By that time it had been hours since we left the school and I was hot, thirsty, and hungry for lunch. The Minnesotan surprised us by taking out sugar rolls he had bought on impulse at the bakery earlier in the day. I treated everyone in the car to cans of Sprite I had found chilling in the grocery refrigerator. They were ice cold and delicious-a pleasant change from the usual unrefrigerated soft drinks I had come to tolerate in Rwanda. On the ride back we had to make a quick stop at one of the many bars that sell crates of Fanta and beer. Sister-who had lived for years in Europe and Tanzania and Kenya- made the dry observation as she got out of the taxi to search for the owner, “In other countries they can’t wait to greet the customer. In Rwanda you need to search for the owner.” Owner located, I paid for the two crates of beverages(1 mixed Fanta and 1 Mutzig Pilsner) and a small boy loaded them into the trunk for us. We got back to the school in the mid-afternoon and unloaded our bags and crates from the back of the taxi. The Minnesotan and I were delighted when Sister invited us in to the convent to have lunch.
The next day was the day of the party. I got up early and finished my weekly chores by 10am. I put on some comfortable clothes and walked up to the convent where I greeted the cook, the cook’s assistant, and one of the Sisters who was especially curious about American food and had offered to help with the preparations. The cook and his assistant went to work washing and shredding veggies for the salad. They also started roasting the sausages and would later start in on the pasta. Sister and I sliced, diced, scooped, cut, and chopped pineapple, mango, papaya, prune de japon, sundried tomatoes, and pickles. We made dressing and crushed the ginger cookies for the dessert. I also prepared a dish of grilled onions for the Minnesotan since it was also his birthday month and he had mentioned how much he enjoyed grilled onions on his hot dogs. I had never cut up a papaya before and Sister helped me to learn. We tried to put on the radio but the reception was iffy so instead Sister received an impromptu English lesson on the subject of cooking. I had forgotten how much I missed cooking and preparing meals with others. It made me miss my family all the more as I shared with the Sister and the cooks, the social aspect of the centuries old practice of feeding others. The cook and his assistant spoke no French or English so it was a Marx brothers’ routine to try and tell them step by step what I needed them to do. The salad prep was nothing for them as Rwandans, though they don’t eat salad often, know what it is and how to prepare it. I needed a can opener and a veggie peeler..they had none. The cook used a dull knife to do both jobs. I watched anxiously, hoping he wouldn’t cut himself in the process. The sausages and the “chips” were simply to be roasted and fried respectively. But the pasta was an issue as I had to be extra vigilant that the cook knew when to stop the cooking process and how to rinse the noodles-Rwandans tend to overcook their pasta when they have it at all which is almost never since here it is a luxury item.
In fact, a lot of what I bought was under the heading of “luxury items”. I hadn’t planned it that way but in Rwanda prices and availability are many times the reverse of what they are in America. Apples are expensive, pineapples are not. Meat, pasta, canned anything, bread, and cheese are expensive while fresh organic vegetables are almost free they are so cheap. Spices are expensive, organic milk is not. I wanted to make fusilli pasta salad with corn, sundried tomatoes and tuna. I wanted to make a layered fruit salad with ginger cookies, yogurt, and cinnamon. I wanted to make hot dogs with all the trimmings and a salad. Okay, so the salad was cheap…but the dressing made of red wine vinegar and mayonnaise was not. Today I was a big spender by Rwandan standards. It’s hard to wrap your head around. The Minnesotan and another Sister came in around noon to help with the last minute table setting and the dishwashing of the numerous bowls, pots, and cutlery we had used in our prep. At 1245pm the table was laid Rwandan style with everything that was to be served divided into two large platters each and put on opposite and symmetrical ends of a long table. There were plates, glasses, cutlery, napkins, and toothpicks on the sideboard. I had put all the condiments in the middle of the table and the crates of drinks on the floor near the sideboard with two beverage openers close by. There were chairs and stools set up around the long table for people to sit on with their bowls of food being placed on their laps and their drinks that would be set under their chairs. I had even remembered the cook and his assistant’s lunch and placed full bowls and a beer each in the cabinet in the kitchen for them in thanks for all their help. I wasn’t sure what they would think of this American food…it was sort of like a church picnic held indoors. But it was the best I could do with what I had. We would see.
The guest, who were told to come at 1pm, arrived predictably at 130.They stood around at first, eyeing the laden table, very nervous looking and unsure of what to do with themselves. I had to play the hostess and greet each of them in turn and thank them for coming. It was awkward. Everyone just stood there. Finally, my Headmistress saved me by stepping in and in the Rwandan fashion, making a short speech about why we were here in this room and how they wished me a very happy birthday. I thanked her, everyone clapped. And then in turn, everyone went around and made a short speech about the same thing. It wasn’t exactly in keeping with my vision for the lunch but it made everyone more relaxed so I just went with it. And then one of the Sisters bade me explain and point out all the different dishes to the assembly. Some of it was hard to explain…some of it was easy. Everyone looked worried when I showed them the pickles and told them there was cinnamon in the dessert. Rwandans are known for their reticence to try anything that has a fuller or sharper flavor. Everyone looked surprised when I demonstrated slicing open the bread roll and putting the sausage inside and then adding condiments. The pasta salad got appreciative murmurs from everyone and of course the presence of beer was very much applauded. At Sister’s urging, the meal progressed. Everything except the pickles was a big hit. People went up for seconds and thirds. In my opinion, everything was delicious and had turned out very well indeed. One of my colleagues said to me, “When you said you were making American food, I thought you would have to order it from America. To see you have cooked it is amazing! I did not know Americans could make food!’ A second colleague came out with, “In our culture we do not say the food is good because if you do it is like saying your host has not given you enough and should give you more. But I will be American for one moment and say it to you. The food is very good!” Another said, “In our culture it is not usual to compliment a woman on her cooking. We compliment her husband on his choice of a fine wife. You have no husband so I will say congratulations to Matthew. He has chosen well for his fiancée.” Still another came up to me with the statement, “I thought all Americans ate in restaurants but you have shown me they can have true hospitality, just like in Rwanda. Thank you for sharing this with us so we understand.” I was bewildered but very, very, happy.
At the end of the lunch, when everyone had left expressing fullness and thanking me profusely , I stayed to help the Sisters clean up. There were leftovers and I took some home at the Sisters urging to enjoy later that day. I was glad I had had this party. It had been a success. I had shared my culture with my colleagues and they had responded well. I had thought it would cheer me up and for the couple of days it had done so. But I can’t lie when I say it made me miss my family even more than I had previously. There are things we do with our families that are rituals unto themselves. They give us comfort and make us stronger…like that Greek giant Antaeus who became stronger every time he touched the ground. Preparing and sharing food is one of my family’s rituals. Doing it without them…well, later that evening I felt somewhat flat. It just wasn’t the same. As well orchestrated as my birthday party had been…it was missing something essential.