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Brooklyn Ice Cream Shop Helps War-Torn Rwandan Women Come Together

By Emily Frost | November 9, 2012 11:00am | Updated on November 9, 2012 12:43pm

COBBLE HILL — A Brooklyn ice cream shop is bringing war-torn Rwandan women together — over two frozen scoops.

The two Brooklyn-based entrepreneurs behind Blue Marble Ice CreamJennie Dundas and Alexis Miesen, traveled to the African nation to help Hutu and Tutsi women launch their own ice cream store while also healing deep wounds.

"A lot of the aid that was [in Rwanda] was going to clean water and mosquito nets and HIV education, but there weren’t initiatives for nurturing the spirit," said Dundas, whose ice cream chain also has locations in Prospect Heights, TriBeCa, and at the Barclays Center.

Ice cream has the power not only to make people happy, but to create a sustainable business for Rwandan women, said Dundas. "We started the first ever local ice cream shop in Rwanda in 2010," said Dundas.

The entire experience is now part of a documentary "Sweet Dreams," which is premiering at the IFC in New York City Sunday as part of the DocNYC festival, and is directed and produced by Lisa Fruchtman and her brother Rob Fruchtman. 

Initially, some 15 years after one of the worst genocides in history, Rwandan playwright and director Odile Gakire Katese was looking for a way for Hutus and Tutsis to rebuild relationships and heal. She formed the first women-only drumming collective, named Ingoma Nysha. But when she met Dundas and Miesen, she knew she wanted to try to replicate Blue Marble in Rwanda; she wanted to find a way for the drummers to develop workplace skills and make money. 

Soon after, Dundas and Miesen created the non-profit Blue Marble Dreams and raised $80,000 from neighborhood support in Brooklyn and from small family foundations. They went back and forth to Rwanda and sent a project manager to stay on the ground there for 18 months while the business got going. 

In a way, the Blue Marble entrepreneurs believed the project could succeed because they had also started their business with "little technical business experience," in their words.

The shop, in Butare, Rwanda, now employs 10 women from the drumming collective and is owned by a cooperative of 30 to 40 others from the drumming group, who each contribute about $9 a month to keep the business going. 

The Rwandan shop has the same focus on excellent customer service, said Dundas, but it uses soft serve ice cream instead of hard ice cream, though there are no chemicals or artificial flavors used. "It’s not a dairy queen type thing," said Dundas.

Katese's argument was deeply compelling to the duo, according to Dundas. Katese asked, "'why are we not entitled to the same daily joys and treats just because we’re in Rwanda?'" And, explained Dundas, the shop would create jobs and nurture the development of marketable skills. 

Now Blue Marble Dreams has an indiegogo fundraising campaign to raise $10,000 to open a second shop in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. 

Director Lisa Lisa Fruchtman said she was drawn to the idea right away: "I just thought 'Oh my God, what a crazy and interesting window to looking at the situation through a different lens entirely.'"

Though the 1994 genocide is entwined in the lives of all of the women portrayed in the film, it's not a dark film, according to Fruchtman.

"I feel strongly that the movie has the chance of drawing in mainstream audiences of people who would normally never want to see a movie about genocide. We don’t go into the genocide until the middle of the film when they already know and love the women."

Though it doens't gloss over the difficulties of starting an ice cream business in a country that was torn apart by war and has never had ice cream before, the film is "extremely uplifting," according to Fruchtman.

Sweet Dreams is showing Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012 at 4:30 p.m. and Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 4:45 at the IFC Center and will feature a discussion with both directors and special guests.