Taking the bitterness and making it sweet: Gaile Parkin’s Baking Cakes in Kigali


“In the same way that a bucket of water reduces a cooking fire to ashes – a few splutters of shocked disbelief, a hiss of anger, and then a chill all the more penetrating for having abruptly supplanted intense heat – in just that way the photograph she now surveyed extinguished all her excitement.”

In Rwanda, a nation of tragedy, Gaile Parkin’s Baking Cakes in Kigali begins not with drought, starvation, or genocide, but with the disappointment of a customer’s insistence on an ugly bland cake. The author reminds us right away that even in places which grab world media coverage, many people continue to live ordinary lives full of daily, but important concerns. To baker and entrepreneur Angel Tungaraza, confection design can convey one’s national pride, creativity, culture, relationship to others – and celebrates how life can and will return to normal.

Chapter names come from various social occasions for which people request cakes, giving the narrative structure and sweetening the bitter pain behind some of the customers’ stories. Angel creates a stylish dessert for a neighbor’s wedding, affirming the good that has come out of their relationship without glibly denying the sorrow both partners must face. Both have lost many family members to recent warfare, and the woman’s own mentally ill mother sits in jail accused of participating in genocide against the man’s tribe. The young man also got another woman pregnant during the war, and although he ultimately leaves her and decides to marry Angel’s friend, Angel and her neighbors are not without sympathy for the other mother and child. She colors the yin-yang symbol on top the cake with the traditional colors symbolizing sadness (red) and joy (green) in Rwanda, reflecting the desire for balance in a chaotic country and in people’s varied personal lives, along with the international influences she experiences living so close to many diplomats, researchers, and aid workers.

In the spirit of Chocolat and the Ladies’ Detective Agency, Angel’s bakery becomes a place where people work out creative solutions to their problems, subverting both Western and Rwandan cultural norms. An American woman nervously approaches Angel and shares how trapped she feels in her marriage, as her husband believes Africa to be full of dangerous warlords and tribespeople and will not allow her to leave their apartment alone. In reality, the husband’s cultural stereotypes are coupled with the fear that she will discover his affair with another female diplomat. Angel stays out of their marital troubles, but helps set the woman up as a teacher based out of their home. Another Westerner boasts of his theft from a sex worker too afraid to turn him in to the police, and she charges him more than necessary in order to return the money.

Parkin also challenges aspects of Rwandan culture through Angel’s witty observations and actions. Reflecting an emerging expansion in women’s life choices, she mentions to a proud father that his daughter who loves airplanes might grow up to become a pilot or mechanic, as well as a flight attendant. Also, she invites a physician and fakes an entire female circumcision ceremony, demonstrating that a girl can come of age perfectly well without mutilating surgery.

In this book, people are people, Western, Asian, or African…and everyone is capable of generosity and selfishness. Not all of those from developed countries are greedy imperialists, incompetent, or snobs. Angel even stands up for some young idealistic American volunteers who are overcharged on their electric bill by a Rwandan meter-reader who assumes wrongly that they are wealthy and will not miss the extra cash. Large organizations receive a healthy bit of skepticism – the IMF and World Bank workers get teased about their inefficiency and about how and why there seems to be no realistic way for Rwanda to ever pay its international debts. But ordinary people can prove quite decent and simply try to help those in need, bring peace to a troubled land, run their businesses and care for their families.

Born in Zambia, Gaile Parkin has spent many years in various parts of Rwanda as a HIV/AIDS educator, and many of the customers’ stories in the book come from those of people she knew while working in Africa. The book clearly promotes health, safety, women’s empowerment, entrepreneurship, and development – but the gentle humor and suspense keeps the piece going and prevents it from sounding like a social studies treatise. Sometimes the humor becomes too cute and characters’ bouts of self-reflection become too long, but usually the action resumes just at that point to stop the book from becoming too sweet. Also, Parkin clearly knows Rwandan cuisine – many readers will be left wishing to try a meal and polish it off with a generous slice of Angel’s cake!

Gaile Parkin’s Baking Cakes in Rwanda is available from Random House and Amazon.com – and Towne Center Books and many other independent booksellers around the world.

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