“When I first arrived I remember really wanting to learn how to pee in a hole. I also couldn’t believe how quiet the people were, if you went to a market in America with that many people the noise would be deafening”. I’m sat in a coffee shop talking to Susan, a Peace Corps volunteer in Butare, Rwanda and fellow volunteer at Kuzamura Ubuzima (KU).
KU is a charity growing organic veggies on hospital land to provide the most needy patients with two free meals a day. In Rwanda hospital food isn’t provided by the Government, so if you’re ill in hospital it’s up to your family to come and cook for you. It’s great, if you have family and enough money to be able to pay for health insurance, medicine and food, but for the majority of people living rurally who can’t afford all three, patients often end up starving. KU was set up to feed these patients and prevent malnourishment.
Susan is a qualified dietician and her job whilst at KU has been to work with the KU farm to ensure that meals provided to the patients are providing enough nutrients. She also managed to befriend an Evangelist called Brian who sells homemade tofu and second-hand books. Every Friday he drops by KU’s office and sells tofu by the kilogram to Susan, who then makes the most delicious tofu burgers. Over the year in Butare she has perfected the recipe to include just the right amount of fillings “I tried experimenting with avocado as well, but the burger filling got too slippy and you couldn’t eat it in one bite” Susan explains.
The first two years of Susan’s time in Rwanda was spent in the boonies, where she was the only foreigner around for miles, “it wasn’t lonely, but it was isolating”. Her time there meant she was fully integrated into Rwandan culture, learning Kinyarwandan, forming friendships, and eventually regarded as a Rwandan woman by the rest of the community. Although this acceptance seems like an accomplishment, it troubled her as to be a good Rwandan woman meant being quiet, unquestioning and submissive. Susan’s observant, but having that quality mistaken as submissive, jarred with her.
It was also in the village where she made her deepest relationships, three women took her under her wing and she got very close with mamas of the children she was working with in the village health centre. But some relationships were complex – one friend recently married a man who is in prison for crimes he committed during the genocide. Although her friend is a good person, Susan finds it difficult coming to terms with the fact that her friend has chosen to be with someone who committed such atrocities, but she recognises “before I came to Rwanda everything was black and white, now things are just grey”.
By the time she got moved to the ‘big city’ of Butare, Susan had enough of an understanding of Rwandan culture to know what rules she could break. She no longer felt obliged to sit out with the women in her compound and talk to them if she didn’t’ fancy it, she could speak Kinyarwandan only when it was necessary and she didn’t feel the need to stop and greet everyone in the street, as Rwandan culture dictates. She can now be both Rwandan and American, adapting depending on the need and situation.
During my first week at KU we’re talking in the office about the Chinese Restaurant in town. It’s meant to be REALLY GOOD and I had been keen to try it out. As we’re deciding what evening to go, Susan opens up the invitation to the rest of the office, just as a few people look as though they’re about to accept she adds “It’s an American invitation, not Rwandan”. I’m baffled, but Susan explains that in Rwandan culture if you invite someone to join you for a meal it means you have to pay for the whole group. I silently thank Susan for the cultural clarification.
Now with only one month left before returning to America, Susan’s looking forward to wine and cheese (“blue, cheddar and goat” she says without hesitation when I ask) and her father’s cooking. Yet she’s nervous about having to go back to a society “that prioritises efficiency over social interaction”. Despite not stopping and speaking to everyone on the street anymore, it’s just that aspect of Rwandan culture that Susan will miss the most. In America, a life of phones, social media and pizzas arriving at your table 3 minutes after you ordered it, is not something she is looking forward to. The culture shock will be massive.
Susan cooked these tofu burgers for KU staff and volunteers just before Cass and I left Butare. The generous wedges of Brian’s tofu, the homemade honey mayo mustard and the freshly baked bread rolls, made them delicious.
Honey mustard mayo
Cut the tofu into eight thick wedges. Heat a good drizzle of oil in a frying pan on high heat and shallow fry the tofu slices until they are brown and crispy.
Prepare the honey mustard mayonnaise, using the ratio 1:1:1. Make as much as you want depending on how much you love the stuff! Or you can follow this recipe from Genius Kitchen
Wash a slice the tomatoes, onions and cucumber.
Assemble the burgers and eat immediately.