simply divine grace
It is a ridiculously underwhelming thing to admit, but the first time I realized our unlikely friendship was more than a short-lived cultural curiosity was following the consumption of a warm bowl of beans and rice.
I lived in a turquoise house just across the road from the primary and secondary schools. Falling asleep to moo-ing cows and rising with the sun along clucking chickens became normal. With a tin roof, I could hear the thumping of crows and the blasting of summer rains. The dirt roads seeped into my skin and clothes enough times that it was as if it sank deeper into my soul and the village itself became a part of me. I ran. Nearly every day. Sometimes, a couple of miles, sometimes six, but even after two years, I could find new pathways out there. Life in the country is like that, with endless routes and secret footpaths to water sources, rice fields, and churches.
I had been living in a small Rwandan village in the Eastern part of the country, what I like to call banana land for the never-ending plots of banana trees. Friendship, in the early moments of my village life, was typically found with unresponsive goats, overly-enthusiastic children speaking an entirely different language, and some of my students from the school where I was working as an English teacher. Rural Rwanda doesn’t usually have an influx of mid 20’s-type people, and so my friend groups had to adjust by the very nature of circumstances. My friendship strategies started simple: Grandmas, gather around, let’s talk; Neighbors, let’s share food; Church goers, let’s pray together. Additionally, I began to visit student homes and families regularly. Divine, a highly mature student, was different from the start: restrained, skeptical, and hesitant about who I was. She waited a long time before inviting me in her home. She asked questions about my motivations, my heart, my faith, and then I was allowed the aforementioned meal. This discernment on her part was unusual and the surprising comfort in our discussions shocked me. Most everyone in my small community couldn’t wait to ‘figure out’ who I was (being an odd foreigner in the middle of a farming community), and yet she kept her distance as she slowly observed and waited. She was a person who took relationship building intentionally, leaving me curious even after the very first bowl of rice and beans that we shared.
The first meal was just one of many to come; there would be many more meals in her home, consumed over a wobbly, three-and-a-half legged unstained wooden table.
But about that rice.
Heaping spoonfuls of rice and beans were thrust upon my dirty and rugged steel bowl. An aura of steam rose from my portion of food; it had just finished cooking and it was warm, ready for partaking. Rwandan food can include variations of corn, meat, plantains, potatoes, cassava, cabbage, peanut sauce, or sweet potato, but rice and beans was a common, frequent staple.
Still, the simple staple of rice and beans maintained complex African components unknown to my relatively Americanized pallet. Akabanga or pilli-pilli is about 80% hot yellow peppers with the rest mixed with vegetable oil. Only one or two drops is necessary; the smoky heat resonates with the rice and elevates the dish into a spice and kick that African dishes lack otherwise. Along with the homemade hot sauce blend that is increasingly mass-produced in-country, the rice can be cooked with Rwandan peanut flour. The flour is originally created from harvested peanuts that Rwandans break down with large mortar & pestles. The flour is mixed with hot oil, tomatoes, water, onion, and salt for taste. Together, like the fruition of a beautiful science experiment, the elements create a creamy, peanut flavoring that unites both the rice and beans. This unique flour base is mildly nutty with a humbling, smooth texture. It softens the boldness of akabanga and is used in other staple dishes too, most notably with plantains. Rice and beans may appear straightforward, but as with other things in African life, there is more to the story.
Divine had arrived to her home that day and ‘Auntie’ had the beans and rice ready in two separate pots. Charred from black smoke rising from the wood it was cooked over multiple times a day, the tips of my fingers absorbed the black residue when I carried a bowl inside. Rwandan culture doesn’t really permit eating outside, and you wouldn’t typically be caught doing so. It’s definitely a Rwandan thing. Not an African thing.
Divine mumbled her Catholic prayer and muttered “time to eat” and so we pushed the grains into our mouths and I closed my eyes and basked in amazement at how simplicity could bring such delight. Beans and rice, cooked with the right oil, spices, and kitchen ability can fuse flavors of comfort and savory warmth. One scoop becomes three and my ambitious goal of a 5-mile uphill run became a distant memory. Instead, we finished the meal, thanked her family, and went on our walk. We did this frequently, perusing the roads lazily, hand in hand, talking, laughing, and thinking. We stopped at the top of a nearby green and gorgeous hill.
In Rwanda, physical touch of the same sex is absolutely normal, but I knew in my heart I was becoming vulnerable to a cross-cultural connection previously unknown to me. It confused me because I wasn’t uncomfortable with it. It was like how friendship should be; trusting, connected, and restful. As our hands grazed each other sometimes, it would be comforting to know she was there. Our languages would mix like seeds planted in the earth’s soil, filled with an acknowledgement of give and take.
It became less about the hand-holding and dangerously more about trusting someone. Vulnerable…? In Rwanda?
Since I can remember, I’ve rolled with groups of best friends, often relishing in the joys of life as a social butterfly. Yet, because God has (in His infinite wisdom) designed us as relational people, friendship isn’t entirely fruitful if you aren’t vulnerable. Over the years of friend-making and attempts in the romantic realm of relationships, I was open – but only to a degree. People-pleasing became far too important and I chose to believe that my heart was strong enough that nobody needed – or could – carry my baggage. Let’s just all be happy – because that was what life was all about…right? The truth was, I had lost hope and value in the beauty of real intimacy in relationship. I know Divine quickly saw right through this façade. She would tell me that in multiple ways, in lengthy conversations, on those hills of Rwanda.
We sat on a small path of wheat grass, lost in our thoughts and in the IPOD shuffle playlist I had bursting from my little device of music. A Rwandan song started and so her head moved in a synchronized fashion to the beat. I saw the outlines of bean fields on the sets of mountains around us, and the elderly female farmers plowing away, dig by dig.
Gravel stuck between my sweaty crevices in my knees when I couldn’t control my laughter in these conversational exchanges. Weddings, banana beer, Jesus, people, puberty, clean water, village myths, marriage, politics, food, cultural mannerisms, desires of the heart, and life purpose all were discussed at some point on that hill. Nothing was off limits. Tears would come sometimes in bold moments of declaration. Doubts exposed.
I had expected that living in Rwanda would bring intense cultural encounters. Yet, I expected that I would control them. Somehow, God would clap His hands, and in an almost refined British accent say, “Yay, Heather” for a good work and a job well done and then I would be able to write a nice little blog about all of the adventures I was blessed enough to experience. That’s not untrue, but God is far more transformative than that. He brought me Divine who had a way of airing all the blatant, imperfect holes in my heart. Apparently, with me, he needed an unassuming, young, sassy Rwandan woman thousands miles from my home country to do it.
Divine glanced at me and smiled. The music stopped and we talked about fetching water and little nothings. The normalcy of something so not normal to the outside world stirred in my soul and I thanked God for this kind of blessing – this kind of grace – that I could know someone from an extremely different background with such intimacy. It wasn’t a usual gift for a twenty-something from suburban America.
Barriers were so abundantly obvious – language, cultural, ethnic, economic, age, and societal roles – that when talking about the mutual understanding that had transcended, Divine would often remark simply, “Yesu we (Oh my Jesus!), I don’t understand.” That is what some people might call a ‘God thing’ when some experiences are so impossible that when they happen you find little tangible framework to properly provide sensible explanation.
I’ve held those particular memories on the hill – the rice and beans included – in my heart for a long, long time.
1 year, 6 months later.
There isn’t so much beans and rice anymore. Now it’s kale and quinoa or roasted portabella paninis or smothered steak burritos. American food options are wide and elaborate and while I often cheered at the unlimited list of options, I found myself desiring something…simpler. Something that could provide that intangible aroma of grace and intimacy, uncomplicated and pure. Something that would bring the sweet taste of ease and a sense of rest. I miss the beans and the rice and I miss Rwanda. I miss my village home, my classroom, and I also miss Divine’s laugh and how she pushed me to be free. She would often remind me of my fallibility and tell me, “Heather, you are human! You cannot be perfect.” I was for so long frustrated by that, and now I see clearly, she knew my heart better than most people ever really had and she somehow sensed the work God still had ahead of me in life down the road. So yes, it’s the rice and beans, but it’s also what came with the plate of food.
The truth is that Divine and I have opted for closure in our previously continued cross-cultural friendship. It didn’t end, per se, but it reached a point that instead of grasping to dear life for it, we have chosen to try the inevitable life step of moving forward. Our relationship took such a big spot of my heart that in coming home to fast-paced American life, I became lost. Where were the hills? Where had the openness and slowness of life gone? Without her proximity back home, I wasn’t able to imagine building relationship with others (how could it be like that again?) and so I acquiesced myself to the idea that I was stuck without her, thousands miles away, and there was nothing I could do. Hurt and unwilling to submit my heart again, my future ability in other relationships – namely with God Himself became tarnished.
I unhealthily sat in deep resignation for a good length of time because of this. The fullness of rice and beans was a distant memory; I was forced, it seemed, to have to choose plentiful margaritas or obscenely large burgers that filled needs it never should have. Slowly, but surely, God revealed that I needed to let go (both of her, of that relationship, and of who I was before) and actually live the very things she taught me. Be vulnerable, again. Trust that a new season is upon you, and you will see the fruit of what you have learned. You will find something new. In order to be whole, I had to follow God.
Our friendship had a time and place and will always hold an incredibly, unchanging spot in my life. I will never forget what she was able to share with me, teach me, and gracefully give to me. So, I remember, appreciate deeply the time we had, and acknowledge that she was a kind of grace that God gave me. I have let go; she understands because she needs it too. We celebrate the miracle that was our friendship, we remember the rice and beans, and we give thanks for the way it will change the rest of the course of our lives – wherever they take us.
Last fall, I met a group of Rwandans at a refugee Thanksgiving feast in the middle of Denver. A Kinyarwanda song played as the dance party begun, in the middle of an Orthodox Greek Church, mind you, and in the quick moment of recognition, I gravitated towards the center of the dance floor. Singing along, a young man grabbed my arm gently, yelled over the music, and asked,
“You know Kinyarwanda?!”
I nodded. “Yego sha! Amakuru?” (Yes my friend! How are you?)
“Eh baba weeeeeeeeeeee” (this is a sound of surprise and excitement in Rwanda’s crazy beautiful language).
I committed almost instantly to visiting these young Rwandans’ home the following weekend. Just as curious as they were about me, I came to their subsidized apartment on a sketchier side of town and braced myself to hear the beginnings of their stories. Or not. Rwandans can be open to testimony, depth, and conversation, but only on the principle of trust. I wasn’t sure how much would be divulged – if anything – and so I prepared for no expectations. That’s the best attitude when open to other cultures; expect anything. And prepare to be amazed, most often.
Ettiene, Pascal, and Fiston. Brothers. Rwandan. Raised in Congo. Spent most of their formative years in a refugee camp with hundreds of thousands of other people. Home has been a difficult thing for them, you see. Rejected by both countries, they finally arrived safely to the US around three years ago.
The food arrived right about this time – Pascal had been hustling and bustling his way in the kitchen to make sure lunch would be ready right on “African time” (around 1, 2’o clock for a good lunch meal). As soon as our forks and spoons got to work it was like the food arranged its own kind of influence and the boys continued to divulge in who they are, what they think, and how they’ve transitioned into a new country, life, situation, and status. Can you imagine your life, literally, turning upside down?
They opened up about struggles in both facets of life as a refugee and life as an immigrant and I in turn shared about how I lived in Rwanda and the ways it has altered me forever. They chewed their food with surprise and respect; why would an America do that? Move to the village? In Rwanda? They asked all of these things.
I described it initially as a motivation to serve but ultimately it was an act of grace from God.
The depth of relationship I had with Divine would pale in comparison to what God desires with us on a much larger level each and every day. Divine knew corners of my heart but God sees us even more familiarly – amidst all of our brokenness – but because He has declared that, all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24), we can live in freedom for our past and receive grace with open arms. We don’t have to be perfect. We just need Jesus, and maybe a bit of beans and rice too so that sharing who you are becomes much less intimidating.
Hindsight is everything and so while I can brainstorm and list “the reasons” I worked and lived in Rwanda, I can’t explain why I love it. I can’t explain the smile I get when I get a warm plate of freshly boiled cassava. I can’t explain how little I care about dirt gathered around my ankles; I love walking everywhere. I can’t explain how the village became my home or how life without electricity opened my eyes to a very real sense of living. I can’t describe the sense of belonging when my students greeted me at school or when “old mamas” would hug me on the road. And there was ugly, gritty, and terrible parts too, you know. I was harassed, hungry, broke, lonely, scared, frustrated, and sad sometimes. Haven’t you heard? Grace is stuck in there with you in all of this too; in fact, it’s in suffering and challenges that we come to know grace and in turn, we can appreciate the journey we have ventured through. We learn to accept grace because without it, we couldn’t be humble and actually learn from the paths the Lord leads us through.
Rwanda, for me, was a story of people. Typically, and most frequently that involved a small jug of banana beer (or sorghum juice if of the Adventist faith), some Rwandan staple food, and sitting in tight, hot places.
That’s the power of grace; where simplicity is restored, and people (and food) come into your life and you can be sure it will never be the same. You may realize this on literal mountaintops in random corners of Africa…
…or over the table. With a bowl of rice and beans and glass of milk. That’s just how it goes sometimes. Grace knows no boundaries, no limits. It is, quite literally, divine. Even in Africa. Especially in Africa.
-It’s good if you can soak your beans at least 4 hours ahead of cooking them. I often do this overnight, but have also been known to throw a pound of white beans under water first thing in the morning. If you forget to soak, you can always do a quick-soak method where you put your beans in a pot, cover with about 2 inches of water, and bring to a rolling boil. At that point, turn the heat off and cover them for an hour. Drain and use as you would any other soaked bean.
-I was lucky enough to learn a little bean cookery from a well-respected chef of Northern Italian heritage, and his best advice was to cook beans in enough water that they have room to dance. You don’t want too much water, lest the broth they make will be thin, but you also have to give them enough room to dance.
-Your beans will dance if, and only IF, you keep the heat at a perfect simmer. What is a perfect simmer? You have to find it by playing with your stove a little. Keep the heat at a level where the beans are moving, but not too vigorously. Just put on your favorite song, play with the heat a little, and wait for the beans to move. If they look like they’re dancing, you’ve found a perfect simmer.
-Do not skimp on aromatics, spices or salt. Be creative. I always throw in garlic, no matter what. You can make a perfectly good pot of beans with salt and garlic alone. But a little onion or some parsley stems or a celery rib are good to add. A touch of cumin or bay leaf or rosemary never hurt. Tamar Adler, in her astoundingly delicious book, Everlasting Meal, says that you can’t go wrong with fennel.
-Let me reiterate the salt thing. Do not forget to salt your beans. This is a hot topic in the riveting bean cookery world. I was taught that salt toughens beans, which has since proven not to be true. Even so, on more superstitious days, I add salt about 20 minutes into cooking time. Either way, don’t forget to salt those beans. They’ll be bland without salt.
-No pot of beans is complete without a glug or two of fat. Olive oil or bacon grease are my fats of choice when it comes to cooking beans, but use whatever suits your fancy.
-If you don’t eat all of the beans you’ve made, store them in their own rich broth. Even if the beans go fast and all you have left is the broth, keep it anyway. This liquid makes a wonderful soup base or something to sop up leftover bread.