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Humanity and Hope

July 18, 2012

          “Mmm.  Too bad it isn’t a sin!     –Andre Gide, on first tasting ice cream

Recently Barbara and I drove the Washington Beltway at rush hour—a venture comparable of trekking half-way upMt.Everest, as friend Tom Dungan did recently.  We went not as Sir Hillary said, “Because it is there,” but because the SilverDocs festival  was there, in Silver Spring,Maryland.  It was not, I assure you, “the journey itself” but the destination that amply rewarded us. Namely, the first public showing at the prestigious American Film Institute festival of a documentary (created by Rob and Lisa Fruchtman) about women in Rwanda who are doing two things: drumming and making ice cream.  It’s called “Sweet Dreams.”

To explain. Our niece Alexis Miesen and her business partner Jennie Dundas established an ice cream shop featuring their own scrumptious Blue Marble brand in Brooklyn, NY, a few years ago.  Jennie’s contact with Kiki Katese, a Rwandan, and Alexis’s first-hand engagement in  African development programs led them, at Kiki’s urging, to help a group in Butare to establish their own ice cream shop.  Ms. Katese had already formed Ingoma Nshya, the first-ever women’s drumming group (heretofore a men-only activity in Rwanda), and she envisioned the ice cream shop as a way of their generating much needed family income, and business skills, and . . . something more.

The film begins with the drumming of 20 or more beautifully regaled Rwandan women—ecstatic in performance and mesmerizing in effect—and goes on to explore their lives, and their coming together in a cooperative to create Inzozi Nyizaa, a shop with ice cream made entirely from local ingredients. There are some tense moments, getting started. At first the freezer doesn’t freeze.  Not everyone can get a job.  The expenses and income must work out.  Sometimes an employee must be let go.  And what about advertising when, at first, the customers don’t come flocking in to enjoy this unfamiliar delight—even if “it’s not a sin”?   So there is plenty of human drama in this wonderfully made documentary.

But why ice cream in Rwanda?  Don’t they need basic things like nourishing food and education and health care and . . . ?  No doubt.  Equally we could ask, why drumming?  An answer was suggested by the film, and by the panel—the filmmakers, Kiki, and Alexis—in the open discussion following the screening.  The genocide of 1994, in which the people of one tribal group (Hutus, a disadvantaged majority) massacred the people of another tribal group (Tutsis, favored under the Belgian colonial regime) has left deep psychic scars.  The film shows how individuals and the society continue to struggle a profound sense of grief and sense of violation.  They need the means of material well-being, but they also need spiritual well-being—which is what “salvation” really means.

This is the “something more” that Kiki Katese perceived as profoundly needed  by the people of Rwanda:  An opening toward the future, personal and communal hope.  The drumming group brings Tutsis and Hutus together in a joyful experience of “laughter and forgetting,” the kind of psychic release that makes a new beginning possible.  The ice cream shop brings not only skills and incomes and savings accounts—enabling some to achieve goals such as college education and new homes—but also, after all the bitterness, the happiness of something sweet.  Its name captures this meaning, for Inozizi Nyizi means “Sweet Dreams.”

More needs be said.  It is not only people “over there” who need hope, confidence, and other ingredients of psychic well-being.  It is we ourselves.  Whatever our personal circumstances the daily news is profoundly discouraging. The more so when  up when good news finally comes.

Just as the Rwanda genocide was beginning, I was writing my little book, If Yes Is the Answer, What Is the Question?  Its chapter, “The Moral Covenant,” provided a short list from the day’s news, events exemplifying the moral disorder of our times: the murder of a gay teen by a teen gang, the self-justifications of a notorious murderer and rapist, genocide in Bosnia, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, right wing American calls to “religious and cultural war,” continued confiscations of Palestinian land by Israel, displacement of American workers by “investment Capitalists” (Kohlberg Kravits).   The entire list has a dreadfully familiar ring.  It would be easy to count the occurrence, among these items, of the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, wrath, greed, gluttony, lust, envy, and sloth.

I went on, in my book, to ask about newsworthy examples of the Four Cardinal Virtues—prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.  I noted two, which will also have a contemporary ring: Jean Sutherland, released from 444 days’ captivity in Iranduring the hostage crisis of the 1980s.  She spoke of the need to forgive and forget, to move on and to live.  And Aung San Suu Kyi, placed under house arrest for her persistent calls for freedom and justice in Burma.  The unexpected joy this year is her release and election to the Burmese parliament, followed by her triumphant international tour and receiving, in Oslo, the Nobel Peace prize which had been awarded in absentia in 1994

Two women of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.  They give us more hopeful dreams.  Renewing our confidence in the goodness of others, our own confidence is renewed.

There are of course many other examples, including the women we meet in the film, “Sweet Dreams.” My If Yes book was later reprinted (and is still available) under a straightforward title that my publisher insisted upon, Questions for the Religious Journey.  I still like the original title, convoluted as a pretzel though it be.  If yes is the answer, what is the question to which it answers?  What elicits your life-affirmation, your “Yes!” to life?  For instance, if drumming and ice cream are the answer, what is the question?    What fundamental human need, including my personal need, do these good things  respond to?

I’m struck by how similar these thoughts are to my reflections, last month, on  Albert Schweitzer’s long quest for an intuitively valid ethical principle and his being suddenly overcome, upon seeing a herd of bathing hippos in an African river, by a sense of “reverence for life.”  And my own sense of reverence upon discovering two tiny fawns in my vineyard.  If fawns and hippos are the answer, if women and men of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice are the answer, the question is this: Where do I continue to find hope, confidence, and other signals of transcendence in my life?  And share these gifts with others?


For information on the documentary, go to “Sweet”;  for my book, Questions for the Religious Journey, see the Publications page of this blog.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Diana permalink
    July 18, 2012 7:33 pm

    God bless Alexis and Jennie! (and you and Barbara…)

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