An inspiring story about the Rwandan genocide, a troupe of female drummers and the healing power of ice cream.
It all began with playwright Odile “Kiki” Katese, who founded a drumming circle in Rwanda in 2005 with women from both sides of the genocide. The project had the twin goals of healing and empowering women, and was so successful that it evolved into the performing troupe Ingoma Nshya.
Invited to the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in 2009, Kiki met Jennie Dundas, an actor and co-founder of an ice cream shop in Brooklyn, New York called Blue Marble. Kiki proposed opening an ice cream shop in Rwanda, and asked the Blue Marble folks to teach them how. After an exploratory visit to Rwanda, Jennie and her partner Alexis Miesen agreed.
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Filmmaker Lisa Fruchtman was advising aspiring filmmakers at the Sundance Institute when she heard about the unfolding project. She was drawn to the unlikely, but extraordinary and moving story.
So, moving quickly, she called her brother, New York-based documentary filmmaker Rob Fruchtman, who agreed that it needed to be told.
Meanwhile, the Blue Marble partners had just brought some of the drummers to New York to learn about ice cream and to raise money for the venture. Rob rushed over to meet the drummers and their sponsors.
Lisa and Rob Fruchtman
Four months after meeting the drummers in New York, we and our cinematographer, Lex Fletcher, were on a plane to Rwanda for the first time … and our first shoot.
We followed Blue Marble co-founder Alexis Miesen to Rwanda to be there at the launch of the ice cream project. But we had no idea what to expect when we got there.
We spent our first days in the capital city of Kigali orienting ourselves to Rwanda. One of our initial impressions was that the aura of tremendous trauma and unflagging hope seemed, somehow, to exist side by side.
We learned that genocide memorial sites are everywhere and went to visit two of them just outside the city. But the sites are not museums. They are preservations of the stark evidence of the 1994 genocide. The buildings are as they were left, scorched and burned.
Inside, we saw piles upon piles of clothes, shoes, personal items. Then we witnessed the most haunting reminder of the horror – shelves lined with the skulls and bones of the victims.
At each site, there is usually one local guide to explain what happened there, and it is almost always the same story: terrified Rwandan Tutsis came to these places – churches, schools – for sanctuary, by the thousands. Some held as many as 60,000 people.
And then, they were slaughtered there.
The sites are very quiet, surrounded by beautiful green hills, and often with flower-filled gardens. Sometimes family members come to sit or sleep in the grounds. The month of April is a national month of mourning and remembrance.
Recovering, rebuilding, restoring
The intense quiet of the memorial sites is in stark contrast to the bustling life of Kigali, where landscaped housing developments dot the hills of the city.
Clearly there is a national mandate of recovery and rebuilding in Rwanda – a serious attempt to restore not only the economy but also the fragile social fabric of relationships torn so violently by the strife of the genocide.
But we asked ourselves: what is really in the hearts and minds of people from both sides today, 16 years after the genocide? This was undoubtedly one of the most important questions we hoped to find answers to – yet, it was also the most delicate to explore.
As our journey unfolded, we were continually impressed by the personal dignity and manner of the Rwandans we encountered. There is virtually no one in this country who has not been touched by the genocide and who does not bear painful memories or deep psychological wounds from the conflict. It is hard to imagine going on with life after such events – and yet, they do.
How would we, Americans who live a comfortable and safe existence, be able to gain the trust and confidence of our new Rwandan friends? This was our fundamental challenge, as filmmakers and as human beings.
From the hustle and bustle of Kigali we headed to the town of Butare, home of Kiki, the drummers and the future ice cream shop.
It is a two-hour journey from the capital – and another world. We were struck by both the incredible beauty of the countryside and the crowded subsistence farming that has played a part in Rwanda’s tensions.
Arriving in Butare, we discovered we were in luck. A festival that Kiki organised as part of a conference called Culture and Conflict was about to begin and the Ingoma Nshya drummers were performing at the opening night.
The drummers were in fine form as they got ready – rehearsing every day under the hot African sun; the excitement and smiles in sync as the women’s hands blurred in rapid-fire drumming.
We started filming immediately, working hard to capture their amazing energy, emotion and talent. It was hot and exhausting, but any thought of complaint vanished as we realised how much harder they were working than us.
Ghosts of the dead
Kiki’s play, commissioned by the University Center for Arts and Drama for the 15th commemoration of the genocide, was also performed at the festival.
Called Ngwino Ubeho (Come … live), it is about the new generation calling up the ghosts of the dead and asking them for guidance into the future. It is a beautiful play, told mainly in dance and poetry and while we could not understand the words, we felt we understood it completely.
This is the context of the whole endeavor in Rwanda – understanding and honouring the painful past, but moving towards a new future. Some of the music from the play, performed by the Ikobe music group, is featured in our film.
After two weeks filming the drummers, in rehearsal and performance, we were slowly getting to know the women. We were invited to visit several of the women’s homes to meet their families and, with the help of our assistant and translator, Hyppolite, a student from the University of Rwanda, to hear their stories.
It was during these visits that many of the women began to open up and to share some of their deeply held feelings about their lives and experiences.
The Rwandan way
And slowly, the actual ice cream project was taking shape as well. But there was so much to be done.
The nuts and bolts of starting a business in Rwanda are complicated enough.
In addition, the new shop was to be jointly owned by Blue Marble and the drumming group. And none of the women knew how to make ice cream – in fact, most of them had never even tasted ice cream!
But these challenges did not stop them for a minute.
Meetings were held to establish the necessary cooperative that would own and run the ice cream shop and then more meetings were held to elect leaders for the various committees that would get things rolling.
One committee was set up to source the ingredients – milk, honey, fruits. Another was established to find a location for the shop. And then there was a third to meet with officials and to register the cooperative.
Each committee was formed by voting. But the voting was done in a uniquely Rwandan way: the women nominated candidates and then lined up openly behind their candidate of choice. The candidate with the most people lined up behind them was elected committee leader.
And although several candidates had only one or two women supporting them – while another had 30 or so – there appeared to be no hurt feelings. The women insisted that all the counts should be announced out loud. They were determined to have complete transparency – and to let camaraderie prevail.
It is hard to believe that just one year after Kiki brought the idea to her circle of drummers and six months after Alexis came to help them launch it, the ice cream shop has become a reality.
Blue Marble raised the seed money, the drummers formed their cooperative, a store location was found and outfitted and employees from the group were chosen and trained.
Most appropriately, the women named their new venture “Inzozi Nziza” – Sweet Dreams.
For these women and their community, Kiki’s words have true meaning:
“The important thing is that something really new has been tried. One new idea creates another, and that is the way horizons are broadened and change comes.”
A feature-length documentary about the women of Sweet Dreams can be watched here.