When he got to the door he hesitated to open it. He heard the children crying. Had she beaten them again? Obviously she had not expected him to come home so early. He burst into the house. The children looked up when they saw their father but did not stop crying. They had seen his empty hands. They were all herded together in the only dry part of the kitchen, semi-naked, thin little creatures, shivering, with swollen and hollow eyes, and throats that issued strange sounds from their hungry stomachs. He avoided their gaze.
I snapped up this paperback in a second-hand bookshop in Cape Town, which was able to tick quite a few boxes on my African to-read list.
The novel is set in Malawi – or somewhere very similar. When I first started travelling, there were two countries my long-haired generation were terrified of – Malawi and Singapore. (Don’t laugh!) Would we be assaulted by vicious immigration officials brandishing scissors, rendering us eternally and incurably Uncool? Or just denied entry as Undesirable Elements? It is no coincidence that ‘The Leader’ in this novel is similar to Malawi’s dictator of that time, Banda: ‘The leader hated long hair and beards, and anybody who sported them risked arrest for moral indecency or even subversion.’
‘Smouldering charcoal’ is basically a call for a revolution, social and political, but it is refreshingly free from polemic and quite readable. It is concerned with the unjust regime, inequality, and the (bad) treatment of women. It follows the effects of what starts with a bakers’ strike on two very different families. (In this, it is somewhat similar to my novel for Senegal which I’ve just finished, Ousmane Sembene’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu).
Mchere is a drunken violent father (his disdain for his family shown by how he rips a page from his son’s exercise book to roll a cigarette.) No doubt following his bad example, his children are rude and it is left to his wife to try to keep the family going.
The good-natured, happily married journalist Chola starts the day happy but suffers bad luck due to country’s own misfortunes.
Following the men’s example, the women (led by good-hearted prostitutes) threaten their own strike against the sexist treatment of their men (which reminded me of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata).
The callousness of the people in power is shown when the priest and the party representative pretend to care for the people but let a child die rather than lend a car to get him to hospital.
Like several of the other African novels I’ve read, Zeleza bemoans the failed hopes and betrayal of the corrupt post-independence régimes, and adds a clarion call for social change, especially for improving the lot of women. It is both an important and very readable novel.
ZELEZA, Tiyambe (1955 – ), Smouldering Charcoal, Harlow, Essex, Heinemann (African Writers Series), 1992, ISBN 978-0-435-90583-5