Mandazi: Donuts from Rwanda
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
Written by Amit Gerstein
I started working in Rwanda as a fellow at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in October 2021. Known by its acronym ASYV, it was founded in 2008 and is located in Rubona, a small village about an hour and a half drive East from Rwanda’s capital Kigali.
Its founder, Anne Heyman (1961-2014), started the Youth Village in response to the orphan crisis after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. She modeled it after Yemin Orde, the Israeli Youth Village that was created for orphans of the Holocaust.
Over time, as the number of orphans decreased, both organizations shifted their goals towards helping vulnerable youth, including both orphans and kids from backgrounds of extreme poverty or abuse. However, ASYV's structure remained, twenty-some-person families of boys or girls led by a family mama, each taking the name of a historical figure they were inspired by.
Anne Heyman, photo taken by her husband.
The campus is big. Red dirt roads snake around it, cutting between houses, passing by fields of millet and pineapples, and leading all the way down to the barn with cows whose milk we would drink in our nightly cup of milk tea.
Up in the Village center stands the canteen, a small, unassuming building tucked between two roads, one which led to the sports field and the other to the dining hall. The word Cantine is written with small pieces of tile above the canteen’s lintel. The first time I saw it, I laughed, thinking of all the hard work that went into spelling canteen wrong. I later realized that it was the French spelling of the word.
One of the school’s alumni was inside running the canteen, watching a video on his laptop in between customers.
- Mwiriwe! Good afternoon! I attempted in my meager Kinyarwanda.
_ Amakuru? What is the news? This is another way to greet someone.
- Ufite iki uyu munsi?, I asked, eyeing the red bins in the back. What do you have today?
I already knew the answer. There were either bread rolls or mandazi, pieces of fried dough graciously referred to as donuts. If you were lucky, the kitchen had just prepared East African chapati, the Rwandan take on its Indian cousin.
A window separated us as if I was standing at a ticket booth, but I could see all the packaged snacks that were also for sale: lollipops, fruit juice, and crates of Fanta citron. In the corner were Glucose Biscuits, the word glucose printed onto each cookie in all caps, which I had found unendingly funny, but, when I pointed it out to the Rwandan students, they gave me blank looks, not understanding what this muzungu (white person) found so hilarious.
As a “cousin,” I was paired with two of the first-year families. I was there to lead activities and to help students adjust to their first year in Agahozo.
Photograph: bags of cassava
During meal times with the students, I would load my plate with those starches along with a mound of rice, later to be smothered by a sauce, usually a stew of beans, squash, and other vegetables.
Photograph: a typical lunch at ASYV: umuceri (rice), ibishyimbo (beans) and ibirayi (Irish potatoes)
Monday was salad day, where each table got a tray of cucumbers, beets, and (to my confusion) noodles. Tuesday was egg day, and everyone got two hard-boiled eggs with lunch.
Sometimes we were surprised with isombe, cassava leaf stew served with cassava flour made into a dough, or a peanut sauce to go on our rice. Otherwise, meals were usually the same. Rice and beans for lunch. Rice and beans for dinner.
The food was delicious, don’t get me wrong, but after a month in the Village, it began to become monotonous. Once in a while, someone would bring a small bottle of chili oil. One or two drops for spice, three or four for the brave, five or six for those who didn’t fear spending the rest of the night in the bathroom!
I usually avoid spicy food, but I began to crave chili oil, something to break the enduring sameness of white rice with kidney beans. One week, visitors from the U.S. came to Agahozo and some visited my ASYV family named after Chadwick Bozeman (Wakanda Forever was our motto).
Among the snacks the visitors left behind was a container of black pepper, an admittedly strange gift, but one that the boys in the family loved. At dinner time, I saw them pour black pepper onto their food with enthusiasm, and the container would pass from table to table, first to everyone in that family, then to my girls’ family Winnie Mandela. Needless to say, the black pepper hardly lasted three days.
I felt guilty about my growing dislike for the food. Without fail, after every dinner, one of the boys would ask me how I liked the food. “It’s so good. It’s the best food I’ve ever had” he would tell me. For many of them, the food that I had gotten bored of was a treat. For everyone, it was food, something which in itself should not be taken for granted.
Whenever I had a weekend in Kigali, I would stock up on snacks. Oatmeal and peanut butter were essential (mostly because I couldn’t find the discipline to wake up every morning at six to have sorghum porridge with the kids), along with chocolate, nuts, and Digestives (whose unappetizing name I also find pretty funny).
Photograph: Amit bakes rosemary challahs in Rwanda
I also began to bake, although, given my limited access to ingredients and refrigeration, I tended to alternate between vegan banana bread and vegan brownies. Once I made tehina date cookies for the girls in the first-year family I was “cousin” to, and I brought it to family time, an hour after dinner a few times a week when everyone in the family meets to talk about family issues, play games, and bond. I warned them that they might not like it. Tehina, I explained, is an acquired taste. I enjoyed watching them try the new food, seeing their frank facial expressions when trying the cookie, quickly masked when they realized I was looking. Needless to say, there were many cookies left, and I ended up eating too many later that night and getting a terrible stomach ache.
The canteen also became a gustatory refuge. My favorite were the mandazi, round donuts made with what I suspect was leftover dough. It tasted like fried challah but wonderfully dense, so bites were separated by a bit of chewing. They were even better fresh, but a microwave was always on hand in case the supply was a few days old.
Like all good foods, it was also subject to shrinkflation. The 100 Rwandan franc price remained the same, but the size of the mandazi got smaller. It now took two or three to get the satisfaction of one, and all the while I was annoyed about the extra ten or twenty cents it would cost me.
Over Christmas break, I was staying in Kigali and I treated some of the Kigali-based students in my girls’ family to ice cream. It was in Kigali Heights, an outdoor mall considered fancy for Kigali but would be pedestrian if it was back home in Maryland.
Photographs: The market has everything you might need: food, clothes and goats!
The first half hour was spent just taking photos. They had dressed up in blouses, summer dresses, and ripped jeans, knowing Kigali Heights would be a good opportunity for a photo op. A few hundred photos later, we went upstairs to the gelateria, one of the few places I could find that served ice cream in the city. Except for me, everyone ordered vanilla ice cream in a cup, and we sat outside for yet another round of photos. For some, this was the first time they had ever had ice cream. Selfishly, I was excited about that. I wanted to be the one to introduce them to it, this classic of American childhood, the sweet creaminess every lactose-tolerant loves. I wanted it to wow them, for them to get a both literal and figurative taste of my life back home.
But they weren’t particularly excited. They ate the ice cream. I think they enjoyed it, but they didn’t really express it. I was a little hurt in a way. I might as well have taken them out for a meal of rice and beans!
Photograph: wall art in Kigali
But why is it that I placed so much value on them having this new experience? I love new things: new places, new foods, new clothes. Like any good American, my hobby is consumerism, where newness and difference are its metrics.
A mural in Envision, a media arts collective and cafe in Kigali,
founded by a former ASYV fellow and staffed by many ASYV alumni
Over time, I got used to eating the same food all the time, and I began to find new enjoyment in eating. The nuances in the different stews became more significant. Sometimes it was more bean heavy; sometimes there was a lot of cabbage (which I loved); sometimes there were carrots, eggplants, or some other vegetable I would try to discern. It became fun to talk about each meal with the students: complaining when it was too salty, laughing at my attempts to eat the cassava ‘bread’ with my hands.
Photograph: Isombe (a yummy stew made out of cassava leaves) and umugadi (cassava dough) - a classic Rwandan combo and one of my favorite meals in Rwanda.
After a year of rice and beans, I learned to enjoy the beauty in the sameness. There was something comforting about repetition, something nice about its predictability. It helped me enjoy things in a new way.
The mandazi pieces were not always the same. Sometimes you would get one that was a little crispier than usual. Sometimes it was dry. Sometimes it was especially dense. When my focus was not always on variety and change, I began to appreciate the variability that exists right there under my nose.
In my last week at Agahozo, I went to the canteen to get one last mandazi. I had stayed over the long break and was planning to go back to the U.S. a week before the new first-year students arrived for orientation. Unlike the normal chaos of life when all the students are there--the bustling of campers, the anticipation and excitement as they awaited training -- this last week before classes was silent.
The staff gathered in the dining hall, preparing for the new year, but I had finished my last project and was getting ready to leave. When I arrived at the canteen, I saw that it was closed. I messaged the student who ran it to ask when it would be open, but he told me that it will only open at the beginning of the new school year after I had gone. In a strange way, I felt like I needed this culinary closure to bookend my time in Rwanda, but I couldn’t get it.
Photograph: Shalom! Hello! Goodbye!
When I was back in the US, I still craved mandazi. Walking around Dupont Circle in Washington DC, I eyed the Krispy Kreme. But it wasn’t the same. In lieu of yummy, fried balls of deliciousness there were airy donuts that disappear soon after you take the first bite. I wanted those dense balls of dough that force you to take your time eating them, which might even require a little bit of water or milk to get down if you took too big of a bite.
I liked the taste of mandazi, but I also liked the ritual of going to the canteen, buying a mandazi, and sitting down for a few minutes on the bench outside the canteen to eat it. That’s not, of course, to take away from the simple delight that comes from taking a bite of the greasy, fried bread.
So, I resolved to make my own mandazi. Here is the recipe I found for it, and you should try it too.
Why? Well, because it’s delicious.
Recipe for mandazi:
1 C warm milk
1/4 c sugar
1/4 c oil
2 t yeast
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cardamom
3 1/2 c flour
oil for frying
combine sugar, egg, yeast, milk, oil and cardamon. slowly add the flour and mix.
Knead the dough until it is not sticky. Add more flour if needed.
Put the dough in a slightly greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until it doubles in size.
Punch the dough. divide into 6 balls.
Heat about 2 1/4 quart of oil and fry the flour balls one at the time until they puff and are a rich brown color.
A graduate of George Washington University, Amit Gerstein worked in Rwanda from 2021-2022 as a Public Health Fellow at ASYV, where he coordinated health and wellness activities and education. His academic background is in international development, and he is currently working on LGBTQ+ advocacy work in Nepal.
Copyright: all photographs of Rwanda are the property of Amit Gerstein and may not be reproduced without his permission.