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.

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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 Triangle

the triangle

The Triangle, Nakisanze Segawa. Middletown, DE: Mattville Publishing House, 2016.

Summary: Set in Buganda, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the novel narrates through the eyes of three figures intra-tribal struggles fed by competing colonial powers, weakening African rule, and ultimately leading to colonial rule under the British.

Nakisanze Segawa is a Ugandan writer and performance poet. She has contributed short stories to various anthologies, writes for the Daily Monitor and Global Press Journal. This is her first full-length novel.

The Triangle looks at the transition from tribal to colonial rule in Buganda (modern day Uganda) through three characters, each dependent in different ways upon the tribal chief or kabaka, Mwanga (Mwanga is an actual figure in Bugandan history). Nagawa is Mwanga’s second wife, hoping to bear a son who will eventually be kabaka, before one of the other co-wives. Kalinda is one of the kabaka’s pages, a servant in the royal court, and an intimate in several senses of the kabaka, who seems of late to have lost favor. Reverend Clement is a Church of England missionary, seeking to win converts, which means convincing people to leave the traditional ways, while yet courting the favor of the kabaka.

“Triangle” is a fitting image for the progression of this story, not only because of this particular set of three characters, but other triangles that run through the book. “Triangles” in relationships often reflect either three competing parties, or one party caught in a tension between two others. Such tensions run through the book. There are three wives all wanting to bear the future kabaka. Court pages, compete for the favor, including the sexual favors, wanted or forced, of the kabaka, who seems more interested in them than his wives, particular Nagawa. Sekitto, in particular has become the new favorite of the kabaka, supplanting Kalinda, and the increasingly disfavored Bukenya, a Catholic convert who has the temerity to plead for the life of a Bishop who did not take the approved but longer route to Buganda.

A religious triangle of Anglicans, Catholics, and Muslims, compete for the religious affections, and control of the kabaka-ship. Back of these religious interests are commercial and colonial interests of Muslims, French and English.  Mwanga has two brothers, who also are in line for the position of kabaka if Mwanga can be displaced.

As one may imagine, the noble aspirations, the commonplace longings for a peaceable existence, and the baser instincts of people clash. The kabaka and his premier recognize the encroaching threat of Christianity upon tribal ways and leadership, resulting at one point in Clement’s imprisonment, and his witness of the horrible martyrdom of both Anglican and Catholic converts. Brothers with Muslim allies succeed in deposing Mwanga who flees in exile, along with Christians who eventually become his allies. Kalinda aids in the overthrow, obtains high office, and then flees in turn when one brother eliminates the other, and Muslim control of tribal leadership becomes complete.

The latter part of the book chronicles Mwanga’s exile and plots to regain his position, bringing him increasingly under the sway of Reverend Clement and his British friends. Clement’s work becomes as much about guns as the gospel and we begin to see how the spiritually motivated missionary becomes entangled in imperial interests.

Segawa’s triangle of central characters around the embattled kabaka, Mwanga lead us into the competing and interlocking tensions that help us understand something of the dynamics of how an African kingdom might have been fatally undermined leading to British control under the British East Africa Company. Even as we root for Nagawa to conceive a child, for Kalinda to survive through the shifting alliances, we also see a ruler struggling to maintain a way of life during the colonial powers “Scramble for Africa.” We witness the nobility and courage of converts to Christianity as they are martyred, and the compromises with temporal power made by missions that undermined the spiritual power of their message. Segawa weaves all of this together in a powerful first novel.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.