Review: Smouldering Charcoal by Tiyambe Zeleza

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You know what the problem is? We worship the state, even those of us that attack it. I suppose we caught the bug under the colonialism when our reverence for the state began. Independence did not alter this conditioning. In fact, it grew under the new rulers whose only path to material wealth was through national plunder and the use of terror and repression.

Chola in Smouldering Charcoal

28 years after it’s publication, and still Smouldering Charcoal is a relevant literature in Malawi. Not only is its relevance derived from how impeccably well Zeleza narrated the events in Malawi under Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s leadership. But, it remains relevant because of how a lot of injustices are still experienced by the masses now.

I knew of the book in 2011. It was in our literature syllabus and crucial at that. Reading it was done not based on enjoyment of the book. I did it to pass my exams and that was it. Little did I care to fully grasp the story. Albeit, I did know of it’s significance in understanding the history of Malawi. 8 years after I last felt it in my hands, I decided to have a go at it. With the old papers on my fingers, I flipped over to the first page to what I now consider beautiful tale in 182 pages.

Short history of smouldering charcoal

The book was initially released in 1992. This was 2 years before the fall of Banda’s regime and just a blink before democracy and a multiparty system was introduced in the country. However, the book had been completed at least a decade before its release. Zeleza has said he shelved it to protect his relations that were still in Malawi.

When the book was completed, word got out of his plan to publish it. The Special Branch would visit and harass his relations. With the fear of inflicting more harm on them, he decided to shelve it until the right time came. In the book, Banda is referred to as The Leader but it takes no second guessing to know it is him that’s being talked of.

The review

The book is divided in three parts. Each part just as important to understand. I wanted to review each part so that you are able to understand it as I do.

Part 1. Untamed Pests

It introduces the social divide between the two families that are protagonists of the book. In the first chapter, Mchere is awakened by a rat which he tries hard to kill but only manages to snap its tail. His wife Nambe then asks him if that will be their meal for the day. They are part of the people of Njala (which means Hunger). A town so close to the city which harbors poor people who work as laborers. In recent times, such a place could be seen as Ndirande, Bangwe, Machinjiri and many other places. Njala is notorious with the poor, prostitution and alcoholism of laborers.

In the second chapter, it introduces Chola. A journalist who is well to do. He is seen as driving his car to work. It is also in this chapter that we get to meet the untamed pests. These are the Youth Militia who routinely check Party Cards from citizens. The newspaper editor and many more.

Untamed pests was his way of introducing to us those that keep the regime running. These are the people that knowingly or unknowingly oppress the people further.

Such pests are available in every part of the society. From informants working as maids or editors, party militias, members of parliament and many more. These are people that cannot change, no matter how hard one tries. Perhaps, the most significant in this part was Dambo’s death.

Dambo, a lawyer with hopes of changing the regime. He joined the party hoping that he would change it from the inside, but soon realized that it was wasted energy. Not long did he dump it and join the Movement. The untamed pests were the ones that kept their eyes open. Up until his body was found in Nkhoma river.

The chapter ends at a bittersweet moment. Nambe runs around in the rain hoping to find help to take her son to the hospital. The two people in Njala, the priest and the youth commander are the only two people with cars. The priest denies to help because he’s prepping for a service while the commander sights the rain as the reason.

Part 2. Night Storms

Again, we are reminded of the social class divide. We witness Mchere’s devotion to make sure his son gets medical attention. So, he walks on feet on his way to the Central hospital regardless of the storm and heavy rain. At the hospital, again we see the division of class. Mchere ends up at the paid section of the hospital where he is scolded for entering the premises without drying off first. Without getting medical permission, he is told to go to the free section.

He ends up spending the night till midday without his boy getting any medical attention.

The night storms do not just represent the hardship of Mchere walking in the rain. The storms are shown all through the book.

The storms are a great representation of the hardships that the characters have to go through. A bad health care system, inhumane conditions in the prisons that lead to Chola, Mchere, Bota and more have a hunger strike.

A hunger strike that unearths more storms for the prisoners. From the prisoners put in cells with cold water and snakes. Chola being forced to seat on burning coal and having his private pierced by nails. Him being beaten to stupor by Duli. And finally, being killed by Bonzo.

The storms are Nambe losing her child. Not being able to convey the message to her husband who is imprisoned. Her, Biti and many Njala women being evicted from their homes and the society because of rebelling against party dance rehearsals. Nambe being raped by Gwape and being impregnated as a way of making sure she was not chased from the village and separated from her children.

These storms are Catherine bearing the loss of her fiancé killed by the system. Having expelled from university because of Chola. Then having Bakha sexually violate her as a way of repayment to stay in the university.

There are evident when Ndatero is unable to find a job for being a political prisoner. And being forced to go to exile to find greener pastures.

Within all these storms, the untamed pests are there to cause them. However, these are not storms only experienced within the nation, they go as far as in exile.

Having to lose grandmother and Nambe’s new born at the refugee camp. Having their papers not processed and having to live in dilapidated conditions.

Part 3. Smouldering Charcoal

As the book goes to an end, it shows the hope that the remaining characters still have of change. Regardless of the many hardships they have gone through, they still have the energy to regroup and fight.

This hope is held from when the prison warden still hands Mchere the manuscript that Chola was working on. From the manuscript, a new manifesto for the Movement is made. With new strategies and objectives.

My comment

Smouldering Charcoal explains beautifully the tragedies that happened in Banda’s regime. It is brought to reality from the stories heard from my parents. How no one was trusted because no one knew who was an informant. It brings to picture the political policing that was there and the bad conditions they endured in the prisons. It is testament of the “don’t speak back” culture, that we still suffer today unfortunately.

While it perfectly narrates our history as a country, it also is a reminder of how not many things have changed. It is a reminder of the many Mchere’s we have today who walk many miles and in bad weathers just to get to hospitals and receive medical care.

The many ministers who show up to factory launches with women ululating and dancing for them. Then boast about the development that leaders are doing, wrongly express the conditions that people are living in in order to make their leaders look heaven sent.

It reminds us of how bad our prisons are till date. Having cells hold so many people who lay down in rows and have to count minutes before they all roll over to the other side.

It reminds us that even though we rejoice of democracy, but has it matured enough?

That’s where radical movements go wrong.They concentrate all their energies on capturing the state machine. You can’t wake up one morning and go to a shop and buy a package of democracy. Democracy is a culture….. The radical movements are themselves usually undemocratic.

Favorite quotes from Smouldering Charcoal

1. Something I feel I’ve heard from a lot of our politicians

I do not have to emphasize that the rapid development we are experiencing is due to the pragmatic policies of our government

2. Something that can be said about 2020

Life was surely not meant to be a continuous nightmare. There had to be some worth in it, some beauty, some kind of meaning

3. Something on how art is sometimes kept silent because it can destory even the powerful

Anything that dealt with tradition was acceptable, whereas writing critically about the present was subversive…. This provided leaders with an important lie that there was literary and intellectual freedom for responsible writers and artists

Overall, this book is perfect if you want to understand the corruption and oppression that existed to countries after colonialism. How citizens were oppressed by the leaders that they bestowed independence on.

It is painful to be oppressed by a white man that sees you as a “monkey,” but more painful when the oppression comes from your fellow black man that sees himself better than you. Unfortunately, these have been the realities of life then, just like they are now.

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