It took the lawyer and writer 20 years to write this book.
It took her 10 years of historical research in libraries.
It took her 350 pages to write it down.
It brought me a fascinating read.
I have read books about David Livingstone, the Scotchman who travelled through southern Africa in the nineteenth century.
Who wrote books about his travels.
Who became famous in the British Empire.
Who tried to banish slavery.
Who tried to find the source of the river Nile.
Who preached the gospel.
Who tried to find entries for commerce.
Petina Gappah has done her research but her novel (!) is not about David Livingstone. She even claims that her book is fiction and bears no resemblance at all to any events, places or people, dead or alive, who dart around in her book. But still ….
As I wrote, this book is not about David Livingstone.
It is about the people around him.
The people who travelled with him, before and after his death.
David Livingstone died on the first of May in the year 1873. The place where he died was situated on southeastern shores of Lake Bangweulu (now Zambia), in a village run buy chief Chitango. The first main part of the book is narrated by a woman called Halima. She hails from Zanzibar where her mother worked in the household of the Liwali. Later on in life she became a slave and was redeemed by David Livingstone. She became the cook of Livingstone and he wrote in his journals about this witty and sharp-tongued lady, who kept on talking about her mother during the ‘good old days’ in the household of the Liwali. Within the entourage of Livingstone she lives with Amoda, one of the leading men in the group. With the death of Livingstone she looks back on her life and the time she shared with Livingstone and others. Livingstone has promised her a house and a garden on the island of Zanzibar, to be home in freedom. Through her eyes we see the impact on the group of the death of the Doctor. We see how others in the group like her ‘husband’ and Susi and Chuma try to make decisions and to relate to the new situation. The main question is: what to do with the body of the Doctor? Should he be buried here, on the spot? Are there other options? Halima proposes other options, not afraid to speak out in front of the men.
In the second main part of the book we encounter Jacob Wainwright, also part of the entourage of Livingstone. He was raised as a Yao boy, was captured by Arab slave traders, was rescued at sea by the British and brought to Bombay where he received an education as one of the Nassick boys, who stayed at the Nassick African Asylum. When the entourage of Livingstone (with other Nassick Boys or Bombay Christians, like Casus Farrar) had made the decision to bury the heart of Livingstone on the spot and dry the corpse in order to carry it to the Coast Jacob Wainwright kept a journal. He also made sure that the belongings of the Doctor were kept safe and traveled with the group to the Coast. The journal of Wainwright shows a man with a high esteem of himself. He wants to be ordained in London and preach the Gospel in Africa and fight slavery. He writes in his journal about the journey, the difficulties, the northern route to try to avoid the routes taken by slave traders. Through the eyes of Halima and Jacob we meet many of the people who undertook the hazardous journey to Bagamoyo. We learn the names of those who died or were killed on the way to the Coast. Not just the familiar names of Susi and Chuma. We meet Chirango who in the end spoke out against the incursions of strangers, be they white or Arab.
In the third main part ‘Bagamoyo’ we look back at the events surrounding the death of Livingstone and the journey to the Coast. We meet bibi Halima, living on Zanzibar in her stone house with a beautifully decorated door (her own design). She keeps in touch with her memories and she longs to see Susi again, who has taken up his work as a sailor. Often she wanders to the harbour with the hope of meeting him again. We see what happened with Jacob Wainwright after he travelled to London to be present at the funeral of Livingstone, later he lived for a short time on the island of Zanzibar in dire circumstances and then moved to the Kingdom of Buganda where he worked at the court of the Kabaka with all his abilities and his knowledge of the western ways. And with a more humble attitude.
Petina Gappah has done a great job writing the novel. Bringing to light the people who travelled with the precious cargo. David Livingstone wanted to bring Light to the continent of Darkness. Gappah has brought light to the entourage of Livingstone. In this way she erected a statue.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light
Scribner New York 2019