The guayava fruit, pecked-at for breakfast by big birds high in the trees, fall like hammer blows on your tin roof—if you have a tin roof, as most do, rich and poor. If you are yet sleeping, you will now wake to the turacos and other big-beaked, long-tailed, colorful jungle birds as they take their turns with brilliantly loud soprano ululations that rise over this million-bird overture to the new day. If you have two little daughters and a baby boy, their voices will be next.

The birds and babies are not alone in their vociferous response to the dawn: though each day is a challenge for Rwandans, whose homes, tiny and large, spread out in smoky pastels below our bedroom window's vista, it is, very simply, another day to be thankful to be alive. Rwandans are conscious of, and thankful for, the miraculous luck of their personal survival. They are proud of their country for how it has moved on from unspeakably dark times. They believe it is on its way to greatness—the Singapore of Africa, perhaps. That thought helps them get out of bed and keep at it.

On that strange morning in the house that was new to us, I was under the great net canopy of our bed, propped on an elbow to watch Alissa sleep a little longer beside me as the lavender light came in. She sometimes wears earplugs to sleep longer—only one earplug, actually, as the other ear listens for the children.

I watch Alissa stir awake. She is brave to be here, especially after a miscarriage during her first pregnancy. This is our home now, but that is only a geographic fact. Where you grew up and came of age is always your true home. As I listen to the birds chatter, I like to think of the bigger picture, to feel that these jungles are our deeper home. Indeed, they were the planet's main genetic labs, where our human ancestors began our story a quarter-million years ago. Some humans stayed to evolve in place and some migrated across the savannahs and up the Nile, becoming the people of the Middle East, of Southern Europe, of Asia and the New World. But this jungle is our truest home. The European explorers, the Stanleys and Livingstones, who journeyed up the Nile to find its source, were salmons of a sort, coming home. And this place, where we live, is that river's source, or very near it. We fashion our fancy cultures and think we have sprung from some American story, some Irish sod, some English countryside, some Asian or European village, some Eastern European shtetl, but all that has merely been the journey. This has always been the home.

Rwanda's mornings, like the evenings, have a tranquilizing coolness that is quite comfortable. Alissa has surrendered to the weather here; she wears open- toed sandals on the evening terrace of Heaven, our restaurant, which often results in a chilly bedtime surprise for me. She is considerate, however, and sometimes runs warm water over her icy little dancer's feet before coming to bed.

At five o'clock this morning, the thunder announced an unusual morning storm on its way. The birds screamed their songs suddenly louder—no empathy for lazy creatures still abed. Then lightning struck nearby. Alissa said good morning and rolled into me as the windows were still rattling. Her toes were warm.

African rains arrive like waterfalls. It was noisily drowning the trees a few blocks away, then it rushed closer, then we were underneath it. The escaping birds warned their friends downwind. Three big kites—big black birds with five-foot wingspans and muscles enough to carry away small animals—suddenly rose up across our view through the window as the last helicopters out.

When the rain stopped suddenly, as it does—it just turns off—we could hear the beeping of horns and little motorcycles, the moto-taxis, down on the road. We could hear a dog or two barking. There are some dogs in Rwanda, but not many. They are expensive to feed, and most of them were shot in the days after the genocide, when so many bodies were on the streets and in the underbrush. The starving dogs found them and lost the affection of the nation. We have a little mutt we rescued as a newborn puppy on the street, and our neighbors have a dog, but otherwise they are rare.

Then a knock came at the gate. It was still very early.

We have a cook and helper, Joel (pronounced in the French way: Jo-Ell), who had already arrived for the day. I knew because I could smell his coffee—rich Rwandan coffee from beans grown and roasted by our neighbor. I heard Joel go outside to open the gate. He brought three women to the front door as I headed downstairs.

They were Rwandan women, dressed in the flowing bright prints and headdresses of Africa. They had calm but serious expressions as they shook off their umbrellas and stood them against the long wall of the front veranda, which is accented by several banana trees. Thumb-sized bananas grace our table nearly year-round, and we use the flower of the plant in Asian-inspired salads at the restaurant.

"Bonjour," said the eldest woman. "I am here to inform you that the body of my brother is buried in your backyard, and we would like to arrange a time to come with a priest and some workers to remove his bones," she said in French.

"S'il vous plaît, entrez," I said, inviting them in.

"Merci," she said as they came in and sat on our big blue and white couches that have hosted many gatherings of public health experts, journalists, American friends on safari, and Kigali friends from down the road. Joel disappeared to prepare African tea with ginger and milk, and a tray of cookies. The oldest in the group calmly explained that the murderer of her brother had recently confessed and had given exact information about where the bones had been buried during the hundred days of terror. She showed us the X on the map of our side yard. The grave was in a far corner against the concrete block wall. It was no doubt very shallow, and we had been lucky not to disturb it when we planted the birds of paradise, bamboo, banana, red hibiscus, acacia, frangipani, and mandarin trees to obscure the security wall.

It is a regular occurrence for bones to be discovered somewhere, almost everywhere, and then be moved to the genocide memorial tombs. You often see machete-scarred people on the street with limbs missing, and those bones must be somewhere, too—though the rest of the person hobbles on to return your morning Mwaramutse! with a smile. Such sights were more common when we first arrived, but even now, a savage scar or missing limb receives no more notice on the street than a bold tattoo in Manhattan, though we still feel a great heaviness when we see it.

Excerpted from A Thousand Hills to Heaven by Josh Ruxin. Copyright © 2013 Josh Ruxin. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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