In Burning Embers, Coral is reunited with her former ‘yaha’ (nanny) Aluna when she comes back to the childhood home she left in her youth. There is, at once, an interesting dynamic between the two women – one white, naive, young and wealthy who has grown up chiefly in England; the other black, a servant, in her later years and richly imbued with the beliefs, superstitions and traditions of the African culture in which she has lived all her life.
On the one hand, Coral is delighted to see Aluna and enjoys her maternal affection. She slots easily back into her childhood days, tucked up in bed by the motherly lady, who tells her a bedtime story – a tale rich in African folklore. But when it comes to listening to Aluna and respecting her opinion, Coral is put in a difficult situation: for Aluna is old-fashioned, prejudiced and superstitious in her views of men, particularly the object of Coral’s developing interest: Rafe. As her elder and her chaperone, Coral should respect Aluna – indeed, in African culture, it is expected, required. But as her employer, and as a modern, headstrong, Western woman of her era, Coral struggles to see the world through her yaha’s eyes. As the African proverb goes: “A widely travelled child is more knowledgeable than a gray-haired elder in the village.”
The book is set in the 1960s, a time of colossal social change worldwide, and Coral and Aluna exemplify the old, traditional world and the newly blossoming one. Aluna is wise in many ways, but in subscribing to rumours about Rafe’s past that flow readily among her black community, she is closed, blinkered, overprotective.
As Ifeanyi W. Uhuegbu explains in his book African Wisdom, “elders are expected to correct any wrong conduct from occurring in the first place. Such is the responsibility society entrusts on their shoulders.” Aluna is in a terrible situation if she subscribes to the African saying: “If an elder is witness to an evil and refuses to speak up, when death comes out it will claim the elder first. But if he speaks out and the young ones refuse to listen to him, death will claim them first before the elder.” What must a mother figure do when she suspects that a cat prowling around her babe is, in fact, a lion? Protect her kin at all costs – and this is Aluna’s role. Though we may not understand Aluna’s unswerving belief in her cultural heritage, which Coral dismisses as ‘mumbo jumbo’, we can admire and respect her determination to protect the woman she has known, and loved, from a small child.