Thursday, February 4, 2010

Entertaining Angels, Unawares

Is there anything more deeply satisfying than reading a great book?  That was a rhetorical question, as anyone who knows me will attest.  The answer is, no!

I just finished an enchanting book called Baking Cakes in Kigali, by Gaile Parkin.  It’s about a woman aptly named Angel who runs a small but popular cake business in her neighborhood in Rwanda.  She and her husband, immigrants from Tanzania, live there caring for their five grandchildren, offspring of their two children who have passed away. There are ghosts of many “late” in this novel, set 15 years after the genocide in Rwanda.  But this is not a story of horror, though set against that backdrop.  It is instead a story of love and hope.  It’s the story of a very grounded woman who knows her neighbors, who serves her community, who enjoys the gossip among the people she knows well and who uses her great humble wisdom to help people figure some important things out for themselves--often through her role as cake designer. 

She is also not above using this role to right a few injustices.  She helps the lovelorn, the war-torn, those at loose ends, those estranged from family, people she knows and those she does not. Angel’s friends and neighbors are expats from other African countries and around the world, international aid workers, academics, taxi drivers, spies, sex workers and bank tellers, and they all command her interest and respect. Her cakes are labors of love, customized for each person based on their favorite things, no matter how unlikely the subject of a cake. 

Oh, and did I mention Angel is a frequent flasher?  A menopausal hot flasher, that is.  She goes through the days nurturing and flashing--as she makes dinner to deliver to homeless children sheltering in a nearby dumpster, as she navigates and, yes, occasionally exploits the foibles of the wazungu (white people) in the community.  She flashes as she collects money for and plans the wedding of a local girl who is motherless, serving as her official “mother” for the important rite.  She flashes as she comes to grips with her own relationship with her daughter.   And she wonders hilariously, “Surely a woman could not be stuck in the Change for ever? Surely she would eventually arrive at a point where she had…well…

Women’s empowerment is a not-so-subtle important theme of the book, one that does not detract from but enhances the storytelling. For example, Angel ponders the ethics of a cake to commemorate for a proud Muslim father his daughter’s circumcision.  Attending what she believes to be a party to celebrate the ritual (what does one wear, she wonders, to “a cutting?” and settles on black), she finds herself instead part of a conspiracy of women to circumvent it.  One of Angel’s friends, Dr. Rejoice, remarks then, about women supporting one another, “It’s like we understand now that we’re much stronger when we stand together, especially in places where we’re being beaten down.” Upon which another friend, Odile, adds, “Yes, like bread…The ingredients do nothing on their own, but when they’re all together, they stick together and rise.  They get beaten down and they rise again.” 

Author Gaile Parkin was born in Zambia and lives in Africa.  She volunteered for two years in Rwanda for VSO International, working with the charity on HIV/AIDS and gender advocacy and empowerment.  “Many of the stories told by the characters in [the book] are based on or inspired by stories she was told herself,” her bio explains, and indeed, Parkin’s intimate familiarity with the rich variety of women of whom she writes is evident in their conversations and other interactions.  
I guarantee you will finish this book with a much warmed heart, hopes for a sequel and a wish that you knew Angel personally.  And maybe the realization that you do—that there are Angels among your own friends and community, too.  Maybe even you?   

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