A story of hope in Rwanda

2009-02-16 00:00

THE blurb in the front of Gaile Parkin’s Baking Cakes in Kigali says the author was “born in Zambia and lives in Africa” — a biography so vague it seems to be hiding something. So my first question to Parkin is, where is her home, her base?

“I don’t have a base — I’m baseless,” she says. So, next question: where does she keep her stuff?

“I don’t have stuff. I go to where the work is, and what I accumulate, I give away when I leave, take my 20 kilogram suitcase and laptop, and move on.”

Her first job, after degrees at Rhodes, Wits and Warwick in the United Kingdom was in-service teacher training in Soweto. After teaching in various places in southern Africa, she went on to work for educational publishers Macmillan as a teacher-trainer, and later on became publishing director. But then it was back to the nomadic life as a freelance counsellor and consultant in education, gender and HIV/Aids.

Parkin spent two years in Rwanda in 2000 and 2001, and it was when she left that she decided to write a novel.

“No one seemed interested in my time there — they all thought it must be like one of Dante’s Circles of Hell and didn’t want to know. But I had so much I wanted to tell, and I wanted to dispel the notion of Rwanda as a dark and gloomy place. There were factual accounts of Rwanda available, but only a very select few were interested, so I thought fiction would bring it to more people.”

She is likely to be right. Published here and in the UK in January, the novel has already been sold to publishers in the United States and Canada, Germany, Israel, Finland and Brazil, and the entertaining tale of Angel Tungaraza and her cake-making business seems set to do very well indeed for a first novel — particularly a first novel set in Africa, which, if not exactly a publishing kiss of death, is still considered a hard sell.

“Americans and Europeans often think of Africa as a country, with a capital that at the moment is called Zimbabwe, and another town somewhere called Darfur,” says Parkin.

“I wanted to show that there is so much positive going on here, and people are dealing with things that people all over the world are dealing with — birthdays, marriages, plans. They are getting on with their lives.”

Parkin’s novel is often very funny, but doesn’t shy away from the realities.

“I don’t think you can write a novel set in modern-day Africa, and not mention Aids. It is part of everyday life,” she says.

Her central character is working through her own experiences of Aids, something that has touched her family very closely. “But people won’t read something that is going to disturb them, so I wanted it to be funny.”

She says that striking the balance between humour and reality came pretty naturally, a reflection of her own experiences in a country she came to love. She was counselling genocide survivors, and being brought face to face with horrors, but this was balanced by finding the rest of her time there joyous, surrounded by a people who were quick to laugh and to celebrate the good things. She wanted her book to reflect that.

It is not surprising that comparisons are being made between Parkin’s Angel and Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency fame. Both are large, practical women, with a passion for drinking tea and a considerable interest in the people around them.

But Parkin, who says she enjoys McCall Smith’s novels, regards the comparisons as part of a tendency to see all black African women as one black African woman. “And I do think McCall Smith looks at his Botswana through rose-tinted spectacles, while the red on my glasses comes from blood spatters. His novels are idyllic; I wanted to be more realistic. The tea drinking is simply an African thing — go into anyone’s house and they put the kettle on.”

Another issue Parkin is aware may rear its head is the question of her, as a white, writing about the experiences of a black. It has happened before, and raised something of a storm — an example being reactions to Pamela Jooste’s Dance with a Poor Man’s Daughter. But so far, the response to Baking Cakes in Kigali has been favourable.

The day I spoke to the author, a good review had appeared in the Sowetan. “I thought that if that was going to come up, the Sowetan or some other South African review might be the place,” she says. “Things here are often made into race issues, even when they are not, remotely.”

The other thing that pleased Parkin about the Sowetan review was that it was written by a man, and she had thought the book, with its female, cake-baking protagonist, would appeal more to women.

But ultimately, Parkin says she is hoping to wake readers — men and women — to the reality that is Rwanda — not a deep, dark hole in the middle of Africa, but a country where people celebrate, party and mourn. Just like anywhere else.

review: baking cakes in kigali

Baking Cakes in Kigali

Gaile Parkin

Atlantic Books

GAILE Parkin’s central character, Tanzanian Angel Tungaraza, is in Kigali because her husband Pius is teaching there on a contract. With them are their five orphaned grandchildren — both Angel and Pius’s son and daughter have been victims in one way and another of the Aids pandemic sweeping Africa. Angel, an undeniable busybody, keeps herself busy by making cakes for various clients — for their weddings, birthdays, parties and all kinds of anniversaries. And along with the sponge and brightly coloured icing, she dispenses her wisdom, encouraging reconciliation Rwandan style and helping to heal the devastated city and its people.

I would imagine this is a book that will be popular with the book club market; it is entertaining, readable and has charm. Perhaps, particularly as it nears the end, it tends too much towards the didactic. But good news from Africa, even if fictional, is a sufficiently rare commodity to be very welcome, and Parkin’s debut novel is upbeat and amusing while not hiding the fact that it is set in a place that saw the most devastating genocide of the late 20th century and still has to deal with the aftermath, and with other issues.

It is impossible to escape the fact that Angel has more than a few similarities to McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, the main ones being earthy common sense and a passion for tea — cardamom-flavoured in Angel’s case, which leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book. However, Parkin escapes McCall Smith’s endearing but questionable cosiness by making some of the less palatable aspects of life in Africa — specifically in Rwanda — central to her writing. It makes Baking Cakes in Kigali an impressive debut.

Margaret von Klemperer

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