Cold comfort for Rwanda

In some parts of the world, it might sound melodramatic to say ice cream is life-transforming. But in a city in Rwanda, ravaged by genocide 20 years ago, the sweet treat has had a radical impact on a group of women affected by the massacre.

Louise Ingabire says: “I didn’t have a job before; I just stayed at home. Now I have a vision for the future. I’m making money and I can give some of it to my family.”

Ingabire, who was seven when her father, two brothers, sister and cousins were killed in 1994, is the manager of Inzozi Nziza (meaning “sweet dreams” in the local Kinyarwanda language), the country’s first and only ice-cream shop.

“Ice cream is important to me because it’s changed my life. When I eat it, I’m very happy and try to forget about the problems I have. Many times I’m very tired and think about what happened and what to do, many things are on my mind. But, when I take ice cream, I feel new and I have more energy.”

Inzozi Nziza was founded in 2010 by theatre director Odile “Kiki” Gakire Katese in partnership with Brooklyn-based ice-cream company Blue Marble Dreams. She had created Ingoma Nshya (“new drum”), Rwanda’s first female drumming troupe comprising Tutsi and Hutu orphans, widows, wives and children of the genocide perpetrators, six years earlier.

In need of joy
She told the Blue Marble Dreams founders, Alexis Miesen and Jennie Dundas, whom she met at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in the United States in 2009, that, as much as Rwanda needed nutritious food and clean water, the people also needed “fun, joy, pleasure and ­laughter”.

Today the ice-cream store employs nine Rwandan women who are also members of the troupe. They spend their days serving soft-serve swirls made from local milk and honey and imported vanilla beans and cocoa, using a machine that came from South Africa, and their spare time practising drumming. 

Miesen says: “In the beginning, the learning curve was fairly steep, as many people in the community had never tried ice cream. But it has really caught on and now is quite popular. I would say that the response has been very similar to our customers in Brooklyn – less the initial unfamiliarity. There’s something universally appealing about ice cream and its magic.”

Louise Ingabire is the manager of Inzozi Nziza in the Rwandan city of Butare. (Piper Watson Photography)

Miesen says people flock to Inzozi Nziza, even from neighbouring Burundi, about a three-hour drive from Butare, Rwanda’s second largest city. It is home to the National University of Rwanda, the nation’s first institution of higher learning and its largest.

The small city, about 135km from Kigali, was already known as Rwanda’s intellectual capital and, today, is home to the first women drummers. Before Ingoma Nshya was established, Rwandan women were not permitted to touch the cowhide drum, which was regarded as sacred. Like the first ice-cream store, it is a milestone.

Miesen says: “Everything was turned upside down post-genocide and Rwandans had an opportunity to rebuild both the physical and cultural infrastructure of their country. Women made up more than 70% of the population so they had not just the chance but also the necessity to step into places and positions that were previously off limits to them.”

A shop serving ice cream with flavours such as sweet cream, passion fruit, strawberry, pineapple and, being Rwanda, coffee – plus tea, coffee, sandwiches, cakes and more –might seem like a no-brainer to some.

“It was an answer to some of the problems of the students; we needed a shop with coffee and ice cream,” says Kalisa Migendo (24), an agriculture student, who tasted ice cream for the first time in 2012. “You can only get it in the supermarket but it’s very expensive. In Kigali, there are no ice-cream shops.”

Odile ‘Kiki’ Gakire Katese also started the popular women’s drumming troupe Ingoma Nshya. (Blue Marble Dreams)

Ingabire, who first tasted it on a 2009 drumming tour, describes it as, well, cold. “It was the first time I had tasted something that was cold like that. Also, I didn’t know what it was, how they made it. I didn’t like it.”

But even on an overcast day during Rwanda’s rainy season, locals stream through Inzozi Nziza’s door, past a chalkboard announcing “Ice cream is back”.

Today, Ingabire is hooked on it.

“Slowly by slowly, you get used to it. Now, when I finish one cup, I need to take more.”

International performances
Ingoma Nshya has more than 100 members and has performed in Rwanda and abroad.

“Drumming makes my life strong,” a proud 27-year-old Clementine Uwintije says.

A film about the remarkable women dreamers who became drummers then ice-cream makers has been produced and directed by the award-winning filmmaker siblings Rob and Lisa Fruchtman. Sweet Dreams has already been shown in more than a dozen countries, including the US, Canada, Britain and Zambia.

“We plan to share a portion of the income we have received with the women’s ice-cream and drumming co-ops,” says Rob. “When we return to Rwanda to premiere the film later this year, we will film further with the women and at the shop.”

The founders of Blue Marble Dreams have been so inspired by their Rwandan success that they are developing plans to open a Sweet Dreams outlet in Port-au-Prince in Haiti.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Amy Fallon
Amy Fallon works from Helsinki, Finland. I like water. PhD researcher at @AaltoWAT @AaltoUniversity exploring Finland in between researching water governance and climate variability. UEA alum! Amy Fallon has over 239 followers on Twitter.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Marcia Mayaba —Driven to open doors for women

Marcia Mayaba has been in the motor industry for 24 years, donning hats that include receptionist, driver, fuel attendant, dealer principal and now chief...

The war on women in video game culture

Women and girls make up almost half of the gaming community but are hardly represented and face abuse in the industry

More top stories

In emotive missive, Zuma says he will not provide answering...

Former president Jacob Zuma on Wednesday submitted a 21-page letter to Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng out of “respect”, to let the head of the...

Gordhan writes to JSC to clarify ‘incidental’ mention of Pillay...

Public enterprises minister denies that he tried to influence the appointment of a judge and friend to the SCA in 2016

The battle for 2050 energy dominance: Nuclear industry makes its...

Nuclear sector says it should be poised to take up more than 50% of the 24GW left vacant by coal

#SayHerName: The faces of South Africa’s femicide epidemic

This is an ode to the women whose names made it into news outlets from 2018 to 2020. It’s also a tribute to the faceless, nameless women whose stories remain untold.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…