Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is a talented historian. He spent his childhood in Zimbabwe and Malawi, and gained his first degree from the University of Malawi. Though he has held many positions in America, his focus has always been on Africa; in 2009 he was named President of the African Studies Association. In all of his writings he is concerned with bringing justice and democracy to African countries.
Smouldering Charcoal is about two couples in an African country: Mchere and Nambe, and Chola and Catherine. By not saying what country he sets his book in, Paul Tiyambe Zeleza makes a book which could apply to Africa.
The first couple are Mchere and Nambe, who are very poor. Their half of the book is about the troubles of their life 8 miles from the city. Nambe is pregnant but “The prospect of another child was a source of deep gloom for him: it meant an extra mouth to feed, and an additional body to clothe and shelter.” They are fearful of what the future holds. Also, they feel disconnected from the past: “But the world had changed; children now grew up without knowing their grandparents and the land which had nourished their ancestors. She felt like a stagnant survivor of a bygone age, ignored and unwanted.” The modern world makes Mchere and Nambe feel lost.
The second couple is the middle class Chola and Catherine. Chola is a journalist who has returned from America to Africa. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza writes that “America had fascinated Chola: so much wealth, energy, shallowness and decay. Africa’s emasculation had started in capitalist America, whose dream was carried on the backs of African slaves.” This shows the injustice of the world. Chola returns to Africa anyway, because it is his homeland. However, there are not so many opportunities, and since he returned there have been “six years of broken hopes”. His girlfriend Catherine is offered a place to study abroad, but she does not want to be “told what their history is and how to appreciate their cultural values”. There are problems in the country Chola and Catherine live in. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza suggests that it is important to solve them and not ignore or run away from them.
The main problem is corruption. The leaders speak in English, so “at least half the crowd did not understand what the minister was saying”. The book is about the abuse of power by governments. The people cannot communicate with their leaders; this means they cannot challenge corruption and lies. Nambe says that “The Party, like the Church, had never brought her anything, except demands and false promises.”
Mchere and Nambe meet at a worker’s strike at Mchere’s bakery. They are both arrested and put in prison. In prison they protest against the government with a hunger strike. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza describes the other people in a prison. There are people from many different jobs. They include school teachers, lawyers, civil servants, workers, peasants, and even a number of chiefs and former ministers”. Because so many important people are in prison the country does not work properl. It is a “country laid to waste because of pervasive fear, ruthless greed, political repression and moral bankruptcy.”
Mchere, Nambe and Catherine escape to another country. Chola dies in prison as part of the hunger strike. However, Mchere smuggles out the writings of Chola. Chola has died but his writing effects people. This shows the importance of writing and protest. The end is optimistic. The characters have suffered and the government is still corrupt but there is a hope for change. All you have to do to change the world is persevere.