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Baking Cakes in Kigaliby Gaile Parkin
In the same way that a bucket of water reduces a cooking fire to ashes—a few splutters of shocked disbelief, a hiss of anger, and then a chill all the more penetrating for having so abruptly supplanted intense heat—in just that way, the photograph that she now surveyed extinguished all her excitement.
"Exactly like this?" she asked her guest, trying to keep any hint of regret or condemnation out of her voice.
"Exactly like that," came the reply, and the damp chill of disappointment seeped into her heart.
Angel had dressed smartly for the occasion, in a state of great anticipation of the benefits that it might bring. Completing her ensemble by pushing a pair of small gold hoops through her earlobes, she had stepped out of her bedroom and into the living room, scanning the room again to check that it was ready for her special guest. The children's clutter had all been put away in their bedroom, and the tiled floor had been scrubbed to a shine. The wooden frames of the three-seater sofa and its two matching chairs had been polished, and each of their cushions—encased in a sturdy fabric patterned in brown and orange—had been plumped to the full extent capable of a square of foam rubber. On the coffee table she had placed a gleaming white plate of chocolate cupcakes, each iced in one of four colours: blue, green, black and yellow.
Then the shout had come through the open doorway that led off the living room on to the small balcony: the signal that she had been waiting for from her neighbour, Amina, who had been standing on the balcony directly above her own, on the look-out for the expensive vehicle making its way up the hill towards their compound.
With a renewed surge of excitement, she had slipped back into the bedroom and, concealing herself behind the curtain to the left of the window, she had watched through the ill-fitting louvers as the smart black Range Rover with its tinted windows had turned right on to the dirt road and pulled up outside the first of the building's two entrances. A smartly-uniformed chauffeur had stepped out from behind the wheel and, holding the passenger door open, had called to the two security guards lounging beneath a shady mimosa tree on the other side of the road. The taller of the two had shouted a reply and had stood up slowly, dusting the red earth from his trousers.
Mrs Margaret Wanyika had emerged from the vehicle looking every inch the wife of an ambassador: elegant and well-groomed, her tall, thin body sporting a Western-style navy-blue suit with a knee-length skirt and a silky white blouse, her straightened hair caressing the back of her head in a perfect chignon. As she had stood beside the vehicle talking into her cell-phone, her eyes had swept over the building in front of her.
Angel had ducked away from the window and moved back into the living room, imagining, as she did so, the view that her visitor was taking in. The block of apartments, on the corner of a tarred road and a dirt road in one of the city's more affluent areas, was something of a landmark, its four storeys dominating the neighbourhood of large houses and high-walled gardens, where drivers hooted outside fortified gates for servants to open up and admit their expensive vehicles. People knew that it was a brand-new building only because it had not been there at all a year before: it had been constructed in the fashionable style that suggests—without any need of time or wear—the verge of decay and collapse.
With mounting excitement, Angel had awaited the security guard's familiar knock at the door of her apartment, and when it had come, she had opened the door, beaming with delight and effusively declaring it a very great honour indeed to welcome such an important guest into her home.
But now, sitting in her living room and staring at the photograph that she held in her hand, all of her excitement fizzled suddenly, and died.
"As you know, Angel," the Ambassador's wife was saying, "it's traditional to celebrate a silver wedding anniversary with a cake just like the original wedding cake. Amos and I feel it's so important to follow our traditions, especially when we're away from home."
"That is true, Mrs Ambassador," agreed Angel, who was herself away from home. But as she examined the photograph, she was doubtful of the couple's claim to the traditions that they had embraced when choosing this cake twenty-five years ago. It was not like any traditional wedding cake she had seen in her home town of Bukoba in the west of Tanzania or in Dar es Salaam in the east. No, this cake was traditional to Wazungu—white people. It was completely white: white with white patterns decorating the white. Small white -flowers with white leaves encircled the outer edges of the upper surface, and three white pillars on top of the cake held aloft another white cake that was a smaller replica of the one below. It was, quite simply, the most unattractive cake that she had ever seen. Of course, Mr and Mrs Wanyika had married at a time when the style of Wazungu was still thought to be -fashionable—prestigious, even. But by now, in the year 2000, surely everybody had come to recognise that Wazungu were not the authorities on style and taste that they were once thought to be? Perhaps if she showed Mrs Wanyika the pictures of the wedding cakes that she had made for other people, she would be able to convince the Ambassador's wife of the beauty that colours could bring to a cake.
Setting down the photograph, Angel removed her spectacles and, delving into the neckline of her smart blouse to retrieve one of the tissues that she kept tucked into her brassiere, began to give the lenses a good polish. It was something that she found herself doing without thinking whenever she felt that someone could benefit from looking at things a little more clearly.
"Mrs Ambassador, no words can describe the beauty of this cake . . ." she began.
"Yes, indeed!" declared the Ambassador's wife, leaving no space for what Angel was going to say next. "And at the party, right next to our anniversary cake, we're going to have a big photo of me and Amos cutting our wedding cake twenty-five years ago. So it's very important for the two cakes to be exactly identical."
Angel put her glasses back on. There was clearly nothing to be gained from helping Mrs Wanyika to see that her wedding cake had been ugly and plain.
"Don't worry, Mrs Ambassador, I'll make your anniversary cake exactly the same," she said, smiling widely to disguise the sigh of regret that she could not entirely prevent from escaping. "It will be just as beautiful as your wedding cake."
Mrs Wanyika clapped her meticulously-manicured hands together in glee. "I knew I could depend on a fellow Tanzanian, Angel! People in Kigali speak very highly of your baking."
"Thank you, Mrs Ambassador. Now, perhaps I could ask you to start filling in an order form while I put milk on the stove for another cup of tea?"
She handed her guest a sheet headed "Cake Order Form" that her friend Sophie had designed on her computer, and her husband Pius had photocopied at the university. It asked for details of how to contact the client, the date and time that the cake would be needed, and whether Angel was to deliver it or the client would collect it. There was a large space to write in everything that had been agreed about the design of the cake, and a box for the total price and the deposit. At the bottom of the form was a dotted line where the client was to sign to agree that the balance of the price was to be paid on delivery or collection, and that the deposit was not going to be refunded if the order was cancelled. Angel was very proud that her Cake Order Form spoke four languages—Swahili, English, French and Kinyarwanda—though less proud that, of these, she herself spoke only the first two with any degree of competence.
Their business concluded, the two women sat back to enjoy their tea, made the Tanzanian way with boiled milk and plenty of sugar and cardamom.
"So how is life for you here compared to home?" asked Mrs Wanyika, sipping delicately from one of Angel's best cups, and continuing to speak English—their country's second official language—in defiance of Angel's initial attempts to steer the conversation in Swahili.
"Oh, it's not too different, Mrs Ambassador, but of course it's not home. As you know, some of the customs here in Central Africa are a little different from our East African customs, even though Rwanda and Tanzania are neighbours. And of course French is difficult, but at least many people here also know Swahili. And we're lucky that here in this compound most people know English. Eh, but you're too thin, Mrs Ambassador, please have another one."
Angel pushed the plate of cupcakes towards her guest, who had failed to comment on the colours—which were the colours of the Tanzanian flag—and had so far eaten only one: one of those iced in the yellow that, on the flag, represented Tanzania's mineral wealth.
"No, thank you, Angel. They're delicious, really, but I'm trying to reduce. Youssou has made a dress for me for the anniversary party and it's a little bit tight."
"Eh, that Youssou!" commiserated Angel, shaking her head. She had had a couple of unfortunate experiences of her own with the acclaimed Senegalese tailor of La Couture Universelle d'Afrique in Nyamirambo, the Muslim quarter. "He can copy any dress from any picture in a magazine and his embroidery is very fine, but eh! I think the women back in Senegal must all be thin like a pencil. It doesn't matter how many times Youssou measures your body, the dress that he makes will always be for a thinner somebody."
This was a rather sore point for Angel, who used to be a thinner somebody herself. She had never been thin like a pencil, not even as a girl, but in the last couple of years she had begun to expand steadily—particularly in the region of her buttocks and thighs—so that more and more of her clothes felt like they had been fashioned by the miscalculating Youssou. Dr Rejoice had told her that gaining weight was only to be expected in a woman who was experiencing the Change, but this had not made her feel any better about it. Still, running her business in her own home meant that she was able to spend most of her time wearing a loose T_shirt over a skirt fashioned from a kanga tied around her waist—an ensemble that could accommodate any size comfortably.
"And how is life in this compound?" asked the Ambassador's wife.
"We're secure here," said Angel. "And even though all of us in the compound are from outside Rwanda, we're a good community. Eh! We're from all over the world! Somalia, England, America, Egypt, Japan—"
"Are they all working at KIST?" Mrs Wanyika interrupted Angel before she could complete the entire atlas of expatriates. The Kigali Institute of Science and Technology—a new university that had recently been established in the capital—was attracting a great number of expatriate academics.
"No, it's only my husband who is there. KIST doesn't accommodate the ordinary staff, but Pius is a Special Consultant, so his contract says they must give him accommodation. The others here are mostly from aid agencies and non—governmental organisations. You know how it is when a war is over, Mrs Ambassador: dollars begin to fall like rain from the sky and everybody from outside rushes in to collect them." Angel paused for a moment before adding, "And to help with reconstruction, of course."
"Of course," agreed the Ambassador's wife, shifting rather uncomfortably on the orange and brown cushions of the wooden sofa.
Angel knew that Ambassador Wanyika's salary would have been boosted dramatically by an additional bonus to compensate him for the dangers and hardships of being stationed in a country so recently torn apart by conflict. She observed Mrs Wanyika casting about for a change of subject, and saw discomfort giving way to relief when her guest's eyes found the four framed photographs hanging high up on the wall next to the sofa.
"Who are these, Angel?" She stood up to get a better look.
Angel put down her cup and stood to join her. "This is Grace," she said, indicating the first photograph. "She's the eldest, from our son Joseph. She has eleven years now. Then these two here are Benedict and Moses, also from Joseph. Moses is the youngest, with just six years." She moved on to the third photograph while Mrs Wanyika produced well-rehearsed exclamations of admiration. "These are Faith and Daniel. They're both from our daughter Vinas." Then Angel touched the fourth and final photograph. "These are Joseph and Vinas," she said. "Joseph has been late for nearly three years now, and we lost Vinas last year." She sat down again rather heavily, the wood beneath the cushions of her chair creaking perilously, and knotted her hands in her lap.
"Eh, Angel!" said Mrs Wanyika softly, sitting down and reaching across the coffee table to put a comforting, well-moisturised hand on Angel's knee. "It's a terrible thing to bury your own children."
Angel's sigh was deep. "Terrible, Mrs Ambassador. And such a shock to lose both. Joseph was shot by robbers at his home in Mwanza . . ."
"Uh-uh_uh!" Mrs Wanyika shut her eyes and shook her head, giving Angel's knee a squeeze.
"And Vinas . . . ," Angel put her hand on top of her guest's where it rested on her knee. "Vinas worked herself too hard after her husband left her. It stressed her to the extent that her blood pressure took her."
"Ooh, that can happen, Angel." Releasing her grip on Angel's knee, Mrs Wanyika turned her hand over to meet Angel's hand palm to palm, and held it tightly. "My own uncle, after he lost his wife, he devoted himself to his business to such an extent that a heart attack took him. Eh! Stress? Uh_uh." Shaking her head, she clicked her tongue against the back of her neat upper row of glistening teeth.
"Uh_uh," agreed Angel. "But Pius and I are not alone in such a situation, Mrs Ambassador. It's how it is for so many grandparents these days. Our children are taken and we're made parents all over again to our grandchildren." Angel gave a small shrug. "It can be a bullet. It can be blood pressure. But in most cases it's the virus."
Mrs Wanyika let go of Angel's hand and reached for her tea. "But of course, as Tanzanians," she said, her tone suddenly official, drained of compassion, "that is a problem that we don't have."
Angel's eyebrows rushed to consult with each other across the bridge of her nose. "I'm sorry, Mrs Ambassador, but you're confusing me. It sounds to me like you're saying that we don't have the virus at home in Tanzania. But everybody knows . . ."
"Angel!" Mrs Wanyika's voice, now a stern whisper, interrupted. "Let us not let people believe that we have that problem in our country. Please!"
Angel stared hard at her guest. Then she removed her glasses and began to polish the lenses with her tissue. "Mrs Ambassador," she began, "do you think that the virus is in Uganda?"
"In Uganda? Well, yes, of course. Even the government of Uganda has said that it's there."
"And in Kenya?" continued Angel. "Do you think that it's in Kenya?"
"Well, yes, I've heard that it's there."
"And in Zambia? Malawi? Mozambique?" Angel put her glasses and her tissue down on the coffee table and began counting the countries off on her fingers.
"Yes," admitted Mrs Wanyika, "it's in those countries, too."
"And what about the Democratic Republic of Congo?"
"Oh, it's very well known that it's in DRC."
"And surely you've heard that it's in Burundi, and here in Rwanda?"
"Well, yes . . ."
From the Hardcover edition.
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