Eugenie - The Making of Rwanda's Premier Female Chef
Two and a half years ago, I got my first overseas posting, and moved to Rwanda from the UK. It was a big moment for me, and I can still remember the excitement I felt, which sloshed around in my stomach with butterflies as I packed everything I owned into boxes and boarded the plane for the adventure. This was it, my moment to finally work overseas as an education advisor for the British government. I’d been working towards this for over ten years.
I grew up in Canada, in a sheltered world full of possibilities. My elementary school was in the middle of a forest, and each day my friends and I would meet and walk to school together, singing and dancing along the way. I had great teachers, who celebrated every child for their unique spirit, encouraging us to dream big. We had supportive parents and communities who instilled in us a sense of purpose, a love for our home, and the belief that we truly could do anything. To be honest, we probably could have. It’s from this upbringing that I fell in love with education, and the act of educating others - nurturing and supporting them to believe that they too can achieve their dreams.
You can imagine how it was to arrive in Rwanda, twenty years after a horrific genocide which killed almost one million people and left the country in a position where it had no choice but to pick up, start again, and try to move forward. The country has made tremendous progress, and the two years I spent working in the education sector were inspiring, challenging and rewarding. However, there is still a lost generation of people in Rwanda, whose lives were interrupted during the genocide, and who may never be the same again. Many left school, found themselves without homes, without parents, without families, without anything.
Eugenie is one such individual, and this is her story. This is the story of a girl robbed of her childhood by violence, who has gone on to become one of Rwanda’s top female chefs, and an inspiration to women and girls across her country.
This is a story of how chance led us to find each other, and now I will have her as my daughter for the rest of my life. I have never been so proud as to watch her blossom into the success that she is, and education is the reason for this.
A Child Victim of Genocide
Eugenie lost her parents and her sister in the genocide. Her parents were shot in front of her, and she jumped out of a window to escape the killers. She had her little brother in her arms, running one way, and her sister ran the other. They never saw each other again. Eugenie and her brother made it to Kigali and were taken in by relatives, where she enrolled back in school. After some time, the relatives could not afford to care for both she and her brother, so Eugenie left school and began working in order to help. This continued for another 15 years. I met Eugenie, then 30 years old, when she came to work for us as a housekeeper. After hiring her, we sat her down and explained that as part of the terms of her contract she would need to have a professional development plan for her career. Through broken English we explained that this was an opportunity for her to not only work, but to gain new skills and to achieve her dreams.
New Beginnings, New Dreams
The next day, testament to her drive, Eugenie turned up to work with a 3-year plan, mapped out on paper. She told me she consulted with her husband and her three year-old daughter, Teta. For the first time ever they talked openly about their family dreams. Eugenie wanted a good job to provide for Teta, her husband wanted what she wanted, and Teta wanted her mom to own a car. For Teta, seeing her parents own a car meant that they were professionals and that they were not poor. Eugenie told me about the poverty in her community. She also explained that in Rwanda, people often kept their dreams to themselves.
“Everyone has gone through so much, you wouldn’t want to show your accomplishments and make them feel sad. No one has ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know what to say, or how to dream. But I do have dreams, I’ve just never said them out loud before.”
Ryan and I were impressed. The 3-year plan was all about education, to get a job, to get out of poverty. Eugenie desperately wanted to finish school, but knew that at her age, it was almost impossible, and not practical to go back to finish primary/secondary school. Instead, she wanted to learn how to cook. “It’s practical”, she said “and I like making things and seeing people smile. Then I can get a better housekeeper job where I am also a cook. And then, I might even become just a cook”.
I replied “but what if you didn’t have to work for expat families anymore? What if you became a businesswoman? What if you became a chef? Or, what if you became Rwanda’s premier female chef?”
I’ll never forget her face, looking at me incredulously as if I was an alien from another planet. The colour drained from her shy face, and she answered in a low voice, looking at the ground, “I can’t decide that, this is for God to decide. But if God wishes this of me, then I will do it.” I suggested we start small, by first enrolling her into school.
After a bit of planning, we identified a Culinary Arts programme for girls run by Esther's Aid, and Eugenie enrolled. For nine months she would go to school 5 days a week from 8-1, working for us in the afternoons. She would still get a full salary, plus we’d cover the costs of the education. If she needed to practice, she was free to use our kitchen. I remember taking her to school on the first day of classes - Ryan and I drove her to the schoolyard. She sat in the back, wearing her school uniform and nervously clutching her bookbag. Her palms were sweaty, and when I looked in her eyes I saw the frightened child within her.
Eugenie quietly said “What if the other girls don’t like me? What if I can’t do it?” She then took a deep breath and said firmly to herself “no, of course I can do it, I am going. My daughter cried this morning when she saw me in my school uniform, she was so proud of me. I will do it for her, for our future.”
In reality, Eugenie had a really hard year, and her perseverance is a second testament to her incredible resilience. She was the oldest in her class, and therefore stuck out, although she used her experience to support others. Because she worked for an expat family, some of the staff also treated her differently, saying that she already had a job, so why would she come back to school. They viewed her as privileged, and did everything in their power to make her feel small. Eugenie would come home some days with tears in her eyes from the experience, but kept telling herself that she was stronger and better than this. Finding strength and courage is often hard to do, but somehow, with love and support, Eugenie did it. She studied and studied. The programme included training in culinary arts, health, nutrition, English and computer studies. After a few months, it was clear that her skills were improving, but not fast enough. She needed more books, more videos, to help.
Plant Based Foods
In early evenings after work, and on some weekends, Eugenie would stay and we would cook together. Ryan taught her how to cook as well. We showed her how to make Asian foods, and Indian foods, where the spices were all new to Eugenie. Rwanda’s food can be quite bland - boiled vegetables, cassava. Using spices like paprika, thyme, basil, etc, really changed her cooking style. I have a degree in nutrition and love to cook healthy food - many of these recipes are also foreign in Rwanda. Nut mylks, superfoods, gluten-free, quinoa!
I’m pretty sure Eugenie thought I was trying to trick her when I first explained that you can make milk from nuts. “But where is the cow?” she asked.
I’m sure she was thinking “This muzungu is crazy. You put nuts in a blender and it’s supposed to be like a cow. Whatever, just smile and pretend you agree”. To Eugenie’s credit, she tried everything I showed her, and actually liked most things - her palate is great! Eugenie also wasn’t able to use our cookbooks due to the complex English. So we sat with her and practiced, again, and again and again. She learned every superfood in my kitchen, every vegan dish!
One day, I showed Eugenie how to use my iPad. She’d never properly used the internet before, until her school introduced her to it.
Eugenie turned to me and excitedly said “did you know that if you press this square called SAFARI, it brings up the internet? And there is this thing called GOGGLE…..you can ask GOGGLE ANYTHING and he will tell you the answer. Can you believe it? Here let me show you!”.
Chez Teta - a new kind of 'restaurant'
To get practice, we opened Eugenie's own ‘restaurant’ inside our home. Once a month, we invited friends over for a dinner party. The restaurant was called “Chez Teta”, after her daughter. Eugenie designed the menu, decorated the table, and cooked all the food. To overcome her shyness, we encouraged her to officially welcome the guests and introduce the menu. At the end of the evening, our guests would provide positive and critical feedback, and would tip if they liked the food (they always tipped big!)
The restaurant quickly gained success, and Eugenie started bringing in other young girls from her programme, mentoring and training them. Many of these girls had never been around expats before, or had ever earned money, so getting tips and training was like a dream come true. To help, we hosted all-women dinner parties to encourage them to feel more comfortable. The results were transformational - women helping women made all the difference. Chez Teta operated for about one year, and the girls blossomed into young adults who had more personality than many of the professionals in the local restaurants.
After one year, Eugenie sat her final exams and graduated. Finally, she could show her diploma with pride, and enter the professional world. This was a chance that thousands dream of. Ryan and I sat in the audience and applauded, so proud to see all the young girls with their certificates. The photo below captures how proud Eugenie was to share in the moment with Teta and her husband, who were both bursting with pride, cheering louder than any Rwandan I've met.
You see, in this way I am a proud parent. I met someone who was older than me, but who never had the chance at the childhood I had. I never intended to get so involved in someone else’s life. I never intended to find a passion in teaching, or in cooking. Not only did I help Eugenie, but she helped me. She allowed me to discover new passions, to get to know another culture to a degree I never thought possible, and to feel as if I now belonged forever to that culture. The hearts of Rwandans are deep - as a culture they are sensitive and when you are welcomed into their lives, you will forever have love.
To Eugenie’s parents: I never had the privilege to meet you, but I hope that we have helped your children heal, and to reach for their dreams to have the lives you dreamed of for them.
Home Appétit - Rwanda's top female chef
Eugenie now proudly owns her own company, which is officially registered in her name - Home Appétit Kigali. Oh, and she owns that car, partnering with her husband, who helps with her business and acts as the company chauffeur to transfer the goods. The idea is that she comes to your home, to bring cooking, lessons and love. She’s expanding the company and training other young women and men who aspire to work in the culinary world. And she’s saving what she has, in a real bank account, to open her own kitchen.
In her current home she doesn’t have a kitchen, so she needs access to one in order to grow the business. You see, even Eugenie’s dreams have expanded beyond our wildest imaginations. She’s been featured in numerous magazines (see here and here), is invited to speak to young women, and would like to launch a local catering company. Education really is the gateway to one’s future. You give someone access to education and they can change the world. Eugenie is living proof of that. She’s accomplished so much in the last few years. I can’t wait to see what the rest of her story will look like. Eugenie, I love you! Amahirwe masa!