How Rwanda's Only Ice Cream Shop Challenges Cultural Taboos : Parallels Rwanda is a hot country, and people love dairy products. But the culture discourages public displays of need, including hunger. The women running the lone ice cream shop are trying to change that.
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How Rwanda's Only Ice Cream Shop Challenges Cultural Taboos

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How Rwanda's Only Ice Cream Shop Challenges Cultural Taboos

How Rwanda's Only Ice Cream Shop Challenges Cultural Taboos

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This week, we've been reporting on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Our next story doesn't detail that horrific past. Instead, it's about trying to carve out a brighter future with something very sweet and cold.

Here's NPR's Gregory Warner.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Rwanda is a warm African country where they revere cows and they love milk. So you'd think that ice cream would be an easy sell.

CHANTAL KABATESI: Yeah, I remember when I taste ice cream, it's no good for me.

WARNER: Chantal Kabatesi points to her jaw like she's at the dentist with a toothache. It was like eating hailstones that used to fall on her childhood village once a year. Very cold, very unpleasant, and very alarming because she had just been hired to work at Rwanda's first and only ice cream shop.


WARNER: This is a clip from a documentary film about the shop called "Sweet Dreams."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, it's so good.


WARNER: They made that first batch of soft-serve in 2011. The shop, a joint project of a Rwandan artist and an ice cream proprietor from Brooklyn named Alexis Miesen. You can hear her in the film teaching Kabatesi and the other employees how to eat this stuff to avoid the achy jaw.

ALEXIS MIESEN: No teeth - just your tongue.


MIESEN: You made it.

WARNER: But the women who staffed this shop were used to exploring the unfamiliar. In 2005, these women had started an all-women drumming troupe, in a country where only men are supposed to touch the traditional drums.


WARNER: The troupe had extra symbolism after the genocide of 1994. Some of the drummers were the wives of killers now in prison. Others were widows and survivors. They toured the country promoting reconciliation and challenging women's roles in Rwandan society.


WARNER: Now, the ice cream shop was launched to give the women more income. But ice cream turned out to face an even more tenacious taboo. In Rwanda, it's highly unseemly to eat anything in the street. That rules out ice cream carts, also ice cream stands.

Madeline Uwimana is one of the women drummers.

MADELINE UWIMANA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: Imagine eating an avocado or a banana on the road, she says. It's shameful. Everybody will laugh at you.

Remember, this is a woman who will bang on a sacred cowhide drum despite the prohibitions of tribal elders. But she won't eat a quick snack on the road if she's hungry.

What do you think about a person who eats an avocado or eats a banana on the road? What do you think that person is like inside?

UWIMANA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: You're scrunching up your face. It's not something very nice.


UWIMANA: (Foreign language spoken)

WARNER: She would consider him a person who does not respect himself.

Now, 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 this public mask on sadness is what's held the country together, allowed killers and survivors to remain neighbors for the last 20 years.

LOUISE INGABIRE: But when ice cream comes, we would like to change the culture.

WARNER: Louise Ingabire is the manager of this ice cream shop. 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.

INGABIRE: If you eat ice cream, say OK, you are enjoying your life. You are not scared for the others, for taking something you know you want.

WARNER: The day she can watch Rwandan teenagers walking down the street licking ice cream cones is the day she'll believe that real peace is here to stay.

Gregory Warner, NPR News.

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