Why I Did "Thanksgiving" in Rwanda: a Way to Honor Giving Tuesday

The Thanksgiving table in Ndera, Rwanda (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

Unlike the kale-mad United States, there is no shortage of the planet’s trendiest leafy green at the farm headquarters of Gardens for Health International in Ndera, Rwanda, about 30 minutes from central Kigali. There are rows and rows of the stuff — curly, red Russian, the flat Tuscan kind — as well as basil, sunflowers, maize, arugula, pumpkins, carrots, green beans, passion fruit, and dozens of other fresh-from-the-soil fruits and vegetables that grow so bountifully on this five-acre nursery in the heart of East Africa.

The view from the farm (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

It is harvest time at GHI, which is why the place hums with the scraping of potato peelers, the crackle of hot oil in pots, and the chatter of the cooks standing over fires fueled by eucalyptus logs in the outdoor communal kitchen. I ask anyone who will listen how I can help, but amidst this pleasant pre-party chaos, people are too busy even to delegate. Everyone has one singular focus: to prepare for the 650 guests that will soon arrive from all over Rwanda for a sprawling, epic, cinematic, and deeply purposeful Thanksgiving dinner and ultimate farm-to-table feast with an eloquent adherence to the spirit of this holiday.

The author, sowing the fields in Rwanda (Photo: Helen Weld)

Three years ago, on my first visit to Rwanda, I missed this party by a couple of days and vowed to return. The following year, a snowstorm on the east coast cancelled all flights, including mine to Kigali. Now, on my fourth trip to Rwanda, I finally get to see this dinner party unfold on GHI’s lush fields.

The dinner menu (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

“This celebration is entirely about gratitude,” says Country Director Julie Carney about the now-annual all-day event. Carney, 28, originally from Princeton New Jersey, is one of the founders of GHI, which she started in 2008 along with two partners, with the mission to use agriculture as a driver of better health outcomes.

Today, the organization — based in a house here on the farm — contributes significantly to the improved health of local populations by training educators, nurses and nutritionists to work directly with malnourished families in 18 regional clinics, both here in the Gasabo district and in Musanze, at the country’s northwest corner, the region that contains Virunga National Park and its famous mountain gorillas.

Twenty years post genocide, Rwanda is now a burgeoning economic success story, but there is still rampant rural poverty and an estimated 44 percent of children under 5 still suffer from malnutrition.

A staffer dishes out rice (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

Enter GHI, which is working to improve those numbers, one family at a time. “We started this Thanksgiving tradition because we wanted to show our appreciation to our neighbors, the staff and all the health officials who help us,” says Carney. And the beneficiaries of GHI’s outreach — the healthy mothers with thriving children — were eager to respond in kind.

Guests arrive for dinner (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

At 11 a.m. the guests begin to arrive in buses rented for the occasion, the women dressed in dazzling patterned kitenges and hoisting covered woven baskets, the contents of which will be revealed after the elaborate dinner. A DJ is spinning music by Rwandan artists King James, Kitoku, and Jay Polley while toddlers in blazers dance together with little girls in sparkly dresses.

A staffer carrying amaranth greens (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

Six families from each health center were chosen by lottery to attend, and the remaining guests consist of GHI’s many colleagues and collaborators from throughout Rwanda. By the time they pour out of the buses, a massive white tent has been raised on the property, and here, shaded from the harsh sunlight, the growing crowd gathers. The prior evening, all of us had assembled in the same spot under a moody Rwandan sunset to wish farewell to the cow that was soon to be slaughtered for the stew now simmering in several oversized pots.

Stirring a pot of stew (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

Gratitude extends even to the meat served up for dinner, including the three turkeys whose flesh will be mixed with tomatoes, onions and tart celery leaves, rather than carved up American-style. All that, plus potatoes, beans, rice, sautéed amaranth and cassava greens all being laid out in great pots under the farm’s gazebo set amidst a swaying field of orange Cosmos.

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Dinner is served (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

Thanksgiving here, as everywhere, is also about food. Lots of it. The dinner is a massive undertaking and everyone on the property has taken part. Executive director Jessie Cronan shredded beets and julienned cabbage for cole slaw along with colleagues like health educator Caroline Numuhire, who also helped tidy up the dirt paths between garden beds in front of the house.

Making beet coleslaw (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

Neighbors from Ndera volunteered to cook, stirred the giant vats of stew and fried 700 pounds of Irish and sweet potatoes to perfect crispness. On a normal day Jacques Basengimana cleans the office and helps out around the farm at GHI. Today he is clad in a bright yellow soccer jersey from Brazil and is creating sigh-worthy centerpieces of cut flowers in jelly jars.

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Jacques Basengimana, cutting flowers for centerpieces (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

When dinner gets underway, the line snakes all the way down to the field, and all the guests are served, buffet style. At the last station, everyone is handed a Fanta — “As long as they’re up to date on their de-worming pills,” says nurse Helen Weld. And no one can sidestep the condom station.

Handing out condoms and Fanta (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

After dinner, Ariette Mukantwali, 22, relaxes at a quiet table away from the crowd. All of us are stuffed from the feast, especially me after I snatch a few remaining slices of fried potatoes and pop them into my mouth. They are oily, salty, crispy–perfect. She is draped in a soft green patterned kitenge and wears a stack of neon bracelets. “I have a very healthy son now,” she says, smiling brightly as she speaks.

Mukantwali is a guest from the Nyachonga health center, where, earlier this year her 3 ½ year-old son was identified as malnourished and immediately given nutrition training by GHI and local health officials. “I used to only cook rice, beans and potatoes,” she says. “I had never thought about vegetables, or that I should get them in my son’s diet.” Now, only six months later, his weight has doubled.

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After dinner, giving thanks (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

Individual stories like this one are the bright lights in the hugely complicated and sometimes opaque world of poverty alleviation, writ large, in the developing world. At GHI’s Thanksgiving dinner, success is measured not only in more robust, healthy children, but in gratitude. At the end of the day, representatives from each health center open the baskets they’ve carried all the way to Kigali and pour the contents onto a large blanket.

Offerings from community gardens (Photo: Marcia DeSanctis)

Out come potatoes, bunches of cassava leaves, squash or radishes still covered with the soil from their villages, offered to GHI as Americans might offer an apple pie or a Brussels sprouts casserole to their Thanksgiving host. Some of them weep as they present their gift, and the message is clear: Turi kumwe, they say. We are in this together, and for that, we thank you.

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