Friday, January 15, 2010

Book Review: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali
Angel and her husband Pius Tungaraza and their five grandchildren came to Rwanda by way of their home country Tanzania. Pius works as a special consultant at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology; Angel has a thriving business as a cake designer and baker of unparalleled cakes. They live in a modern apartment building, largely populated by fellow expats. Among their neighbors is one of Angel's best customers, the generous Japanese American Ken Akimoto. Not only does Ken regularly order cakes at expat ("Wazungu") prices, but Ken's Pajero and driver Bosco are available to Angel and other neighbors without fail. The building also houses the Wazunga feminists Sophie and Catherine who work as volunteers teaching women and young girls English and skills. The other neighbors work at aid agencies and non-governmental organizations, as doctors, and one is rumored to work for the CIA.

No matter where they work, whether they are Wazungu or fellow African or local Rwandan, it seems as though they all share the need to celebrate and do so through Angel Tungaraza's special homemade cakes. Angel's creativity and masterful baking draw in clients, but once people taste Angel's kindness, warmth, and caring, they leave as friends. Gaile Parkin's Angel Tungaraza reminds me of Precious Ramotswe from Alexander Mccall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Not because are both "traditionally built" African women, but because they're both independent businesswomen whose humor and caring, problem-solving skills and gentle maneuvering, constantly benefit everyone around them. Expat neighbor, Rwandan driver, ambassador's wife, doctor, nurse, student, bank teller, restaurant owner, sex worker, unwed mother, or child - all receive Angel Tungaraza's attention and friendship.

Although Baking Cakes in Kigali touches on dark and difficult issues such as AIDs, genocide in Rwanda, suicide, poverty, government corruption, the many displaced and homeless children, and the hunting and extinction of wild animals, Gaile Parkin and Angel Tungaraza approach them with such sensitivity and humor that the stories combine the bitter with the sweet. Baking Cakes in Kigali is a delightful debut novel and a fun, satisfying read.

Publisher: Delacorte Press (August 18, 2009), 320 pages.
ISBN-10: 0385343434
Review copy provided by the publisher.

About the Author, courtesy of Amazon:
Gaile Parkin was born and raised in Zambia and studied at universities in South Africa and England. She has lived in many different parts of Africa, including Rwanda, where Baking Cakes in Kigali is set. She spent two years in Rwanda as a VSO volunteer at the new university doing a wide range of work: teaching, mentoring, writing learning materials, working with the campus clinic to counsel students with HIV/AIDS, and doing gender advocacy and empowerment work. Evenings and weekends, she counselled women and girls who were survivors. Many of the stories told by the characters in Baking Cakes for Kigali are based on or inspired by stories Parkin was told herself. She is currently a freelance consultant in the fields of education, gender, and HIV/AIDS.

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