Guest post by Abbey Stemler and Karen E. Woody.
Sweet Dreams is a documentary film set in Rwanda that follows the efforts of Rwandan women to pursue an entrepreneurial dream of opening an ice cream shop. The significance of the film is that the women featured come from different backgrounds, yet are able to instill democratic ideals in running their business.
A story about individuals with different backgrounds coming together in collaboration is always a provocative one, but it is even more so when it is situated in Rwanda. As the film reminds us, in 1994 Rwanda experienced an unprecedented human rights atrocity. In just one hundred days in the spring and early summer of 1994, over 800,000 Rwandans were killed by their fellow citizens. The dead totaled nearly eleven percent of the population of Rwanda.
The ethnic tension that preceded the 1994 genocide dates back to the colonial period in the early 1900s. From 1919 until 1962, Rwanda was a Belgium colony, acquired from Germany after World War I. The Belgian colonialists imposed clear racial identities upon the Hutu and Tutsi populations, despite the fact that there was often intermarrying among the groups, and various indistinguishable physical attributes. Nevertheless, the Belgian colonialists established racial identity cards, and viewed the Tutsi as “racially superior” because of their similarities to tribes from Ethiopia. The Tutsis were seen as the ruling class.
After liberation from Belgium in 1962, the Hutu movement gained power through majority rule, and many Rwandan Tutsis fled the country. In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (“RPF”), a rebel group comprised of Rwandan Tutsis living in Uganda, attacked the Rwandan government and sparked a four-year civil war. Then-president Juvenal Habyarimana attempted, with Hutu extremists, to solidify the Hutu population under the extreme ideological principal of Hutu Power. Operating under this principal, the government provoked Tutsi killings in 1991, 1992, and 1993.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying President Habyarimana and members of his staff was shot down over Kigali, triggering the 1994 genocide. Hutu extremists quickly took over the government and military, and began the systemic killing spree that lasted until July. Fueled by government propaganda utilizing racial stereotypes of Tutsis, the citizens turned on each other in acts of inhumane brutality, resulting in the death of over 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi. The wide-scale participation of citizens made the Rwandan genocide depressingly unique, and created a deep fissure within communities and among neighbors.
In July 1994, the RPF managed to wrest control from the Hutu regime and regain control of Kigali, the capital. Paul Kagame, featured in Sweet Dreams, led the RPF charge in 1994 and has remained in power since. Under Kagame, the government has adopted a unification policy that refers to Rwandans as “One Rwanda” in an attempt to eliminate distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi.
While Rwanda arguably has been a model of peaceful unity since 1994, there are scars from the genocide that are visible throughout the country. Sweet Dreams studies those scars, and depicts a group of women from both Hutu and Tutsi backgrounds taking on the effort to live in community and do business in community. It also reflects on a larger endogenous movement in Rwanda to promote toleration and cooperation through trade. From coffee to ice cream, economic development has helped former enemies and their progeny connect and identify mutually beneficial opportunities, thereby, showing us all how entrepreneurship can promote sustainable peace even amidst unimaginable pain.
Sweet Dreams will screen at the IU Cinema on February 18 as part of the series Cultural Foundations for Peace, which is sponsored by the Department of Business Law and Ethics, the Institute for Korean Studies, and the IU Cinema.
Abbey Stemler is an assistant professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. She is a leading scholar on the sharing economy and has published multiple articles on the subject—including her most recent article in the Emory Law Journal. Professor Stemler is also a practicing attorney, entrepreneur (she sold her first business at age 29), and avid traveler.
Karen E. Woody is an Assistant Professor of Business Law and Ethics. She has written extensively on conflict minerals from the Great Lakes region of Africa, stemming from her time in Kigali working for the Prosecutor General of Rwanda.