“Compellingly readable” – Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah

In her second novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, Petina Gappah reclaims from Trotsky’s dustbin of history the story of 69 Africans who carried the corpse of Doctor David Livingstone for 285 days over 1,500 miles to a town called Bagamayo on the Indian Ocean coast of central Africa. In a voice that suggests a Greek chorus, the novel’s powerful prologue describes how history has completely ignored this group’s accomplishments that protected Livingstone’s corpse:

“This is all we sixty-nine have ever been in [Bwana Daudi’s] world: the sixty-nine who carried his bones, the dark companions, his dark companions. . . . We were only ever the pagazi on his journeys, the porters and bearers who carried his loads and built his huts and cooked his meals and . . . made his beds, the asari who fought his battles, his loyal and faithful retinue.”

The prologue laments how the members of this group have been expunged from the books and biographies on this crucial chunk of world history. The names of the Expedition’s members have been misspelled, the facts of their lives changed or fabricated. Then the prologue’s chorus launches its poignant, painful rhetorical question: “What if we had known then what we know now?”

From the bleachers of hindsight, the chorus reminds us that Livingstone’s trunks contained maps of the river Lualaba (the Nile) that would bring “the white man, Winchester rifle aloft and Maxim gun charged” who would quickly infect the continent “with steamships and guns, with rubber plantations and taxes and new names for all the burial places of our ancestors.”

In other words, by shepherding his corpse and his belongings to coast and giving it to the British, the Expedition conveyed the information that directly led to their continent being invaded by the British army 11 years later.

Damn.

Each chapter of the compellingly readable Out of Darkness, Shining Light generally opens with a passage culled from secondary and primary sources, often the diaries of Livingstone himself. The novel’s plot, which focuses on the interactions and squabbles among the Expedition members, is narrated by two very different characters: Halima “the daughter of Zafrene, Liwali’s favorite Suria,” Bwana Daudi’s cook and former slave/harem girl, and Jacob Wainwright, a naïve, devout Christian African in his early twenties.

Halima is an exceedingly engaging character: intelligent, vengeful, proud. Her earthy, nearly feminist consciousness lent a subversive quality to the novel. She knows how to manipulate the men in her environment: “What I can tell you is that a man’s mind is most open in those moments when his seed is spent.” Her tongue is sharp: “He rejoiced like a chicken that had been spared the pot.” Bwana Daudi thought so highly of her contributions to his household that he freed her and bequeathed a small house to her in his will. Halima herself is the Expedition member who argues that they can convey his corpse to the eastern coast by drying it like a fish in the sun.

Jacob Wainwright is a Christian zealot educated at a religious outpost of the London Missionary School. He squabbles with the Mohammedan members of the Expedition and preaches about sins of the flesh. His spiritual journey during the second half of the book is compelling. During their nine-month trek, he experiences betrayal and love, witnesses murder and violence. By its end, he mutters: “Truly, I wish to God I may never see again the shape of his body as it is carried between two men. Because the cost that he has wrought on us is too great to bear, for anyone to bear.”

Halima remembers how Bwana Daudi didn’t recognise any distinction between the cries of black or white babies. She thought Livingstone had less of the racial superiority and European exceptionalism embraced by his white counterparts. Her observation compounds the irony that it is his maps and the information on them that fueled the British entry and rape of continent.

Any Cop?: Before I read Out of Darkness, Shining Light, my knowledge about the life of David Livingstone and how England “discovered” the African continent couldn’t have filled a tweet. I am going to seek out other fiction that illuminates this story from the side of the locals rather than their colonisers.

 

Chris Oleson

 

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