‘There are more dreams than ghosts in today’s Rwanda.’ – A Thousand Hills to Heaven, by Josh Ruxin

March 9, 2016 at 1:10 pm (Book review, books)

Hillsheaven  From time to time I read a book that turns me into a sort of evangelist: I want to hand a copy to every thinking, caring person I know and say: “Read this!”

A Thousand Hills to Heaven is just such a book.


Subtitled Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda, it’s the story of Josh and Alissa Ruxin, who arrived in 2005 to assist in the effort to get a shattered country back on its feet. Newly married and filled with dreams and determination, they were also clear-eyed about the challenges they would face.

And face them they did. They hired the right people. Many native Rwandans and also Africans from neighboring countries proved ready and willing to staff the various undertakings comprising the Millennium Village that Josh was so keen to establish.

Millennium Villages Project is an international nonprofit run jointly by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, the United Nations Development Program, and Millennium Promise.

Josh Ruxin formulated these rules for making a lasting and meaningful difference:

  1. If people are hungry, they must be fed, first and foremost.
  2. Demand high standards, especially when they mean improvement in task performance. Wherever institutions already exist that benefit people, those should be upgraded.
  3. Corruption of any kind, especially in government, is a deal breaker. Meaningful and lasting change cannot happen unless and until complete honesty and transparency are effected.
  4. Any project that you undertake should be sustainable; i.e. doable even when you have gone.
  5. The free market can provide powerful incentives for job creation and  general improvement of living conditions.

The Ruxins did not arrive in Rwanda with these rules already in place and ready to put into practice. Rather, they are the result of experience and relentless effort. Some were learned the hard way. But all produced gratifying results. People who had endured  – or barely escaped from – the horror of the genocide were finding ways to live again. Not only to live, but to live in a meaningful way, and even to prosper.


Josh Ruxin is also a founding member of Health Builders, an organization devoted to making affordable health care available to all through the establishment of high quality regional clinics. The organization establishes the parameters and initially provides the tools for these facilities; the local population is then empowered to build and run the clinics.

Ruxin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in the history of Science and Medicine at Yale University. He also holds a Masters in Public Health from Columbia and a PhD in History from the University of London. He is currently on the faculty of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Work on the Millennium Village – helping the farmers revive the devastated soil, assisting with the establishment of the schools and clinics, finding and hiring top flight local help – Josh was a prime movers in each of these endeavors.

Aren’t you wondering what he does with his spare time? And what has Alissa Ruxin been doing?

Only raising three young children and creating and running a restaurant in a place where there is virtually no restaurant culture. With Josh’s help and support, Heaven became a reality. It is now a terrific place to eat and to hold celebrations; it’s also a great job creator.

So A Thousand Hills to Heaven is in a sense two books combined into a single narrative. There’s the story of the Millennium Village and Health Builders, in all its complexity, and it’s the story of Heaven, in all its complexity.

If you’re thinking that this must perforce be a long book, you’d be wrong. Josh Ruxin has packed a tremendous amount of material into just under 300 pages (including several pages of enticing recipes from the chef’s kitchen at Heaven). There is some background on the genocide – just enough to make you appreciate its ghastly reality. While acknowledging the suffering of the Rwandan people in the not-so-distant past, Ruxin is focused like a laser on the country’s present and immediate future. One gets the sense that this is what the Rwandans want, too. At the same time, though, they have instituted a system of adjudication called the Gacaca Court:

The Gacaca courts are a method of transitional justice and are designed to promote communal healing and rebuilding in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide.

From the Wikipedia entry

Rwanda has had a very dark cloud hovering over it; emerging from this devastation takes no small act of courage. That it is possible at all is due in part to people like the Ruxins, and even more so to the Rwandan people themselves, whose perseverance and determination is nothing short of amazing.

In A Thousand Hills to Heaven, one meets some truly fascinating individuals and hears some memorable stories. One of my favorites concerns the restaurant. Here, in Josh’s retelling, is what happened:

At one point, one of our chefs asked for “fresh” goat, and in the midst of service for eighty customers, a live goat was delivered to  the kitchen.

The chef let it be known that this was not exactly what he had in mind!

A Thousand Hills to Heaven was suggested for our AAUW discussion group by Barbara, one of our chapter’s members. Since 2006, she’s had the extraordinary good fortune to travel to Rwanda several times as a member of People to People and as part of a delegation of nurses. The following are her observations:

 Rwanda is a beautiful, peaceful small country with friendly gracious people.  Most people speak English so it is easy to get around.  The people are very proud of their government which is very transparent.  There are signs all over asking people to report corruption immediately.  They are very self sufficient and ask that visitors not to directly give the children anything, including an empty water bottle.  They do not want children “begging”.  Each time I have gone to “Heaven” restaurant and it is as wonderful as described in the book.


As it happens, I am going to miss the discussion, but I want to emphasize what a great choice this book is for that purpose. (I can barely stop talking about it myself.)

The Ruxins are Jewish. In 2013, many Jewish families celebrated “Thanksgivukkah,” when the dates of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincided. The Ruxins duly celebrated this holiday at Heaven.


There exists in the Jewish religion a concept called “Tikkun Olam,” or literally “world repair.” Jews are urged to go out into the world and do whatever they can to fix what needs fixing, especially as it pertains to people in need of help. Most of us do this through various sponsorship activities and donations to worthy causes. The Ruxins have done it by working to build a Millennium Village, to establish health facilities and schools, and to restore depleted farm land and make it productive once again. Oh, and by opening a beautiful restaurant, thereby adding many jobs, a place for people to gather, and a source of pride for everyone involved.

Talk about a purpose driven life!

The Ruxins

The Ruxins



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