Baking Cakes in Kigali

By Gaile Parkin. Published in 2009.

The skill of the storytelling in Baking Cakes in Kigali sneaks up on you. It’s such a sweet, pleasant little book that it’s easy to miss how deftly debut author Gaile Parkin weaves dramatic, quietly heartrending themes into her modest, charming tales of a middle-aged woman who runs a small home business baking and decorating cakes for friends and neighbors. Of course, the novel is set in Kigali, Rwanda, so there’s that to suggest that the book won’t be all sugar and spice, but with the Rwandan genocide about six years in the past, and with Parkin’s Tanzanian protagonist not having experienced it firsthand, those horrors initially appear to be background. In fact, I wondered at first why Parkin chose to set her light story in such a dark place—and if Baking Cakes had merely been about baking cakes, perhaps that would have been would have been a question worth asking. But Baking Cakes is not merely about baking. Parkin has a more ambitious agenda—and much more sensitivity and grace—than I first credited.

Her protagonist, Angel Tungaraza, lives in an relatively upscale Kigali apartment complex populated by members of the international community: aid workers, diplomats, visiting professors, the inevitable CIA agent, and so forth. She and her husband, Pius, have moved there so he can take a better-paying university position, for now that they are parenting their five orphaned grandchildren, they need the extra income. Angel’s baking also brings in a bit more money—not to mention the pleasure of participating, even in a small way, in a variety of local celebrations.

Parkin portrays Angel’s diverse neighborhood with great detail and personality, illustrating, with open but uncynical eyes, the many reasons someone might be motivated to move to Rwanda. We meet an African diplomat’s ever-politic wife, willfully determined to stay on-message and eager to impress her Western counterparts; a pair of British aid workers trying to thoughtfully impart their feminist values in a different cultural context; a South African lawyer who worked with that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has come to explore the possibility of doing something similar in Rwanda; a Canadian employee of the International Monetary Fund who cares about the substantial bonus he gets for working in a potentially dangerous country and not much else.

We meet, too, some of the Rwandans in the community: a traumatized but resilient woman who runs a nearby restaurant; another such survivor who teaches at a school for HIV-positive women; a prostitute trying to support her younger sister. One of the book’s over-arching stories (to the extent that there is one—Baking Cakes is rather episodic) is about the relationship between Modeste, a guard at the apartment complex, and Leocadie, a local seamstress—a relationship Angel looks on fondly because though everyone now says that they “are all Banyarwanda—Rwandans,” that was not always the case. Modeste, a Tutsi, is the sole member of his family to survive the genocide, and Leocadie, a Hutu, lives with the shame that her mother is imprisoned as a génocidaire. Now that all are Banyarwanda, the obstacles to their romance are not ethnic but prosaic—Modeste’s infidelity, Leocadie’s pregnancy, limited financial resources, lack of familial support—yet their union still has an air of poetry about it—Romeo and Juliet together at last! And Angel, struggling with a painful history of her own, is eager to embrace the hope it represents.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Parkin, born and raised in Africa, has herself served as an aid worker in Rwanda, for the many well-spun anecdotes—some tragic, some hopeful, some comical—have the kind of detail that suggests if not firsthand experience then firsthand contact. No doubt writing about Africa for Western readers is a tricky proposition—one must find strive to be colorful without resorting to caricature, to balance promising developments against terrible obstacles without condescending to the characters—but Parkin does it well, sketching a variety of individuals who feel like individuals rather than exotic, interchangeable Others.

Her portrait of Angel is particularly well drawn, with a lightly understated arc that broaches considerable pain without losing buoyancy. That description also works well for the novel as a whole. For all the horrors many of the characters have endured, Baking Cakes is about how people find ways to keep living, to accept happiness where they can find it. Parkin might not be a brilliant prose stylist, but her dialogue sparkles and the humanity of her characters is a joy to behold.

– – – – –

Thank you, Aunt Holly, for suggesting this book. It was a welcome change of pace for me.