“Cake!” Beatha beams over a cup of tea. I had just asked her what her favourite food to cook for the Azizi Life team is. “I want everyone to eat with joy when I cook for them”. Aside from cakes for special occasions, which, unsurprisingly, always go down a treat with everyone, Beatha can usually be found hunched over a steaming bowl of Ibishimbo (beans), ikarotti (carrots), imiteja (green beans), amashu (cabbage) and a starchy carbohydrate of either rice, potatoes, pasta, or kawunga (sticky, gelatinous balls of maize flour mix), which is often dipped into peanut sauce.
Tender chunks of inyama (meat) and a good portion of ifiliti (chips) are another favourite. Beatha is a culinary queen bee ensconced in the busy hive of activity that is the Azizi Life office. Affectionately known as Mama Beatha, she brings everyone together over wholesome meals with extra helpings of good humour. “I’ve been working with Azizi Life since the beginning”, she said over the thunderous din of a Dance and Drumming Experience Day taking place outside in the garden. “I heard about an opportunity to work here from my brother, who was working for Food for the Hungry at the time”.
Beatha began cooking in the kitchens of Catholic nuns. When she got married, she helped cultivate and manage land with her husband for some time, before going on to work for an Irish family who ran an agro-forestry project in Muhanga, where Azizi Life is based. As well as cooking for that family, she also worked on the agro-forestry project with them. In 1994, the family left Rwanda during the Genocide Against the Tutsi. The Genocide changed everything for everyone in Rwanda. “I struggled to forgive but God helped me, and prayer strengthened me. God helped me to forgive.” After some time of not working, Beatha joined the International Committee of the Red Cross. That, incidentally, is where she met Venantie, who now also works for Azizi Life (you can read her fascinating and inspiring story here)
“Working at Azizi Life feels like family. I feel like I belong and have meaningful work, because we are all friends. We share our problems. We share everything.”
As if she hadn’t been through enough trauma in her life, in 2013, Beatha was widowed when her husband passed away suddenly after a road accident. It’s hard to imagine how much suffering one person can take. Beatha spoke stoically in between sips of tea: “The Azizi Life ladies inspire me, especially when some of them have been pregnant and have decided to continue working during their pregnancy. They show great passion, dedication and enthusiasm. I like that everyone takes responsibility not just for their work, but for other people’s too. Everyone pitches in to help others when needed. No one will say ‘I don’t do this, and I don’t do that; that’s not my job’.
There was a brief pause in the drumming as Beatha finished her tea and returned to the piles of potatoes and vegetables that needed peeling in the kitchen. The rhythms of daily life begin as she prays on the windy road to work, and end with the clatter of pots and pans in a kitchen warm and thick with traditional Rwandan food, laughter, and community…and always with the hope of cake.