Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
Cakes. Birthday Cakes. Bat Mitzvah Cakes. Graduation Cakes. Christmas Cakes. Humans the world over bake cakes to honor, to celebrate, to mark an important ceremony. The cutting of a cake at a wedding is a symbolic, social ritual: the bride and groom cut the cake together and share a piece to symbolize their union and their promise to forever provide for each other, before distributing it to wedding guests. Cakes signify celebration and sharing, no matter where one is from or what language one speaks.
Gaile Parkin’s soul-warming story centers around cakes and celebrations in the most unlikeliest of places: Kigali, Rwanda, scene of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The novel opens only six years later, in the living room of a philosophical and “Professional” cake baker, Angel Tungaraza. Angel is a pragmatic, hopeful and proud native Tanzanian, who has relocated to Rwanda with her husband, Pius, and their five orphaned grandchildren to build a new life after the death of their only two children. Angel is undergoing the “Change”, putting on weight, but still enthusiastically creating colorfully-iced cakes which she sells to friends and neighbors to help support her family.
Parkin’s debut novel was first published in 2009 and is divided into 14 chapters. Each chapter centers on a specific celebration and Angel plays the role of the “everywoman” cake baker as the stories of the celebrants, the attendees, and Angel’s family, friends and neighbors unfolds.
Angel is determined, good-natured and warm-hearted and seeks to help other others find their inner strength and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the genocide, “”those hundred days while violence was tearing this country to pieces like a chicken on a plate”. Much of the narrative centers on Angel’s apartment block in Kigali, the home of aid workers from around the world and native Rwandans whose paths cross and whose lives intertwine. These characters experience a shared humanity despite their varying origins, races, traditions, and cultures.
Despite the many beautiful cakes, celebrations and seemingly simple stories, painful, heart-wrenching pasts lurk in the background and the complexity of our world emerges from the pages with startling clarity. At its core, the book tell us about love, acceptance and the ability to look forward and celebrate a hopeful future in the wake of an HIV epidemic, mass murder, suicide, and hate. It also looks hard at the ideas of truth, unity and reconciliation and what it means to not only say, but live, the words “Never Again.”
As I was glancing through the pages of this book while writing this review, I realized how much this story – and Angel – stuck with me, even though I first read it 3 years ago. It is an engaging read – but the hope in this book is a vital force and simply encouraging. The ability to make something positive, especially at times when there is little hope and much to mourn, is an essential tool to living this gift of our life on this planet to its fullest. It brings to mind a favorite philosopher of my husband’s, Zorba the Greek, who, after his son died, danced –
It was the dancing When my little boy Dimitri died…and everybody was crying… Me, I got up and I danced. They said, “Zorba is mad.” But it was the dancing — only the dancing that stopped the pain.
I think Angel would have baked the cake for Zorba’s dance party – and there would have been even more healing and hope.
Suitable for ages 14 and up. It is helpful to have some background of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 prior to reading (or, like me, you can always zip to the web).