The thing about fat cakes

A Short Story

By Sharon Tshipa
© Orianne Lopes

Malia rips a fat cake in half.

Like locals do, she slams a handful of chilli spiced fried potato chips in its soft white innards. The combination wallops my nostrils and drowns my tongue in oceans of saliva. Windows closed, the freezing escort vehicle suffocates us with the intoxicating aromas. The smell reminds me of the soiled twenty litre buckets of breaktime delicacies that village women extricated from their heads, and sat along the fence bordering my high school compound over a decade ago. The car is a receptacle of childhood nostalgia.

“Oh wait until the media gets wind of what we have done,” Malia’s voice fills the unoccupied spaces in the car.

“First Lady Michelle Obama eats cheap oily meal in Africa,” Sasha says, her voice befitting a Bloomberg newscaster. She chuckles, and takes a bite off her fat cake.

Her playful words thrash my mind. Since when did eating magwinya and ma-fresh become a crime? I muse, as I watch them eat. Yes magwinya and chips are cheap and oily, but thinking of the meal as just that alone, is shallow and disappointing. A perfect marriage of sugar and salt forever bonded by volcanic eruptions of vegetable oil is what taste buds cherish about fat cakes. The fist sized balls pride themselves with a crunchy golden brown exterior that bewitches one’s vision. A tempted touch is rewarded with an excretion of yeast scented fats the tongue often gets away with licking.

“Sometimes to enjoy a people you have to be like a people. Besides, a moment stolen to indulge cannot wreck a lifelong commitment to a good diet,” their mother says discarding her empty takeaway box into a black refuse bag.

“Agreed,” Malia nods, and proceeds to devour her meal.

I watch her fascinating mother cleaning her oily fingers with a citrus scented wet wipe. The colour of her suit fills my head with the hope of a brighter future. The African print belt wrapped around her waist makes her feel like home. I smile at the certainty that no one will believe that I shared this moment with her, and her children even if I swear on my mother’s grave. Me being a random junior Public Relations Officer in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I cannot even trust the air to back me up either as it is slowly losing its capacity to give testament to the family’s humbling display of benevolence with every emptied takeaway box.

“Oh sorry I forgot to offer,” Sasha’s eyes are on me. “Would you like some? We can share this last one.” Her dimples are in full bloom.

“Oh no, it’s okay really. Your mum already offered.” I wave Sasha’s guilt away. “I…I was just enjoying watching you guys eat that’s all,” I stumble on my words a bit.

“Are you also an advocate of healthy eating?” Their mother’s eyes twinkle with humour.

“A little, but mostly I have this love and hate relationship with magwinya. They give me pimples,” I thoughtlessly blurt out.

“Pimples you say? Malia jibes, making her mother and sister laugh.

Their mother leans towards me. A wide smile is a permanent fixture on her face. “How do you pronounce the word again?”

“Ma-gwi-nya,” Her daughters stop chewing. “The ‘ma’ and ‘nya’ should be easy for you, so let’s work on your ‘ggg’,” I tutor her. “Magwinya.”

“Magina?” It is not the First Lady’s voice that mimics mine. Neither is it her hand that makes a plastic full of fat cakes crinkle.

“Yes. That’s what we call these back home,” I quickly say, wondering how the noun had echoed its way out of my thoughts, landing right into my landlord’s ears. To ward off her gaze, my head is slightly bowed. I am mortified that I let the sight of fat cakes transport me back home and butter me with memories of the day I had tutored royalty.

“Faone, do you want some?” my landlord’s voice is a little louder this time.

“Oh no, I was just looking.” I turn my back to the tuckshop and face her. “I am surprised to see fat cakes in Tonga. They remind me of home,” I say, my eyes are fixed on my black size six sandals.

“Wow, you also have them in Africa?” Her skin is flawless, chocolate caramel. In comparison to mine, I would say I am completely opaque.

“Well in that case, you should have some. Just take,” she says turning off her car engine. “Just take. Give her some for free Saane,” My landlord instructs her shopkeeper. “It’s almost lunch time, she can eat them then.”

“Iyo, okay,” Saane, whose hand had made the small plastic full of fat cakes crinkle a minute ago quickly obeys and dangles the bag of fat cakes to my side. I face her and take the plastic. A few steps take me back to my landlord’s passenger seat.

“Malo ‘aupito!” I thank Saane with a wave and my landlord with a roguish smile. I am not entirely thrilled. Deep inside, the green juices of envy are boiling. Why do they have magwinya? I ponder. I had always thought of magwinya as an African dish, my country’s cultural cuisine. Now here in the Pacific’s, I am being slapped by the reality that I have to share our dish with a people God have blessed with everything. An ocean with a rainbow nation of fish, forests of coconuts and bananas, a country which panics when it doesn’t rain for a week, a people who have never heard of a harvest season because their streets teem with produce reaped daily. I could go on and on. Until today, I had thought that Botswana and Tonga mostly had weeds in common.

“I hope you enjoy them,” my landlord budges into my thoughts again. Clearly I cannot own magwinya, nor can I my displeasure. “I don’t like them much, but Tongans eat them a lot,” she says. Her head is leaning outside the window to her right. The timeworn blue truck cruising on the lane we want to join brights us. My landlord quickly drives onto the main road, waves at the gigantic man adorned in a green and yellow floral shirt.

“That’s a lovely guesthouse you have there,” I change the topic. “I didn’t even realise that the ocean is just too close. I will pass by now and then and observe the tide from your backyard, and also buy some fat cakes if I miss them,” I say amicably. The poor woman had taken me shopping and was driving me back to work after all.

“The tide?” Her eyebrows arch. “You are starting to sound Tongan,” she says and we both explode with laughter. I feel lighter. As she drives I let my head fall back on the car seat’s headrest. I inhale deeply. The fat cakes on my lap do not entirely smell like magwinya. My roguish smile returns.

At the office, a lenyora like bounce takes me to my desk. I have decided to show off something that Botswana and Tonga have in common other than weeds. I place my see through bag of fat cakes on my desk. Strategically to the very edge that touches Queen’s table.

“Who dropped you off Faone, and where did you get those?” Queen’s words tickle my ears before my butt hits the chair.

“Oh the fat cakes you mean,” I say fondling the wrapper with my pink coloured nails. “My landlord. You can have some.” I smile, dusting imaginary dirt off the black formal pants hugging my skinny frame.

“Chinese cakes,” she says. I sense she is trying to correct me.

“Fat cakes,” I inform her joyfully. “But back home we call them magwinya.”

“You have them in Botswana?” she exclaims, while loosening the keke belting her thick and firm torso. Her pronunciation is perfect for a person whose native language does not have the letter ‘B’.

“Yep!” I say, fighting the urge to hug her for calling my country by its name.

“We just call them Chinese cakes, because the Chinese brought them,” she says emptying the plastic of fat cakes into a plate. She then proceeds to do what Tongans do best—share food, plenty or little. I am fuming inside, and it’s not because the entire office is coming for the fat cakes, that’s what my strategic move had meant to achieve so I educate my colleagues a little more about my beloved country.

“The Chinese?” I say, my spirits punctured. Can’t the Chinese just let us shine? I tug at my afro. After the Tirelo Sebacha scandal, you would think Botswana would own itself. But no, they proceeded to fill their shops with cheap versions of our leteisi traditional clothes, now this, I muse helplessly.

“Iyo, they make them and sell,” she says, as if to rub it in. My big brown eyes search hers. Nothing.

To stay calm, I pick up a fat cake and dig my teeth into it. As soon as my tongue caps the chunk left in my mouth, my taste buds are offended.

“Well, these are a little too sweet, and they are not brown enough. You should visit Botswana and taste ours,” I say, my ego a sea rise threatening to flood my modesty. “You can have ours with either savoury or sweet sides. What do you eat these with?” I ask, giving the Chinese fat cake unwarranted scrutiny.

“Just tea,” Queen says. “The Chinese brought them here remember, like they brought noodles. But I prefer the noodles,” she picks up the sealed noodle container and stands up. “I am going to boil water for this.” Before she leaves, she leans in and picks another Chinese cake.

“I see,” I say and shove the rest of the Chinese cake into my mouth. This was not a legwinya, I saw no need to savour it. I push the plate to Queen’s table as three other colleagues come to take their share. After wiping my hands with Queen’s wet wipes, I smile at the thought of the magwinya I would have as soon as my lungs intoxicate themselves with the smell of home. Forget pimples.

Sharon Tshipa is an award winning fiction writer based in Gaborone, Botswana.  Her first novel, an e-book titled ‘Unloving Beloveds’ was published in February 2019 by Bahati Books. The novel is available on Amazon. Tshipa also has short stories and poetry published and anthologised in the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Uganda, India, Kenya, South Africa and Botswana.  She has participated in fiction writing workshops in Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and Botswana.