A Thousand Hills to Heaven

A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, hope, and a restaurant in Rwanda

by Josh Ruxin1000 hills to heaven

a book review

Word to the wise: don’t read books about Rwanda before bed. (It only took me two reads to realize this.) Even if the book isn’t “about” the genocide of 1994, it’s still “about” the genocide. That is, most unfortunately, as much the defining event of modern-day Rwanda as 9/11 is for contemporary America.

Still, A Thousand Hills to Heaven is the most genocide-light book I’ve read yet about this east central African nation, in preparation for my mission trip there in June. (Other reads: Broken Memory and Left to Tell: Finding God in the Midst of the Rwandan Holocaust.) The title is a double entendre – Rwanda’s geography has earned it the nickname “land of a thousand hills,” and Heaven is the name of the restaurant this author and his wife operate in the capital city of Kigali.

It’s a steady, interesting, heartwarming, heartbreaking, insightful, educational read. Josh Ruxin is an accomplished, successful veteran of the development world; his wife Alissa is a wellness expert and coach; both are foodies who’ve managed to birth and maintain a Michelin-star restaurant in a landlocked African capital.

In telling the story of this restaurant, A Thousand Hills to Heaven dishes out plates full of wise and insightful nuggets about aid, development, horror, heroism, healing, and hope. Even when I thought I might put it down and not pick it back up again, I found myself returning to the book like I open newsletters from friends on the mission field.

Some of the nuggets:

  • Josh’s “five finger rules of development”:
    • Rule one (the thumb): people who are starving cannot be asked to do more than eat. Translation: do the hunger relief first, then pursue development.
    • Rule two (the pointer finger): demand high standards where they improve performance and upgrade the institutions that serve people and help them have better lives.
      • “To see poor sanitation in a newborn nursery and to say, ‘Well, we’re not in the U.S., after all, and this is their way,’ is soft bigotry of the worst sort….We should not demand that developing nations find their own Louis Pasteurs and Jonas Salks. Our first charitable instinct should be to share what we know from our own history, and we should share it with confident determination, pushing aside unhealthy and cruel traditions where we find them….To equate [female genital mutilation] with our own culture’s male circumcision…is a failure of critical thinking and true helpfulness.” (p. 123)
      • “The most important reason to demand high performance standards in development work is that you should be able to leave someday…If you give out too many things for free, it is hard to make people feel industrious and entrepreneurial.” (p. 124)
    • Rule three (the middle finger – yes that one): you can’t do successful, sustainable development in hopelessly corrupt countries.
    • Rule four (the ring/wedding finger): we (the developing agencies, etc.) are not here as a lifelong commitment, not married to our programs.
      • “We should ultimately never be the essential party, even though we do have leadership responsibilities at the beginning. The better NGOs would nurture Rwandans to lead their efforts, and they would find ways to make the improvements sustainable, then they would leave.” (p. 174)
    • Rule five (the pinky finger): trust the market as the biggest player, even if the power of the market looks small now.
      • “Never be afraid of the profit model, as it can carry the heaviest load of long-term development. Profit brings sustainability, not to mention dignity.” (p. 202)
    • “Don’t start anything that won’t be sustainable after you leave – and do leave: that is the rule. There were no signs [on our health centers] announcing ‘Brought to you by foreign donors.’ When foreigners stay too long, they become a reason for people to doubt their own abilities. When foreigners come with unsustainable projects, they are often doing it for their own pleasure or as an excuse for fundraising and salaries, not for love.” (p. 175)
    • “Rwandans have a funny relationship with God, which they convey through a story anyone can tell you: ‘God worked very hard for six days creating the heavens and the earth. But on the seventh day, he needed a break, so he picked Rwanda as the place to take a much-needed sleep. God sleeps in Rwanda, then keeps busy at work everywhere else.” (p. 169) The negative takeaway from this is that God only shows up in Rwanda to take a nap, so you can’t count on Him to hear you there. The positive is that Rwanda is so cool and beautiful that naturally God comes here, when he’s not punching the clock, to rest.
    • “Rwanda may have its share of bureaucracy, but it is not a kleptocracy. It’s a place where a good program doesn’t die the death of a thousand bribes, a thousand misallocations, a thousand brothers-in-law who must have a piece of every pie.” (p. 156)
    • “If your town ran out of food, would you want someone from another nation handing out the food, or would you want your longtime neighbor to hand it to you?” (Take that, Operation Christmas Child!) “That way, your dignity would be intact. Your children would see neighbors doing something together to feed their families – they would not see their parents looking like helpless victims.” (p. 109)

And two last quotes, one for laughs:

“There is such a thing, by the way, as an Africanized vehicle. Land Rovers and Land Cruisers and a few other makes come to Africa with big running boards, safari-style cargo racks atop, tougher and higher suspensions, supplemental fuel tanks, and, most visibly, snorkel pipes that come from the engine, up alongside the passenger side of the window. That pipe allows the engine to keep going in waist-deep water, and it allows the engine to stay cleaner, gulping its air a few feet higher up from the surface of the roads, which are often traveled in fast, close, dusty caravans. I think the main reason you see such vehicles, however, is that they look very cool, and many of the charities operating them want badass vehicles pictured in their brochures and websites. Our vehicles were picked up on the cheap, however – no sexy snorkels.” (p. 96)

And this one which feels prophetic:

“When people leave here they perhaps want some sushi and Ben & Jerry’s first, but then they want to continue with meaningful endeavors. You cannot leave Africa and then expect to be satisfied in ordinary living. You will have to continue doing extraordinary things, because you know what can be done in the world, and you know what you are capable of doing, and you know that, wherever you go, many lives will depend on your willingness to exercise your privileges and skills on their behalf.” (p. 207)

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Published in: on April 27, 2017 at 2:20 am  Leave a Comment  

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