At first, Baking Cakes in Kigali by Galie Parkin reminded me of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall-Smith.
In both novels, an independent woman in an African country runs a business and listens to the gossip of her neighbors, showing the reader a little bit about African locale, but also illustrating the pure spunk behind a strong woman in various situations. Both books share humorous anecdotes in a light, easily accessible tone. Even when difficult things happen, the tone remains hopeful.
But that is where the similarities end. McCall-Smith graciously paints the beautiful and peaceful, yet poor, Botswana. Parkin, on the other hand, illustrates a pained Rwanda. The stories Angel hears are those of genocide survivors. And yet, even Angel’s story is ultimately full of hope.
Angel bakes cakes: cakes for christening, cakes for welcomes and farewells, cakes for birthdays and weddings. With each cake, we learn a little bit more about the people Angel lives with in the Rwandan town of Kigali. Angel is from Tanzania, and her family has come to Rwanda in the year 2000, like many, to help the Rwandan’s rebuild after the horrors that were genocide.
While at first glance, the novel is about Angel’s scrumptious cakes, it doesn’t take long to realize that the gossip she hears from her associates is different from gossip we might hear. Some of the stories were funny, especially those that illustrated the clash between American culture and African ways of life. But other stories were haunting.
I guess you could say that this novel helped put Rwanda on the map for me. While I knew subconsciously about the genocide, it took these stories to make it real.
After the Tungarazas visit the genocide memorial, their friend asks Pius Tungaraza what he wrote in the memorial book:
“That is what they said when they closed the death camps in Europe,” said Angel…
“And if those words had meant anything then, there would not be places like the one we’ve just been to today, with books where people can write never again all over again,” said Pius. (page 65)
Even more haunting than the physical reality of the murders was the truth of what it meant to be a survivor. Story after story tore at my heartstrings.
So although it is delightful to read about a new country with which I am unfamiliar, Baking Cakes in Kigali is not really a light read. It shares a message of both tragedy (the story of the survivors) and hope, for its ending message is that we can move on: there is a purpose to life, even after a horrendous tragedy.
In her review (which prompted me to pick up the novel), Amanda said that this book made her both laugh and cry. I second that.
I suggest you go read it! I suspect you won’t be disappointed.
Gaile Parkin worked in Rwanda for two years as a counselor, teacher, and helper to survivors. The scariest part of this novel is that, while it is fictionalized, these stories are based on true ones.
What do you know about Rwanda? How did you learn it?
Have you read any memorable book based on a true story?