It’s been 18 years since the Rwandan Genocide. Let that soak in and then consider how frequently those events are still invoked as a reminder to the international community: “Never Again.” But, while it’s certainly important to remember the past, acknowledging the present–and the future–of Rwanda is just as important.
In April (the official month of remembering and mourning in Rwanda) 2011, President Kagame spoke at ceremony at the National Stadium. As he stood in front of the audience, you could hear people wailing, others were carried out, some were hospitalized because they were in such hysterics. Watching these scenes it could be that the genocide was yesterday—it’s still very much a part of Rwanda’s present. Still, despite their pain, it’s something that people deal with as they find new ways to carry on.
That was one of the messages of “Sweet Dreams,” a documentary made by Lisa and Rob Fruchtman about Inzozi Nziza (“Sweet Dreams” in Kinyarwandan) Ice Cream Shop. As part of its commemoration of the genocide, the UN Department of Public Information and the Rwandan Mission to the UN held a screening of the film a couple of weeks ago. Sweet Dreams follows the country’s first all-female drumming troupe as they form a co-op and eventually open Rwanda’s first ice cream shop (with some early support from Brooklyn’s Blue Marble Ice Cream). So by now you might be wondering, what do drumming and ice cream have to do with genocide?
Well, like I mentioned the shop is run by Rwanda’s first all-women drumming troupe, Ingoma Nshya. After the genocide, Odile (“Kiki”) Katese, the groups founder wanted to find a way to help women heal from both the emotional and physical scars of the conflict. In her own words she explained that she wanted to do something: “I couldn’t rebuild schools, I couldn’t rebuild the country, but there were small, simple things that I could do.” And, the small simple thing she started with was providing women with an outlet.
Coming from a creative background, Kiki founded Ignoma Nshya with the hope of “rebuilding a human being.” And, by inviting women from both sides of the war to come together in the drumming troupe, Kiki believed she could offer Rwandan women “the opportunity to re-learn the art of living together and facilitates the healing process… [as the] drums help the women reconcile with themselves.” And, when you watch the women performing they really do come alive. At other points in the film the women talk about their personal experiences during the genocide, they talk about their day-to-day lives and the challenges they face, but then when you see them perform it’s like none of that exists.
What was great about the film is that it didn’t present the story as if it was some miracle, or that everything just fell into place. Instead, debates about the dues for the co-op were shown as women explained how much they could, and could not afford to pay. When they chose the employees for their first shop, the entire process was shown–even as some women broke down when they were not chosen. And, when they had to fire their first employee for stealing—everything was there. By the end of the film, it’s as if you know the women personally and can really see how much of a positive impact the drumming, performing, and shop have had on them.
Still, while the healing aspect was very important to the process, the drumming was just as much about empowering women to take control over their lives and to participate in the rebuilding of their country. According to Kiki, women were “invading spaces they never had before,” and the government was letting them because they had to. Even when Kiki and the other women were appropriating an exclusively male performance and art–drumming–and were “perverting Rwandan culture,” the government let them “do their crazy thing.”
And, although it seems somewhat far removed–drumming was a way of solidifying women’s place in the post-genocide society, and empowering women to perform in public provided them with the confidence and discipline to be successful.