Stories for Our Times A book written in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide holds much wisdom, comfort and caution for a world locked down

Angel Tungaraza is Tanzanian. She lives in Kigali, Rwanda, with her husband, Pius, on deputation to help the small nation rebuild itself following the genocide resulting from the hatred between two groups of people, a hatred further fanned by politics. Now the killing has ended and the people are attempting to see themselves as Banyarwanda through a process of justice and reconciliation. Angel and Pius live in an apartment complex that houses people from different parts of the world, including an Egyptian, a Japanese American, and even a CIA agent hiding a big secret from his unsuspecting wife but which is known to everyone else in the building. This, very broadly speaking, is the platform from which Gaile Parkin’s mouthwatering yet oxymoronic title, Baking Cakes in Kigali, takes off. And yes, Angel is a baker.

Someone who visits the site in Gikongoro along with Angel and Pius, writes ‘Never again’ in the visitors’ book, a clear reference to the holocaust.

Before we get to the warm smell of baking, a word about why this book at this time, and why it is a book for our times. After all, it was published some 11 years ago. Well, there are several reasons why this book recommends itself to be remembered (in my case) and read (if you haven’t already). For one, the copy I possess has a wonderfully cheerful cover, all pink and gold! More significantly, it recalls a particularly painful period in the history of a small country beset by a tragedy of improbably massive proportions, much like the situation we find ourselves in today, when all seems lost. As you turn the pages and allow the words, and the pictures the words conjure up, to sink into your consciousness, you encounter several familiar and unfamiliar textures and flavours that greet your tongue and taste-buds. One example is the frequent reference to a ‘virus’ that takes many lives, including those of Angel’s children which leaves her to mother five grandchildren.

As Angel explains to the wife of an ambassador who comes to order a cake, “Our children are taken and we’re made parents all over again to our grandchildren. It can be a bullet. It can be blood pressure. But in most cases it’s the virus.” Angel worries that her two granddaughters will fall prey to the virus if they’re not careful. Fortuitously, she is visited by Odile, a nurse working in a centre for those infected with the virus. Odile places an order for a cake for her brother and when, in the course of conversation, Angel confesses her anxieties concerning the girls, Odile invites her to send the children to her centre where, she says, she can talk to them about the disease and about sex, and answer their questions. Yes, the virus referred to is AIDS/HIV. Events, ideas, customs, ways of thinking… there’s so much to identify with even as you discover many different ways of seeing and believing.

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This is Gaile Parkins’ first book. Having spent a large part of her growing years in Africa, she went to work in Rwanda among women and child survivors after the genocide. In an online interview published in BookBrowse, she speaks about how she came to write this book: “… my time in Rwanda filled me with things I needed to say, things that people weren’t really interested in hearing me say, because they already knew all they wanted to know about that place: that it was dark, bleak, horrific. I wanted them to know the much wider truth: that life and hope continue; that people still find countless reasons to celebrate; that I shared more laughter there than I ever had anywhere else. It seemed to me that fiction was the only way I could convey all of that.”

Many stories are shared in this overarching story: as customers fill out Angel’s Cake Order Form, they relax, sip sweet spicy tea, leaf through an album of cakes and chat, often swapping stories. It is a warm, intimate, safe space and many of the visitors spontaneously share their deepest thoughts. It works professionally too, for Angel, because she gets clues as to exactly what kind of cake would best suit her client’s needs and the occasion.

If this sounds formulaic, it is not. Firstly, the descriptions of the cakes themselves are fascinating. There is something therapeutic about cooking, whether it is baking or rolling out rotis or chopping onions, especially in times of stress or distress. Scan the social media right now and see how much talk there is about this recipe and that, and how many people have confessed to rediscovering the kitchen. Despite COVID-19, there are mouthwatering recipes and photographs of food doing the rounds. So, too, in Baking Cakes: it’s therapeutic.

There is something therapeutic about cooking, whether it is baking or rolling out rotis or chopping onions, especially in times of stress or distress.

Secondly, we get many glimpses of the real life being lived in the neighbourhood; often Angel is the thread holding everything together. There are the security guards; there’s Leocadie who runs the local provision store and her troubles with her boyfriend Modeste who has another girlfriend as well; there are references to professors at the university including a Prof. Pillay who teaches entrepreneurship and who can sometimes be a little theoretical which is why Angel is invited to talk to a bunch of students who have formed a group called Girls Who Mean Business so they can learn to be entrepreneurs; there’s a visit to a killing site in Gikongoro where 60,000 “people had been lured by the promise of protection, only to find themselves surrounded and systematically slaughtered…”

Someone who visits the site in Gikongoro along with Angel and Pius, writes ‘Never again’ in the visitors’ book, a clear reference to the holocaust. Pius says, “… if those words had meant anything then, there would not be places like the one we’ve just been to today…”, to which comes the reply, “No doubt sometime in the future there’ll be some other slaughter somewhere, and afterwards somebody will write in a book never again — and again those words will mean nothing. Eh, but at least I wrote something.”

Another time, a neighbour called Sophie is having tea with Angel when an upstairs balcony door opens and someone comes out. Sophie tries to hide herself, explaining that she doesn’t want to be seen by the person on the balcony who has embarrassed her by asking her for some condoms. She obliges but now cannot meet his eye. As she tells Angel, “Everybody knows that when a neighbor comes and asks you for some sugar, you give a cup of sugar. That’s the etiquette. But what’s the etiquette for condoms? How many do you give?”

Dark, tragic, yet quirky and charming … the book is all of this and more. And although the writing doesn’t have the sophistication of, say, an Alexander McCall Smith, it is unpretentious and appeals directly to the heart. You hear the truth of the voices, much of it surely stemming from Parkins’s personal experiences of working in Rwanda. Although this is a work of fiction, you feel all along that these are real stories about real people, with real meaning for a world experiencing the same reality together today.

Today, we’re all about social distancing, a practice that is open to questioning at the very least. Parkins’s response to a question about Africa in the 2009 interview puts this in perspective when she talks about ‘ubuntu’, a word in Xhosa and Zulu and a concept in many southern African languages: “ It’s about our shared humanity and required generosity towards one another; it’s an understanding that in helping and empowering others we help and empower ourselves and our entire community; it expresses the dignity, respect and compassion that, as human beings, we naturally owe and are owed; and it speaks of the interconnectedness that binds all people to all other people. A philosophy of ubuntu is pretty much the opposite of the individualism and self-interest…” Staying home, reflecting on ourselves and our lives would, it is hoped, lead us to assimilating the idea of ubuntu. Baking Cakes in Kigali certainly sets the reader in that direction.

The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.

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