From Arkansas to Rwanda

by Callie Sterling
Photos by Callie and Jaison Sterling

Two photographers from North Little Rock set out on a trip of a lifetime earlier this year; I happen to be one of those photographers. Along with my husband, Jaison Sterling, we began the lengthy journey to visit friends in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda.

The idea for our trek to Africa began when friends, originally from Arkansas, invited us to stay with them in Rwanda.

“When Molly and Clay (Parker) invited Callie and me to visit them in Rwanda, it was an opportunity we could not turn down,” Jaison said. “We finally picked dates, and the planning unfolded from there. It was the best trip we have ever taken.”

In January 2011, Clay moved to Rwanda after being hired by the Rwandan government. Today, he works for Rwanda Trading Company, a sister company of Westrock Coffee. Westrock and Rwanda Trading were founded by Scott Ford of Arkansas in 2009. Ford is the former CEO and president of Alltel.

In January 2015, Molly excitedly joined her new husband in Rwanda after their winter wedding.

A lot of small factors played a role in our opportunity to visit Rwanda, beginning with my friendship with Molly. The foundation of our friendship was laid while we both attended the University of Central Arkansas. Those small experiences led to the trip that Jaison and I will forever cherish.

While in Africa, we were able to go kayaking on Lake Kivu in Gisenyi; go gorilla trekking; explore during a safari game drive in Akagera National Park; eat at two restaurants owned by the Parkers; explore the shopping market and so much more.

Molly, a registered dietician, found herself longing for a healthy meal option that would appeal to those on the go. With that vision, she was able to create Turambe Shoppe, which is conveniently located on a main road in Kigali, just across from the U.S. Embassy. The restaurant showcases all its food in a grab-and-go style. There are multiple fridges stocked daily with fresh smoothies, snacks (like hummus and spicy layered bean dip), soups, sandwiches and salads.

“After living in Rwanda for a few months and starting a ‘9 to 5’ style job, I desperately wanted healthy ‘to-go’ type meals that I could eat during my lunch breaks,” Molly said. “Shopping for ingredients to make healthy meals is more time-consuming here and can also be really expensive. For example, a small package of quinoa here can cost $10. This need, combined with a passion for cooking and food, was the inspiration for opening Turambe. For those who want to dine in, there’s a fun little patio at the front, and you can watch the hustle and bustle of Kigali City.”

Turambe, which Molly co-owns, has 10 full-time employees, with intern opportunities for potential workers. “We almost always have one or two interns as well. With our internship program, it is my hope to give a few Rwandan youths who are completing their studies in a related field the experience in hospitality, nutrition, food, etc.”

Turambe served as the perfect solution for our two-hour commute to Lake Kivu while visiting. The salads, smoothies and homemade hummus were the perfect lunchtime snack that could tie us over until dinner while visiting the Parkers. The food was truly delicious.

While in Kigali, we were also able to visit Calafia, a second restaurant that the Parkers play an ownership role in. When the Parkers found out that the café was for sale, they were immediately intrigued. Along with two other married couples, the Parkers made the decision to become partners of the laid-back style restaurant. The Parkers each contributed a great deal in their own ways to the partnership at Calafia; Clay contributing in a business savvy manner and Molly with her nutrition and food background.

“After visiting Calafia for the first time and tasting their coffee, delicious salads, tapas, gourmet sandwiches and creatively crafted cocktails, we fell in love,” Molly said. “Our first visit happened to be with a few close friends, and we also found out that weekend that the cafe was for sale. Completely overwhelmed by the food, drinks, coffee, service and the cool California vibe of the café, we all knew that we wanted to be part of this cafe. We quickly decided that same weekend that we were going to pursue the idea of buying Calafia.”

Another highlight of the trip was visiting a coffee washing station as well as the headquarters for Rwanda Trading Company. With so many ties to Arkansas, it was fascinating to see how a company founded by an Arkansan was making such an impact in Rwanda and in the lives of those who live there.

“The coffee tasting we experienced with Clay, known as cupping, was one of my favorite parts of the trip,” Jaison said. “I love coffee, and this was an experience like no other. It was awesome getting to visit the plant to see where everything was packaged and prepared for shipping.”

Every aspect of our trip to visit our dear friends was amazing, humbling and forever has molded our hearts in ways that we could not imagine happening in just a few short weeks. For Molly and Clay, it seemed that having visitors from home refreshed their love for Rwanda.

“Unfortunately, sometimes living here long-term can cause you to become a bit numb to things that first baffled you, made you giggle or even made you cry,” Molly said. “Having visitors, especially first-timers, allowed us to relive our first experiences here. Having Callie and Jaison visit Rwanda was definitely the highlight of my year! Seeing the country again, through their eyes, was so refreshing. Their visit was a great reminder of why we moved here and why we want to continue to invest in this country and see its further development.”

Arkansans continue to make connections in Rwanda, helping create and develop relationships that will positively impact locals living in Rwanda as well as Arkansas.

“As Arkansans living in Rwanda, we feel really proud to see strong commitments from many Arkansans to serve and develop Rwanda,” Molly said. “Westrock Coffee, Bridge2Rwanda and multiple churches in the greater Little Rock area who visit yearly for mission trips have made such an impact here. Recently, a ‘Sister Cities’ relationship between Kigali and Little Rock has been in the works. The time, energy and investment that Arkansans have spent and will continue to spend here in the future will not be in vain.”