Wednesday, April 03, 2013

234. Smouldering Charcoal by Tiyambe Zeleza

Smouldering Charcoal (Heinemann, 1992; 183) by Tiyambe Zeleza belongs to the immediate post-colonial African literature, which includes such texts as Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat. More specifically, it belongs to those collection of works which exposes the disillusionment of independence and questions the integrity and vision of the post-independence leaders, usually the first presidents, who became harsh, corrupt, and more cruel.

However, published in the early 1990s, when the equalisation of the genders had become the song and aim of government policies and therefore major themes of every work, the novel could equally be pushed into the social commentary sub-category of African literature aimed at instigating a social change. Consequently, Smouldering Charcoal is a socio-political novel. But its deficiency is the subliminal and sometimes conspicuous social commentaries it makes. In a word, it is misandrist and functions perfectly within that set template that has made a lot of novels 'successful' in recent times. That template which makes the men in novels inhuman, flat, non-emotive (or specifically exuding only negative emotions), and above all beastly. This mis-characterisation of men has taken roots in African literature and has come to define it. Any novel that lacks it is considered 'not African enough'. This is pernicious message need to be examined. Its consequence will be felt some years from now. For today, one can only ask questions. For example, assuming that the roles were turned and all these mis-characterisations were of the women, how would the book and its author had been received? Definitely, the book will be blacklisted for its misogynistic tone; its sexist writer would not get any publishing contract, even from male publishers again. What therefore makes it necessary, imperative, even germane to lampoon one sex but highly unethical, and career suicide to to do same to the other? These are necessary questions that need to be asked. Suddenly, novels have become NGOish in their content, following the popularity trail.

Smouldering Charcoal tells the story of Chola and his girlfriend Catherine and Mchere and his wife Nambe. These two belong to different social strata: Mchere and Nambe are lower class (dirt poor) and Chola and Catherine middle class. The unnamed country they lived in is ruled by an unnamed dictator simply referred to as The Great Leader. He is wicked and does nothing for the people. He praises himself for unimportant projects, which the The Party members consider development. The Great Leader is surrounded by bootlickers and grovellers working tirelessly to outdo each other in their praises to him, leading to outrageous behaviours. Meanwhile, the country is draped in dilapidation, misuse and abuse and one meets poverty at every turn of a bend. In the midst of all this, the people always told there is development - they are developing. Chola, a been-to (some one who has travelled abroad before), works as a journalist. He is frustrated with a system that interprets rot as development and does nothing to uplift the people from their deteriorating predicament. This frustration finds themselves infused into his daily reports to the annoyance of his Editor. Together with Catherine, Chola represents the new and educated young men and women who are not ready to tolerate an impotent system. They demand real change, real development and are ready to overthrow everything, including archaic traditions, to achieve this. Nevertheless, Chola is a pacifist and a Marxist. Catherine, however, is in her final year at the university. She is intelligent and do not give a hoot about certain traditional practices. The two have plans to marry after she completes her studies.

Mchere and Nambe on the other hand live on the outskirt of town, 8 miles from the capital, in ramshackle wooden structure that leaks during rainfall. They are the lowest of the lower class and has nothing to offer. Nambe is not employed; Mchere works at a bakery. They have five children, the eldest Ntolo is eight, and Nambe is pregnant again. Mchere's weekly salary cannot even buy two loaves of bread. He owes his landlord several weeks of rent. Furthermore, he has brought grandmother to live with them; the old woman is usually reticent. At the bakery, a strike is being organised to insist on salary increases and improved working conditions. The leaders of the bakery are not ready to give in and had asked the workers to work whilst they negotiate. The leaders of the strike, knowing that this is a ploy to get them to work, insisted on going on the strike until their grievances are addressed.

Chola chanced on this impending strike and decided to investigate and report on it as it unfolds and use it as the basis for his book. Chola's coverage of the event will bring the two - Mchere and Chola - together and the meeting will change both of them in ways they never expected. They will go on to meet at the hospital and in prison.

The major problem with this is its misandrist tone. There was not a single dialogue between and among women where men were never insulted. They were all liars, wicked, womanisers, or other equally negative associations. There was a man who was cheating on his wife. One day the girlfriend and the wife arranged for the wife to take the place of the girlfriend and meet the man at their usual place, which happens to be a church. Now when the man came to meet the 'girlfriend', he said nothing - no greeting, no preliminaries, no conversation. He moved straight to sex. It was after the sex, in the darkness of the church, that the man began praising the 'girlfriend' of her beauty; the 'girlfriend' then asked why he does not say such nice things to her at home. The man realising that it was his wife ran and left her. How much more unemotional, unfeeling and beastly could a man be not to even greet a person he was meeting for a rendezvous? That his mind was  so hooked on the sex that he neglected the social chit-chat is highly impossible.

When Nambe's son Ntolo was stung by bees and fell from a tree, when they went into the forest (against their mother's advice) to pluck mangoes, Nambe had gone to see the priest to help her transport his son to the hospital for medical attention; but the Priest refused claiming that he had a scheduled meeting and proposed to pray for Ntolo. From there Nambe went to see the Party Chairman (the two are the only ones with non-public transport in the entire Njala community, and public transport was not working at the time). However, the Party Chairman was not different from the Priest; he also refused to help claiming that his car was filled with fish.

However, it was Mchere who epitomises all that was wrong with the men in the book. He was dirt poor, could not pay his rent, owed his friends, could not provide for his family but found ways to be a drunkard, a smoker and a womaniser. He goes to a bar to drink, is informed that there is a problem at his home, yet he still finds time to have sex with his bar girl. After, he quickly rushes home and suddenly descends on his wife for no apparent reason. He beats his pregnant wife mercilessly before he asks what the problem is only to be told what has happened to Ntolo. How suddenly, Mchere is stupendously transformed. He carries Ntolo at his back and journeys the 8 miles, through the rains, to the hospital, where he stays in a queue for almost two days.

When Mchere's wife, at the early stages of their marriage, started producing local gin for sale, (and here too she was approached by the Party Chairman and other male party members who wanted to sleep with her before allowing her to sell that gin) he would always drink more than his fair share of the gin distributing some to his friends and topping the bottles up with water until Nambe's business collapsed when customers complained that her gin is not 'hot'. When Mchere was questioned, he claimed that as the head of the family he can do what he want. Could there be anyone more moronic than Mchere?

There was not a single emotive, thinking male character. Even the educated Chola, who knew all the books and was all modern was not left out. When his friend, Dambo, was murdered Chola discovered that he could be next and so planned on going into exile. He suggested to Catherine that they go together; but when Catherine asked if she should quit her education and join him, Chola suddenly exploded into a never-seen-before anger with bloodshot eyes sending Catherine into shock. In fact, Chola's lovemaking to Catherine was even questioned, that it lacked some passion. Later it was their houseboy, whom they have taken in as family and had overpaid who betrayed them to the authorities.

Bota, the leader of the strike at the bakery, was so dumb and stupid that he could think of no other alternative to his plan, even though he knew well that they were living in a dictatorial regime where the Great Leader does not countenance such 'wayward' behaviours. This lack of alternative plan would later send them to prison. In prison, Chola would be tortured by prison wardens and he would later be killed by Bonzo, a convicted murderer. In prison, the strikers lost their unity and great animosity fell amongst them. Two groups emerged, those who joined the Movement (a reactionary group that Chola became its leader in prison though he was not a member when he was outside) and those who did not.

The lecturers were not left out. First, her lecturer maltreated her when she 'over answered' the question in her assignment. Later this same lecturer would attempt raping her when on the pretext that he wants to support save her from dismissal, the university's punitive measure meted out to spouses of a political convict.

Even Nambe's children were not left out. They did nothing at home and could insult their mother at will. They refused to be sent, did what they wanted and fought at random. When Nambe was ostracised from Njala, she had had moved with Mchere's grandmother to their village, where she was was raped by Mchere's cousin, Gwapa, whom she later burnt, with four others, to death. In short almost all the male characters, both minor and major, were like these.

Apart from these, there were several structural inadequacies in the novel. For instance:
  1. The author rushed to complete the novel. Thus, the arc is steep towards the end. Sentences became packed with events that the reader virtually had to gallop along, especially after Mchere was released after a year in prison. This also created a fairy tale ending where a certain manuscript (which turned out to be the story) was discovered; Catherine married Ndatero, a lecturer-convict who happened to be part of the political prisoners who were released after their mistreatment was published in international newspapers. Ndatero was Catherine lecturer before he was jailed and he met Chola in jail. Because of the rush, Nambe's escape into exile, whilst pregnant, occurred in a single sentence, though from all likelihood the conditions of the time would not have made this escape smooth;
  2. There were certain missing messages of information. For instance, when Nambe went to the Priest's house, there was no mention of her taking an umbrella or borrowing one (which would have more likely been the case), but suddenly when she left the Party Chairman's house, the reader finds her holding one against the rains;
  3. There were also certain inconsistencies. When Mchere was recollecting certain incidences in his childhood, he said he was not sure if the policeman (askari) had a gun; however, several sentences later he described how his father was hit with the butt of a gun. One would have thought that the presence of a sure statement will render the unsure statement void;
  4. Mchere was nothing more than a dullard (or that's what the reader is made to believe); he relished his father's strength and boldness but was himself timid and afraid of participating or not participating in the strike. It was only in prison that he metamorphosed into a hardened member of the Movement, contributing actively to the writing of the letter whose publication in international newspapers led to their release;
  5. Chola was never a member of the Movement; he never joined until he was put into prison. Thus, it was surprising that he suddenly got to understand and appreciate the vision of the Movement to the extent that he recruited some prisoners into it and formed units (or cells) within each cell;
  6. We are told that Mchere left school at Standard Five but was the one who led the writing of that long letter that detailed how they were being treated and whose publication led to their release;
  7. Chola belonged to the middle class, worked as a journalist, though not as an editor. However, Chola could afford an apartment, a servant and a car. This is not a characteristic of a rundown country as was described in the novel.
  8. Working as a journalist Chola was suppose to report on issues, but chose to fill his reports with his personal beliefs; however, unless one is doing an opinion piece, which is entirely different, a journalistic report should capture the essence of what is being reported and not the journalist's expectations or beliefs.
There were other issues as well:

Nambe was dirt poor but his husband's cousin Biti, a seamstress, was so much burdened with job that her male competitors were envious (again, see how the males behaved?). So - and the two were friends to the extent that Biti sometimes give them food - why did it not occur to Nambe that helping Biti would make her earn some money, if she was really bothered about their poverty? Couldn't Mchere have asked for the direction to the wards or the OPD when he got to the hospital, instead of carrying his son on his back and going round in circles at the mortuary? Why would a prison warden torture an inmate for choosing not to eat when the prison guards themselves had not enough to eat and were usually bribed with food?

There was also a question of development. Chola did not understand why a country which could not manufacture a hoe would establish a car assembly plant or open a brewery and call it development. This is somewhat baffling. Should a country go back to produce the minutest of things before it moves up the chain? Besides, which of the two will create more employment? Perhaps the issue is that assembling cars for a people who can't afford does not make sense and that hoes would better serve the peasantry. Even if this is the aim, assembling of cars and exporting it within the sub-region will produce enough resources to spur on development and engender the manufacturing of hoes through its positive externalities. 

These issues could result from my own parochial reading and my stand on this male-bashing literature. Regardless of these, Zeleza's description of the rot in the city and in Njala especially was detailed and imagistic. He also unsheathed Mchere's poverty one skin at a time. It was like lighting a dark hall one candle at a time until the two hundredth candle is lit. Though this novel did not work for me, you could equally read it to find out for yourself.


  1. Interesting, although I do not like it when writers rush their endings. You have read a novel not long ago from the same writer, you seem to enjoy him.
    This novel reminds me of the "Wizard of the Crow" of which I have only read an extract.

    1. I read an essay of his in an anthology - Fathers and Daughters by Ato Quayson - and that was the first time I met him. That 'story' was interesting. This book didn't work for me.

      Yes, it has some of the markers of Wizard of the Crow, like the Great Leader and all that.

  2. the eldest Ntolo is eight, and Nambe is pregnant again. Mchere's weekly salary cannot even buy two loaves of bread. He owes his landlord several weeks of rent. carbon activated


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