The cake of good hope

After years of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, the $6 confection is a store-bought miracle.

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The cake sat in the middle of the counter in a Zimbabwean supermarket. Dots of white icing wound round the edges. The sides were slathered in butter icing and tiled with chocolate vermicelli. On the top, a dainty filigree of red gelatin marked the spokes of a wheel.

"I marii?" I ventured in the local Shona language. How much is it?

I hadn't planned to buy a cake. A few days earlier, Donny, a student friend, came up to me: "Auntie, will you make a cake for our youth club this weekend?"

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"Auntie" agreed. I've known Donny for three years. He'd never dream of calling me by my first name. I am married, I have a child: According to Zimbabwean custom, I must be shown respect.

At first I thought I'd bake my staple sponge cake. I baked this cake so many times during Zimbabwe's eight years of food shortages and political tensions that I know the ingredients by heart. When what I needed for my cake wasn't available in the shops, I found alternatives: custard powder for eggs, donated pancake mix for flour.

But this Saturday morning, I was distracted. My mother-in-law dropped by with red apples from the mountainous Nyanga district. We chatted. A smell of burning wafted from my oven.

I grabbed my purse. "I'll try the supermarket," I said.

There the cake waited, in all its glistening glory. A cake like this would have been unthinkable in much of Zimbabwe not long ago. Often in the past decade, there was no bread for sale. Desperate shoppers queued for sugar in lines patrolled by police dogs. When President Robert Mugabe ordered a controversial price slash in 2007, stores emptied – and stayed that way for months. Like many others, I safety-pinned my waistband tighter.

Finally in February, Mr. Mugabe swore in a coalition government with former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister. Zimbabwe began its long slow climb to recovery.

These days I count the small signs of change: A family with bulging shopping bags eats ice-cream cones. Council workers shovel sand into potholes.

In a downtown supermarket a cream-dotted cake beckons.

"It costs $6," the shop assistant said. Just six? Not 6 million or 6 billion dollars? Last year, Zimbabwe's inflation reached 231 million percent, according to official figures. Six months into the new coalition, the rate is 1 percent.

I laid the cake on the passenger seat and hoped it wouldn't melt.

On a dusty plot at the other end of the city, Donny and his friends were playing rounders. They were using a deflated football and a cricket bat.

Some of the youths drifted over to chat. Philippa, an educated 20-something, was wearing a new mint-green top and black leggings. Last year, she worked as a cleaner to make ends meet. When police raided her employers' home in the border city of Mutare searching for diamond dealers, Philippa was beaten. "Things are better now," she told me. "We can afford to buy what we need."

Lawrence, a gifted public speaker, has plans to go to university. "I want to study IT," he said. We talked of how Zimbabwe's universities have opened after months without lectures, of how aid groups have ensured clean water.

The smell of meat sizzling on a barbecue floated over the thorn hedge. Last year, meat was so scarce and so expensive that some Zimbabweans substituted salty water for chicken soup.

There were murmurs as the lid of my white cardboard box was lifted.

"Thank you for the cake, Auntie," Donny said simply.

The white rosettes were a little squashed. The butter icing would not have lasted much longer on this hot spring afternoon. Still, it was a beautiful cake.

I looked at that shop-bought miracle and thought of what it meant: Zimbabwe's tentative return to near-normality, the enduring power of hope.

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