As a Peace Corps Volunteer, we have many different roles. One day we are working on food security, the next we may be addressing water issues. Today, however, I am baking cakes. This might not sound like much but it is actually quite an achievement in its execution of the task and what it signifies in my standing in the community.
Last week, the grandmother of the bride approached me asking me to bake a cake for the upcoming wedding; a BIG cake. I can only imagine the grandmother reassuring the bride, “nothing is too good for my girl; I’ll get the white woman to make a BIG cake for you!” I tried to explain that I don’t know if I would be able to make a big cake and showed her the pan that I have and warned it might not be very pretty. Last year, a friend in the village asked us to make a wedding cake and we were only able to make a two layer cake and it all melted on the walk to the wedding.
I was extremely proud that the family felt comfortable enough to approach us to make this request and also did not expect us to just give them the cake; they were ready to contribute to help make it happen. We then went through negotiations on their contribution. The family has no money to help pay for the ingredients and didn’t have any eggs at that time so we finally agreed on one and a half buckets of sunflower seeds as compensation. I then had to set off for the big town on bicycle, two hours round trip and then another two hour round trip car ride to buy the necessary ingredients; flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and icing sugar.
The day before the wedding was a frenzy of activity in the village. This is the day that everyone gets together and has the big dance party. It was as if a holiday had been declared. Men were out during the day playing soccer, women were off getting water and preparing some goodies to sell at the dance. And Bobby and I were sitting in front of blazing flames on a 107 degree day baking 4 layers of cake.
First we had to gather some firewood to put in our cob oven that we built from mud and sand. That means we rummage through the woodlands near our house gathering branches and twigs that have fallen and dragging them back to our house. We then fired up the oven and waited for it to get to an appropriate temperature. We are still learning with technique and we can’t seem to get it just right (although it is GREAT for pizzas!). The oven was too hot and the first two cakes didn’t come out as well as I would have liked so we opted to go for our typical baking method with charcoal, essentially barbequing the cakes. First, we put some large pieces of charcoal on the brazier and then I fill the largest frying pan I have with cake batter. Then I place on top of this the largest cooking pot I have filled with hot coals. Baking the four layers took most of the day and made me miss a modern kitchen as the dust blew dirt into my eyes and the flames scorched my skin.
On the wedding day, I assembled the cake the best I could. I made a simple vanilla frosting and filled each layer with strawberry jam, something most villagers will have never tasted. It might not have been the prettiest dessert I’ve ever made but I guarantee it was the biggest cake this village has ever seen! To transport the cake to the wedding, my host sister helped carry it and I held an umbrella over it to prevent it from melting like last year. It seemed to do the trick and the cake arrived in good condition despite the temperature being over 100 degrees again.
When the procession was about to start, I was escorted to a great seat of honor; a bench with the village elders underneath a tarpaulin. Well, half of me got to sit on that bench while the other half hung off but I baked the cake, I earned that seat! At the wedding last year I was given a brick to sit on, which for a woman is still considered a great courtesy. Women and children usually sit on the earth.
Then a car battery was attached to a radio and a ridiculously large speaker and Zambian pop music began blasting. A procession of 8 young dancers dressed in what looked like school uniforms gyrated their way towards the tarpaulin with a very solemn looking bride and groom following. In Zambian weddings, the couple is not to look at each other; in fact they pretend to blind. The bride has a veil on and the groom wears sunglasses; which you absolutely can see though. There is a helper there to show them where their seats are and to direct them to hold each other’s hand at appropriate times. The bride and groom do not look up or show any sign of happiness; it would be inappropriate to do so.
There was an MC of sorts, not from our village, who directed the whole ceremony; a pastor came to deliver some prayers, parents and grandparents came up and gave some words of advice and then it was time for the cake. The MC made a big deal to make sure that everyone knew I made the cake (and thus earn my seat) and then to everyone’s confusion started to speak in English. One of my friends in the village interjected and explained in Tonga that he doesn’t have to do that, that I understand more than he thinks. I was grateful for that public endorsement of undeserved competency. They then turned on the music once again to mark the entrance of the cake.
A young boy and girl, both about 12 years old approach the tarpaulin. They each have chitenges, the African fabric, tied around their waists with the knots situated by their groins. The boy carries the cake in and the girl following behind has the knife, dancing along the way. Their dancing kicks up all of the dust around us and in the blazing sun, you see it all rise up like flames. The cake was draped in a bright yellow doily, which I was actually thankful for because it hid any imperfection in the cake and I felt very proud at that moment. The children set down the cake and knife and go into a small dance off, each one thrusting their pelvis and gyrating in competition with each other trying to make that knot bounce. Villagers then dance their way up to the children and give small bills of money to them and have the chance to show their dancing skills also. I remained firmly planted in my precious seat; to stand and dance would risk losing it.
It was then time to cut the cake. The helper showed the bride and groom where the knife is, because they are blind from the sunglasses and veil and then guided their hands in cutting the cake and feeding each other a piece of cake. The parents/grandparents were all then invited to get a piece of cake. The helper broke it down into bite sized pieces. I was worried then, thinking “But the strawberry filling! The icing! They won’t get a taste of it!” But I don’t think that mattered much. As each of the elders got their bite sized morsel of cake, they each came up to me and shook my hand and gave thanks. One little old lady heavily leaned on me while getting up around me to get her taste of cake, which normally would sound like a bad think but I was thrilled. She didn’t tip-toe around me because I am the mukuwa, the white lady. She treated me the same way she would have anybody else in the village.
It wasn’t my first wedding in the village and it wasn’t my first time baking a cake either but this day was special. As I looked around the wedding party, nobody was paying attention to me. Last year, everyone gawked and it was like they were looking at animals at the zoo. This year, as I looked around I realized I knew most of the people there and they all knew me. I was proud to be able to share a part of American wedding traditions to blend with the village Zambian ones.
You wouldn’t think of baking cakes as having anything to do with the Peace Corps. But it felt like this act on this day helped me reach Peace Corps’ mission of promoting peace and friendship in the world more than anything else I’ve done. It exemplified and solidified my role in the community after being here for more than a year. Peace and friendship never tasted so sweet!