Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Baking Cakes in Kigali

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin (Delacorte, 2009) : does the title catch your attention? For me it did, not even though I have to admit I was not familiar with Kigali, which come to find out, is the capitol city of Rwanda (central Africa). I'm always agog for books which have even the slightest tie-in to food, restaurants and/or bakeries. The cakes being baked in this gentle novel are lovingly created by a Tanzanian woman named Angel Tugaraza. She also has a few other things to do, as she and her husband, a university professor/consultant, are raising their five orphaned grandchildren. She grieves for the recent loss of her two adult children. But most often, whenever a cake customer knocks on her apartment door, Angel is delighted to stop whatever it is she is doing, put the kettle on for tea, and discuss the particulars of the event the cake is to be designed around.

These are no ordinary cakes. Each one is a well-frosted masterpiece, made to look like an aeroplane, microphone or flag. Drinking tea, listening and sometimes gently counseling her customers, Angel also juggles languages. Her Cake Order Form is available in four languages: Swahili, English, French and Kinyarwanda, of which Angel speaks only the first two. But the problems that lie beneath the surface of even this most innocent act of commerce are many. The Rwandan genocides, the AIDs epidemic, even the practice of female circumcision are gently interwoven into the narrative.

Angel Tugaraza could easily be mistaken as a sister of Precious Ramotswe of Botswana, the starring character of Alexander McCall Smith's Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series. Angel drinks her tea with cardamon added, whereas Precious drinks bush tea, but I'm sure they'd find much to talk about over their mugs of tea. Both are compassionate women of a certain age who have found they need thier waistbands to be more expansive. Both find self esteem through what some might call minor entrepreneurship, but readers know better. We see how even their smallest acts of kindness and compassion lend civility to modern madness. Cake crumbs, delighted giggles and chuckles likely to follow. Big women, big hearts, the milk of human kindness personified.

Authoress Gaile Parkin knows of what she writes; born in Zambia, she has worked in many African countries and counseled women and girls who survived genocide. Their stories are the inspirational basis for Baking Cakes in Kigali, her first novel. Here's hoping there are many more to come.

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