Review: Out of Darkness, Shining Light

out of darkness

Out of Darkness, Shining Light, Petina Gappah. New York: Scribners, 2019.

Summary: A historical fiction narrative, told in two voices, of the attendants of Dr. David Livingstone, who with a large company carried the body of Livingstone from Chitambo, where he died, to Zanzibar, a journey of over 1500 miles and 285 days.

Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer who offers us an African perspective on the last journey of Dr. David Livingstone, through the eyes and words of two of his attendants, part of the group that carried his body 1500 miles so that it might be returned to Livingstone’s people.

The story is told through Halima, who Livingstone had purchased in a slave market, assigned as a “travel wife” of Amoda, the leader of the party, with the promise of her manumission at the end of the journey, and of Jacob Wainwright, a freed slave trained in a mission school in India for mission work.

I suspect most people will much prefer the voice of Halima. She is practical and resilient and discerning in her insights into the character of others. She is a survivor with a sharp tongue. She reads the flighty character of Ntaoéka and the shifty and deceitful character of Chirango. When the men decide to transport the body of Livingstone back to Zanzibar, she is the one who figures out how to preserve his body by drying it in the sun, first removing the viscera, including the heart, which is buried in Chitambo.

Wainwright has the insufferable air of a recent convert, sanctimonious and judgmental of others, but, beyond his judgments, one who gave a meticulous account of the actual journey. His account is the longer of the two, covering the actual journey. In the process, we see his own hypocrisy, as he succumbs to Ntaoéka’s charms, and falls under the power of Chirango, who promises to “protect” their secret.

The narrative of returning this body, something unheard of, and questionable to some in the party, both accentuates the flaws of individuals, including murderous ones, as well as the resilience and determination of those who make this journey. While these aspects are in the foreground in much of the novel, they exist against the background of the slave trade, which determined a much longer route taken to the coast, one nevertheless lined with the bodies of dead slaves abandoned, tied to trees. There is also the quixotic quest of Livingstone for the source of the Nile, unsuccessful but paving the way for missionaries and then the colonial powers who sent them. This is the Livingstone who is an abolitionist, and yet subjugates Africans to his quest, including the buying of slave women to be “travel wives.” Then there are the missionaries who later on refuse to let Jacob Wainwright, who has converted a number of Africans, be any more than a lowly assistant.

Gappah spent more than ten years researching this work and provides a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, unusual for historical fiction. She offers a narrative at once riveting as a chronicle of a heroic journey of sacrifice, and revelatory, as an account of the impact upon Africans of the coming, in succession of the slave trader, the explorer, the missionary and the colonial interests. Ironically, in this instance, the Africans who embark on this heroic journey, for all their faults, show greater respect for the person and the faith of Livingstone than is shown for their persons and their faith by those who would convert and conquer them.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Fate of Africa

Fate of AfricaThe Fate of Africaby Martin Meredith, New York: PublicAffairs, 2006.

Summary: Meredith, a foreign correspondent who has made a lifelong study of Africa, chronicles the last 50 years of African history from the hopes of independence from colonial rule and promising beginnings through the heartbreaking instances of corruption, economic pillaging, and various slaughters and genocides including that of AIDS.

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi–“Out of Africa always something new.” Pliny the Elder

This epigraph at the beginning of this work is indeed apt. As a young man in the sixties, I learned of the independence from colonial rule achieved by various African states. In the seventies, I read of the brutal regime of Idi Amin. In the 80s, we listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland and its songs speaking of the beauties of Africa and the longings for freedom from apartheid. Our hearts were stirred by the transition from apartheid to black rule under Nelson Mandela in the 1990s. And then there were the heartbreaks of genocide in Rwanda and South Sudan, the brutal and corrupt regime of Robert Mugabe, and the devastation of HIV/AIDS throughout Africa.

While Africa emerges again and again in our news and collective consciousness, I am like many others in understanding relatively little about this huge continent and so I picked up this history to begin to redress that lack. What I found filled out my understanding while chronicling a largely heart-breaking history that left me with many questions.

Meredith begins by summarizing the colonial history and its arbitrary dividing up of Africa into colonial entities, often throwing together tribal groups significantly at odds with each other. Ethiopia alone succeeded in avoiding colonial rule. Western commercial enterprises harvested the wealth of Africa while, in sub-Saharan Africa Christian missions promoted education, health care, as well as the faith.

He then chronicles the beginnings of independence first with Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah in 1957, and the high hopes he promoted of Pan-Africanism and African leaders leading independent nations. He then follows independence movements from country to country–Egypt, French-speaking Africa, other English colonies. With variations, the account is one of national institutions set up on Western models that gradually are dominated by single party rule, a strong man, with significant resources channeled into the pockets of corrupt politicians while depleting national economies and increasing international debt.

The book seems to from bad to worse until the final chapters on South Africa. We see the descent into the maelstrom of Somalia and Rwanda and the aftermath of bloody tribal war that led to the fall of Mobutu in Zaire. We read of the rampant spread of AIDS and the often inadequate responses of governmental figures and health officials to this generation-killing epidemic.

Meredith concludes the book with the miracle of South Africa, the ascent of Nelson Mandela, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the succession of Thabo Mbeki, at once skilled in fostering economic transition and yet paranoid of western science in dealing with HIV/AIDS.

The book leaves me with many questions, even though its accessible narrative enlarged my historical understanding. One is how tribal rivalries and national identities can be reconciled, a question at the heart of so many of the tragic conflicts on this continent. Another is, what can be done to develop the rule of law and leadership with integrity? A third question is how can the rest of the world community constructively engage with Africa without promoting new forms of colonialism or dependencies that thwart the indigenous development throughout this continent? As a Christian, I also found myself wondering whether there is a greater role for the church throughout Africa in promoting reconciliation and ethical practice, along the line of Desmond Tutu’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Sadly, there was evidence in the book that the church often divided along lines of tribal rivalries rather than functioning as a reconciling force.

The final thing I found myself curious about is whether there are good indigenous works of African history, rather than those written by westerners, which seem to dominate the book lists in this area? While I found Meredith both helpful and well informed, I still felt I was reading the work of an outside observer and feel the need to complement that with the work of someone writing from within the African context.

Review: Warrior Princess: Fighting for Life with Courage and Hope

Warrior Princess: Fighting for Life with Courage and Hope
Warrior Princess: Fighting for Life with Courage and Hope by Princess Kasune Zulu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You are a young girl growing up in middle class Zambia. You have dreams of becoming a broadcaster, and you are named Princess because your family is connected to tribal leaders. You begin to see people around you, mothers and fathers, grow thin, sicken and die from a mysterious illness. Children are orphaned. Then, first your own father, and then your mother succumb to the same illness. At the end of your mother’s life you make a desperate day’s journey to a hospital to obtain miconazole (a drug you can buy at any pharmacy in North America for athlete’s foot) only to arrive home to find she has passed. Now you are an orphan, caring for your siblings and trying to make your way.

The temptation is to secure help from “sugar daddies”, providing sexual favors in exchange. Eventually you marry a man who has had several wives because he can provide for you and your family. Meanwhile, you learn that the mysterious disease that took so many loved ones is HIV/AIDS and it becomes an urgent matter to know your status, even though your husband forbids it. Finally you learn that both you and your husband are HIV positive.

This story, and the amazing response of the author to this news is the narrative of this book. Princess, growing in her faith during this time, resolves “I shall not die before I die.” She educates herself about the disease, for which at this time there is no treatment. She realizes education and prevention are crucial and so starts a school in her home for orphaned children. She poses as a prostitute to educate truckers who were prime vectors of the disease. On one of her hitchhiking trips, she is picked up by a physician who has been looking for an HIV positive person to share her story to educate others. This leads to a radio program (remember that broadcasting dream?) called “Positively Living” that begins to educate her country about the disease.

She receives a prophecy that she will speak to world leaders and see the flag of the United States standing still. I won’t give everything in the book away but this prophecy is fulfilled in striking fashion.

The book is honest. Princess makes no attempt to cover the marital difficulties that led to her eventual divorce. Some may not approve of the choices she made in this marriage, or of tactics such as posing as a prostitute (yet of such is the human lineage of Jesus made up). Some may object to the fact that the book doesn’t take an “abstinence only” stance to prevention.

Yet this book is valuable in understanding the human cost of HIV/AIDS in Africa and the particular plight of women (who make up the majority of AIDS patients and often contract this from spouses). It also can help us grasp the powerful impact that a combined approach of development, education, and treatment and prevention aid can make in lowering disease incidence and improving the life of our fellow human beings in Africa.

View all my reviews