Dr. Livingstone? Don’t Presume: Bringing the Bones Out of Africa

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Photo by Prince Akachi on Unsplash

Even when I was a child in the 1960s and 70s there was still some adventurer’s romance attached to the words of Henry Stanley upon finding his quarry: Dr. Livingstone, I presume? Despite the flood of newly independent African nations in that era, people could still be heard referring to Africa as “the dark continent” and you might still find Spencer Tracy and Cedric Hardwicke flickering on a TV set in an old film celebrating the white explorers against a jungle backdrop. Countless gags on shows like Laugh-In used the Stanley-Livingstone encounter as a set-up. David Livingstone was part of my cultural furniture.

It’s time for a reassessment.

On a recent visit to Burundi I encountered the legendary story once again. Just south of the capital, Bujumbura, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, a large stone memorializes the 1871 visit of the two explorers soon after their first meeting. What is now Burundi was one of the areas Livingstone scoured in his search for the ultimate source of the Nile. (It’s there, though the Scottish missionary never found it.) Stanley was the American journalist who launched a celebrated expedition for the New York Herald to find Livingstone, who was presumed lost and dead five years after he launched his last mission.

Both of the explorers appear in Petina Gappah’s new novel Out of Darkness, Shining Light, which offers a welcome new frame for what was happening in the colonial era. The Zimbabwean author knows the legend of Livingstone: “The wise men of his age say he blazed into the darkness of our natal land to leave behind him a track of light where the white men who followed him could go in perfect safety.” (5) But Gappah flips the script by making the dead body of Livingstone the backdrop while a diverse group of Africans move to the foreground in their own adventure.

The marker on Livingstone’s grave in Westminster Abbey says that his body “was brought by faithful hands over land and sea” from the Zambian village where he died in 1873. What the marker doesn’t say is to whom those hands belonged and what they endured to bring the body back to England. Records of the group are scant but Gappah imagines a roiling caravan of sixty-nine souls moving over hundreds of miles to deliver Livingstone’s papers and remains to Bagamoyo on Africa’s eastern coast.

Halima, a spirited, sharp-tongued cook who has been raised with stories of the glories of her mother’s home in Zanzibar, narrates the first section of the novel and from her we get an unvarnished picture of the company. Halima observes the sexual politics of the group, noting Livingstone’s tendency to pair new women with other members of the expedition. Nevertheless, jealousies and tensions erupt.

Halima sees the frustrations of the porters, the vulnerabilities of the children, and the failing health of the old missionary. She knows the compromises that people make and does what she can to direct events, despite her status as a bondswoman. When Halima is telling the tale, the group is a blur of human hopes and emotions subverting other narratives that claim to be more high-minded.

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Petina Gappah

A certain clarity breaks in when Jacob Wainwright begins to narrate in the book’s second half. Jacob is a “Nassicker boy,” a young African graduate of a school for freed slaves in India who joins the group in hopes of bringing Christianity to the African people. But Jacob’s clarity is deceptive. He can narrate events only by placing them in conjunction with his noble ideals. He is at pains to explain why Livingstone isn’t more pious and why he hasn’t gotten more converts. When the old man dies and he discovers him, Jacob poses the body as if he were kneeling in prayer when the moment of death came.

Unlike Halima, Jacob has trouble accepting things as they are. He blinds himself to Livingstone’s collusions with slave traders until he can’t any longer. He is manipulated by a treacherous porter named Chirango. He condescends to women even when he is obviously enthralled with the beautiful Ntaoéka. And in the end he is saved by the action of Susi, the brooding Muslim shipbuilder.

The journey to the ocean reveals the ways the incoming European colonial powers are disrupting the world as it has been. The shining light of the title is not going to be brought by the West. Even the villain Chirango recognizes what is happening:

They wasted my kingdom, stole my land…More of them will come, mark my words. This Nile source that he wanted to find, that they all want to find. They will find it, and other river sources, and in the process, they will see that there are other things to be taken. (256)

Even Jacob, the one most clearly seduced by the Western dream, comes to regret the journey:

I wish to God we had never borne the Doctor away…I wish, above all, we had heeded his own words and buried him in the ground at Chitambo…the cost that he has wrought on us is too great to bear, for anyone to bear. (252)

This is an adventure, expertly told, in which unwilling participants take the lead. And though there is death, deception, and portents of the looming colonialism to come, there is also a hint of the old spirit that brought Stanley and Livingstone in the first place. Halima, who does find a bit of contentment in Zanzibar, looks back on the times and reflects, “One thing that it left with me is the feeling I get sometimes: as though I am hemmed in all round, and all I want is to go somewhere no one has ever been, and gaze at the sky and look for miles around to see nothing but trees and hear nothing but birds.” (274-5)

When an African woman gives voice to that desire, it is a bit of light after a history of darkness. Petina Gappah has given us something of the same. This is a great book.

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