Surrounded by shelves of bowls, graters and other tools of her trade, 18-year-old culinary student Alaise Mukagasana whisks vinegar into a dressing of oil, parsley, onion and salt, making headway on the day’s lesson on salads.
Over the past two decades, the number of restaurants and hotels in Kigali and other parts of Rwanda — along with the country’s tourist industry — has grown dramatically, and demand is high for workers with skills in these areas.
In 2016, MCC partner Mwana Nshuti, whose name means My Child, My Friend, added culinary classes to its vocational training program, offering new opportunity for people like Mukagasana.
Students start with food hygiene and safety, learn about storing ingredients and then move on to focus on certain foods — from fruit, vegetable and salad preparation to techniques for pasta, sauces, meat, bread, cakes and pastries.
“I get skills to prepare a buffet or to make a meal for many people,” Mukagasana says.
And at Mwana Nshuti she’s getting hands-on practice in those skills each day.
Instructor Gaudence Nyirasafari begins lessons at a blackboard in a classroom, guiding students through a particular dish or technique as they take notes.
By late morning, though, students are in the kitchen, focused on preparing the foods they talked about earlier.
“What I am excited about in my learning is practice,” Mukagasana says, “especially when I prepare (a dish) doing each and every thing.”
The combination of classroom time and kitchen experience “helps us to use our hands and our brains,” she says.
That mix is at the heart of Mwana Nshuti — a combination of practical experience and specialized knowledge that can help a student step into a certain trade or business, often in a matter of months rather than years.
But it’s only part of a recipe for success.
Vocational training programs also need to help students develop the range of skills that will best serve them in building a career.
At Mwana Nshuti, that means that culinary students, in addition to studying cooking techniques, take additional classes in entrepreneurship, customer care, math, accounting, English and Swahili.
“With entrepreneurship you find how to create your own business, how to (work with) your customer, how to manage the money you get in order to improve or to get to the purpose that you have,” Mukagasana says. “Also, English helps me in communication with those who come to me who don’t speak Kinyarwanda. English will help us to understand each other better.”
English, French and Swahili are three of the four official languages of Rwanda. But most people speak Kinyarwanda, the other official language, best and use it most often.
Being able to communicate with visitors who don’t speak Kinyarwanda is a selling point that helps graduates find a job or make their own businesses more successful.
So are the lessons in customer care, says Grace Umwiza, who finished classwork at Mwana Nshuti in December 2017.
“They taught us how we can welcome different people,” Umwiza says, including welcoming and working with customers who are angry or upset.
Those skills, along with culinary knowledge, paid off for Umwiza.
Mwana Nshuti helps students arrange internships after their six months of classroom and kitchen lessons. Umwiza became an intern in a hotel in Rwanda’s Eastern Province, rotating through working in the kitchen, in customer service and in areas like cleaning.
After two months, the hotel recruited her to work full time in customer service. “That’s where I’m still working now,” she says.
The job has made a powerful difference for Umwiza, who signed up for the program knowing her family could not afford university studies.
Before, she’d rely on her mother for anything she needed. “Sometimes she would buy it, or she couldn’t buy it,” Umwiza remembers. “So now I’m able to buy things by myself and I’m able to serve my family . . . Those kinds of little things with which I’m able to help, I try to help.”
That financial independence is precious. Some men, she says, may take advantage of young women living in poverty, pressuring them to have sex in exchange for financial support. Because of her training and income, she says, she does not need to fear this exploitation.
Staff seek to provide more than just financial opportunity, though.
Mwana Nshuti is a program of Friends Peace House, a faith-based organization founded by the Evangelical Friends Church of Rwanda (Quakers). With small class sizes and committed teachers, it strives to provide a caring, inclusive environment.
Weekdays begin with a half-hour devotional time, a space that Umwiza treasured for sharing testimonies and learning about God together.
Teachers and leaders encourage and advise students in whatever struggles they may face. Umwiza recalls that when she was hospitalized after a car accident, “I loved the way they came and visited me.”
Today, as she works to build her future, Umwiza also is reaching out to care for others.
“In the culinary arts you can’t stop learning new things. Every time you learn new things, those new things, new skills make me want to keep following my dream.”
– Grace Umwiza
In additional to supporting herself, saving money to start a business and occasional help for family and friends, each month she donates a portion of her salary to help a widow with two children pay school fees.
The 22-year-old dreams of one day teaching the culinary skills she’s honed to other women and is eager to learn more herself.
“In the culinary arts you can’t stop learning new things,” she says. “Every time you learn new things, those new things, new skills make me want to keep following my dream.”
For Mukagasana, the dishes that she and others learn to make at Mwana Nshuti, along with classroom sessions or visits to hotels and markets, all bring her a step closer to her dream — of one day having her own restaurant and eventually her own hotel.
And she’s relishing the journey of practicing alongside other students and sharing ideas together. “I like to be with them,” she says. “And I see how everyone is busy in order to know about what we are preparing. It makes me happy.”
Marla Pierson Lester is managing editor of A Common Place magazine. Owen McCullum of Plattsburgh, New York, is serving at Friends Peace House through MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program.