Sunday 23 August 2009

Baking Cakes in Kigali

I came across this book by chance while browsing in the local library and was intrigued by the title. I assumed it would be a very light and simple read. While it is easy to read, behind the deceptively simple writing there is a serious and not just enjoyable tale. The first novel by Zambian born Gaile Parkin, Baking Cakes in Kigali is more a series of short, linked stories than a traditional novel.

The link is provided by Angel Tungaraza, who runs a small business making cakes for special occasions. In effect each of the 14 chapters is about a different cake and the story behind the special occasion. And there are some very harrowing personal stories to tell. For the novel is set in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a country mostly famous in the west for the terrible massacres that took place in the 1990s. Angel is perfect for this role as she is an outsider. She is a Tanzanian woman who is living in Kigali while her husband works at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. Not all the stories are about Rwandans as Angel and her family live in a block of flats which houses a mini united nations – people from various parts of the world who have come to Rwanda to help the country recover from the ravages of the war. This allows Parkin to include tales about female circumcision, dowries or bride money and a story about a bullied wife.

However most of the stories are about ordinary Rwandans and how they go about the business of surviving the horrors of the war and the continuing devastation caused by AIDS. There are some very sad and heart wrenching tales, though the tone is always upbeat and positive. Though men feature significantly in the book, and some of them are portrayed as good characters, it is the women who take centre stage. Not all are described in a favourable way, but it is women, and girls, who have suffered the most and who continue to bear the greatest burdens in surviving discrimination and oppression both within the family and in the wider world. Angel as well as the link that holds the other characters and stories together is a central character with her own story to tell. Both of her children are now dead and she now looks after her five grandchildren. As the novel progresses Angel also progresses as she learns from the other characters how to face up to the truth about her own family. There is a lovely scene in the book when Angel buys some woven cloth from Ghana with which she will make a wedding dress. The cloths have all been made by members of a women's co-operative. Each pattern had a special meaning and Angel chose one that meant: Help me and let me help you. In many ways this would make a fine subtitle for the book.

While reading the book I couldn't help but get fascinated by the cakes, so much so that I have even started to bake again. So far just an apple cake and some lavender biscuits. But a start nevertheless. I then realized that one of the reasons for this was that Angel reminded me a bit about my own mother. She too was a wonderful cook and made mouth watering cakes. Tea and scones was a regular feature in the house for anyone who visited. Just like Angel she used to use all kinds of colours for the sponges and the icing. It was so exciting to bite into a green or pink or blue cake with richly decorated icing on the top. Then adding colours kind of went out of fashion – some kind of health scare. Not sure the use of colour can have done much harm, as it has been used for generations all over the world. Anyway bring back a bit of colour to our cakes. And enjoy reading Baking Cakes in Kigali.

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