I surveyed the counter in front of me, which was strewn with an open bag of gluten-free flour, a dark chocolate bar, coconut flakes, and vanilla. As I whipped the baking margarine with brown sugar, Justice leaned forward against the counter and watched. I added eggs, measured generous spoonfuls of vanilla, and stirred the flour into the bowl. Little clouds of it floated above the bowl as I stirred, until finally, all of the ingredients had been mixed in.
I spread the dough into a pan and put it into the oven, and then I turned my attention to the beginnings of a second cake. This one, from a gluten-free cake mix I had found in the supermarket here, came together within 5 minutes, and I added it to the oven to bake. “How do I say that I’m baking a cake in siSwati?” I asked Justice. He thought for a few minutes and then said, “It’s hard, Siphiwe – we don’t really have this word in siSwati. Swazis don’t bake; they roast. You have to say that you’re roasting yourself a cake. Like those people on the street who are roasting their corn – you know these people?”
As the cakes roasted in the oven, Antonio came over and stood next to me, watching me cream some of the baking margarine, powdered sugar, and vanilla extract into a thick vanilla buttercream icing. “I have to watch you so I can make it later, Siphiwe,” he explained, intently noting each step I took.
It was the day before my birthday (the third one I had ever spent away from home), and I was making one cake to share with my friends at the guest house, and one to bring to work. I had brought a cake to work once before, and my co-workers had made it very clear to me that they were looking forward to my birthday. But not for the joy of seeing me turn 26. “You’re going to make this cake for your birthday, Siphiwe,” they informed me. For people who don’t even have a proper word for “bake” in their language, the Swazis I know are rather obsessed with cake. In the weeks leading up to my birthday, if I happened to mention to someone in conversation that I had a birthday coming up, they would immediately interrupt and say with almost robotic insistence that I “spare them a piece of cake, please, sisi. Please.”
So when I walked into the office the next day, amidst the usual morning chorus of “Sawubona, sisi, unjani?,” all eyes were fixed on the cake pan I held in my hands. I took it over to my cubicle and perched the pan on the corner of my desk, unveiling a big coconut chocolate chip cookie sheet cake as I pulled back the foil. As the smell of chocolate chip cookies began to permeate my immediate vicinity, I noticed that more people were sidling slowly by my desk, smiling at me and glancing pointedly at the cake, and then smiling at me again as they lingered by my chair. Within about 2 hours, the whole cake was gone.
Ncamsile came into work and sauntered over to me singing “Happy Birthday” all by herself, grinning and laughing between each line of the song, and she handed me a card before taking a piece of cake back to her desk. My friend Nokuthula surprised me with a gift as well, and overall, the day was a relaxing one, and the weather was perfect, the wind whipping around me as I strolled up the hill to town on my lunch break, reminding me of the perfect autumn days I love so much at home.
Later that evening, when I returned to the guest house, I found Antonio, Sindi, Justice, Minjeon, Sandra, and Celiwe waiting to sing to me. We waited for a lull in the frenzy of cooking for other guests, and while the staff bustled around the kitchen, grabbing cups, spooning steaming vegetables onto warm plates, frying sizzling steaks on the grill, I took the cake – a coconut vanilla cake with buttercream icing – out of the refrigerator. I knew better than to try to insert myself into their rhythm, so I stood at the counter with the cake, watching them. “We’re coming, Siphiwe!” called Justice to me as he hurried out of the kitchen carrying two plates. “Get ready, sisi!” agreed Antonio with a grin as he flipped a steak and waved away the smoke that was hovering above it.
Justice called over to me, “Siphiwe, I have some very special candles for your cake.” He disappeared into the pantry and emerged a moment later, triumphantly holding a bag of tea candles. “They’re nice candles,” he said. He placed two of them next to each other on top of the cake, carefully extracting the flattened wicks from the wax with his thumb and forefinger. “See? They’re perfect,” he said. The rest of the staff nodded in agreement.
“Ok, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you….” sang Justice.
“Wait a minute, guys, I want to take a video of this with my camera,” I said, fumbling with the buttons on my camera as the staff chatted and teased each other loudly. “Ok! Go ahead!” I said, my camera poised. I pressed “record.”
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…..”
“Eesh, Justice, we are not ready yet. You have to wait for all of us to sing,” admonished Sindi.
I hit “stop” on the camera and waited.
“Oh, you’re not ready. Sorry, sisi. Ok, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…..” began Justice again.
I hit “record” again and panned the singers with the camera as the melody filled the kitchen. A chorus of “happy birthday” began, first together and then ending up disjointed, sounding like the rounds of “Row, row, row your boat” we used to sing when we were kids.
“Eeesh, that was not a good song for Siphiwe,” said Justice.
I hit “stop,” and suddenly, the brilliance of using tea candles unveiled itself to me as I watched the melted wax begin to pool in the tea candle holders, the flames flickering impatiently.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…..” sang Justice loudly, beginning again. The others joined in. I hastily hit “record” again. They sang the whole song through again. I leaned over and blew out the candles.
“Siphiwe, I want to see the video. Show me on your camera,” said Justice. I pulled it up on the screen and hit “play,” and a little crowd formed around me as everyone struggled to see the video on the small camera screen.
“Eesh, but Siphiwe, you are not in the video!” exclaimed Justice, looking troubled. “Come, we have to have Siphiwe in the video. Give me the camera.”
Trying my hardest not to laugh, I showed Justice which buttons to press and positioned myself in front of the camera. Antonio lit the candles again. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you….” began Justice from behind the camera with a look of great concentration on his face as he pushed the button to start recording the song. I blew out the candles again, making sure to be in front of the camera as I did so. I took the camera back from Justice and glanced down to find that he hadn’t pressed “record” after all; he had just taken a picture. I looked up at his expectant face and just gave him a big smile and said, “It’s perfect!” I put the camera to the side.
I cut the cake into generous pieces, and we all stood around the counter with our plates in our hands, the noise and banter of a few minutes before dying away as we ate. We chewed thoughtfully, ruminating over each bite and letting the vanilla flavor wash over us freshly with each piece.
“Well, Siphiwe,” said Justice as he carefully sectioned himself off another bite of cake. “That’s twenty six years of your life gone.” He popped the piece of cake in his mouth and looked around the room, sighing thoughtfully.
“Siphiwe, you are twenty six?” said Antonio incredulously from the corner. “I thought you were just twenty one. But eesh….you are old.” He scraped his plate with his fork, collecting the last morsels. “I still want you to be Mrs. Fumo, but you must promise to bake me cakes like this all the time. You remember my last name is Fumo, Siphiwe?”
“I remember,” I said, no longer able to stop myself from laughing out loud. I returned to my room that night full of cake and silent laughter, and a renewed sense of happiness to be where I was.