'Our own way to belong': East African women's kitchen heats up in Edmonton

Dozens of women in one small northeast kitchen are working towards their dream of opening their own restaurant.

Before they open their own restaurant, they cook for each other

Every Friday, a group of women from East Africa share recipes and cook at their community kitchen. (Fakiha Baig/CBC)

There were 17 women and five kids in the North East Hub kitchen on Friday — cooking, laughing, at times singing. 

Mandazi was frying on the stove. One woman showed them how to make East African doughnuts.

Every Friday evening, for four hours, a group of East African women crowd into the community centre kitchen off of Victoria Trail and share their recipes. This time, they cooked carrot rice, sambusa and meat balls. 

They all recently moved to Edmonton from Burundi or Rwanda or Congo. 

"Every woman has a different story, but we all have one common story: the kitchen," said kitchen co-ordinator Alice Ngendakumana. "We all love to cook."

Ngendakumana drives for 40 minutes from Spruce Grove to make it there each week. The program started in March and has grown to include 27 women.

Most don't speak English, but this is a chance to practise. 

"We came from a culture where being in the kitchen with our mothers, in front of the fireplace, you get the opportunity to tell your story — to learn your language," she said. 

Many of them dream they'll one day open a restaurant in Canada or an African grocery store to source ingredients, she said. 

Women fried up mandazi at the North East Hub community kitchen on Friday. (Fakiha Baig/CBC)

"My dream is to have an East African restaurant in Edmonton where everybody can come — from all different communities — and taste our meals," said Lydia Icoyitungiye. 

"I see we have potential and we can deliver, so why not," she said. 

Icoyitungiye fled Burundi and moved to Edmonton from Holland in 2015.

She has a baby and her husband works nights from 3 to 11 p.m. She said it can be difficult to take care of her child while she cooks. She would like to have volunteers help with babysitting Friday night. 

Ngendakumana has a plan to turn the community kitchen into a catering service. 

Currently the group is funded by the community centre, but she would like to earn a profit by serving food at private events.

Meat balls and carrot rice are among Alice Ngendakumana's specialties. (Fakiha Baig/CBC)

A way to heal

The youngest woman who cooks there is 22. The oldest is 65. They can mentor and support one another in the kitchen, Ngendakumana said.

"It's a kind of therapy when we are in the kitchen," she said. "We come from different countries and we went through a lot in war — where we lost our loved ones. Some of the mothers are single mums because they lost their husbands and they lost their kids.

"We find this is a way we can heal." 

Ngendakumana said language can be a barrier for those who recently immigrated to Canada and feel too shy to make friends in the country or haven't found work. 

The kitchen has recruited volunteers to teach the group in English, and about baking and making dishes from other cultures. She said she notices when her kids bring fufu, an African porridge bread, to school and see other children with spaghetti instead. 

Women at the North East Hub community kitchen on Victoria Trail cook carrot rice, sambusa and mandazi. (Fakiha Baig/CBC)

"We don't want to live in a bubble, we want to be part of this community," she said. "We want to be part of Canada, we want to be Edmontonians. We don't want to feel like we have been left out.

"Most Canadians, they go out for coffee, go to the lake, they go for a picnic. For us, we don't have that opportunity. We have to create our own way to belong to this country, so we find we can belong by being part of this community kitchen."