January 24, 2010

Baking Cakes in Kigali - Gaile Parkin

I picked this book up on Friday night, and couldn't put it down until I finished (some time on Saturday evening). And it is so vividly written that after putting it down on Saturday evening, I went to bed and dreamed that I was back in Africa!

I have read several books (non-fiction and fiction) about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, but this book is probably my favourite of the bunch.

Set in 2000, 6 years after 1 million people died in 100 days, it is the story of a city and a country trying to rebuild itself following the horrors that left no family untouched. It centres around Angel, a Tanzanian who is in Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) with her husband who has been hired to work at the new university. Angel runs a cake-making business out of their apartment, and the book is based around her interactions with her customers and the others living in the same compound.

The genocide is always in the background as it affects all of the characters, whether they be survivors, or returning refugees, or in Kigali to help to rebuild the country. But other issues affecting contemporary Africa are addressed - the AIDS epidemic and the shame that people feel because of it; poverty and hunger; female circumcision; and grandparents raising grandchildren. And then there are the everyday happenings included - cooking meals and hospitality; love, courtship, and marriage; shopping and haggling over the price.

My favourite parts of the book were the character sketches and the dialogue. The characters are so vivid that they seem like real people (and apparently many are based on real people that the author knows). And the dialogue made me think that I was back in Tanzania with the rhythms and word choice. At times, I caught my brain translating the dialogue into Swahili as it was written almost exactly the way a Swahili-speaker would say it!

The author was born in Zambia, but spent 2 years in Rwanda as a VSO volunteer (Voluntary Service Overseas - the same organization that sent me to Tanzania). Even before I read the author bio at the end of the book, I knew that she must have spent some time in that part of the world, with all of the details included - mannerisms of the characters; the language use; the cooking description; the clothing. I am sure that many of the characters living in the compound with Angel are similar to the people that the author met in Kigali - from the Rwandans, to the diplomats, to the volunteers, to the foreign contractors. And the range of motivations for being there, ranging from an altruistic desire to help the people of Rwanda to a desire for the plum salary that many expats earn, are very familiar to me.

There were a few details that didn't ring true, and they did jump out at me, probably because I have lived in that part of the world. I don't think that most readers would even notice them. Things like the occasional word choice (Angel refers to a "flashlight" when really she would have called it a "torch"; ditto for a reference to "soccer" when most people would call it "football"); and a reference to the quality of coffee from Bukoba (which in reality is instant coffee made from the coffee beans that are too poor to export). But like I said, I'm probably being overly picky here!

If anyone is looking for a trip to central Africa without paying for the airticket, this is definitely a book to check out. Angel is from Bukoba, in northwestern Tanzania, only 50km from where I lived from 2003-2006. Only 6 months now until I get to go back and see my friends there! And I foresee an African cooking binge in my near future...


B.Kienapple said...

I've always wanted to visit that part of Africa - thanks for the recommend!

Kate said...

Definitely worth a read - you will feel like you are there!