Rwanda has a warm climate, and the people love milk. You’d think ice cream would be an easy sell.
But mention ice cream to Chantal Kabatesi, and she rubs her jaw like she’s at the dentist with a toothache. When she first tasted ice cream at the age of 35 “it was like eating hailstones,” the kind that fall on her childhood village once or twice a year.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, what are we serving to our customers? Is it dangerous?’ ” she said.
Yet Kabatesi had just been hired to work at Rwanda’s first and only ice cream shop, Sweet Dreams. It opened four years ago and was recently profiled in a documentary film of the same name.
The shop is a joint project of a Rwandan artist and an ice cream proprietor from Brooklyn named Alexis Miesen, whose first task was to teach her employees how to eat the stuff to avoid an aching jaw. “No teeth!” she’d say. “Just your tongue!”
The women who staff this shop are used to exploring the unfamiliar.
In a country where traditional drummers are exclusively male, the women started a female drumming troupe. The troupe had extra symbolism after the genocide of 1994.
Some of the drummers were the wives of killers now in prison. Other women were widows and survivors. They toured the country, promoting reconciliation and challenging the traditional role of women in Rwandan society.
The ice cream shop was supposed to be a way to give some of the women more stable incomes. But selling ice cream turned out to face an even more tenacious taboo: In Rwanda, its highly unseemly to eat anything in the street.
That ruled out ice cream carts and ice cream stands.
So while Madeline Uwimana will proudly bang on a sacred cowhide drum despite the prohibitions of tribal elders, she wouldn’t dare eat a snack on the road if she’s hungry.
“It’s shameful!” she says. “Everybody will laugh at you.”
It’s hard to unpack this particular taboo. But Rwandan culture discourages the public display of personal needs. Not just hunger but also grief. Tears are acceptable only in specific mourning periods.
Some say that Rwandans’ capacity to put a public mask on sadness is what’s held the country together, allowed killers and survivors to remain neighbors for the past 20 years.
Louise Ingabire is the manager of the ice cream shop. “When ice cream comes,” she says, “we would like to change the culture.”
She says getting Rwandans to eat ice cream is more than just a business venture. It’s bringing them in touch with their inner selves.
“If you eat ice cream, it’s OK, you are enjoying your life. You are not scared of the others for taking something you know you want.”
The day she sees Rwandan teenagers walking down the street licking ice cream cones is the day she’ll believe that real peace is here to stay.