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: Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. New York: Penguin, 1994 (originally published 1959).

Summary: First of a trilogy portraying the confrontation of Igbo tribal culture and Christian missions and British colonialism.

Chinua Achebe described his youth in Nigeria as growing up “at the crossroads of cultures,” speaking Igbo at home, and English at school. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe portrays the initial intersection of these two cultures. He does so through a rising tribal leader in the village of Umuofia, Okonkwo. The story unfolds in three parts.

The first simultaneously develops the character of Okonkwo, and the sophistication of Igbo culture. Okonkwo grows up in reaction to a “devil may care” father, Unoka, who gains no titles, dies in debt, and in the Evil Forest of a swelling in the stomach, left unburied. Okonkwo strives for a different destiny. He wins a legendary wrestling match, is successful in farming yams, the staple crop, acquires three wives, and two of the four titles leaders in the village may obtain. He is a rising tribal leader.

Factors inward and outward keep unraveling this vision. He becomes the adoptive father of a hostage boy, Ikemefuna, who represents the qualities his own eldest son, Nwoye, lacks. Eventually, the tribal elders decree his death. Okonkwo is given the opportunity to not participate, yet he ends up striking the death blow, to not be thought weak This act shatters his relationship with Nwoye, who had also become close with Ikemefuna. Meanwhile, he has a daughter, Ezinma, who when near death, he heals and has the character he hoped for in his sons. The first part ends with a second death, when Okonkwo fires his gun during a wedding celebration. The gun explodes, a sixteen year old boy dies, and he is forced into exile with his family.

Part one also describes tribal life, its social customs, its healing practices, its commerce, its ways of resolving conflict, and the ways weddings are negotiated. It is obviously very different from European culture, and their are elements that would not be understood by outsiders, like exposing twin babies in the Evil Forest. But it is sophisticated, providing ways for men and women, and neighboring tribes to navigate their relationships with each other.

Part Two describes Okonkwo’s life in exile. He is supported by his friend Obierika, rebuked and encouraged by the members of his mother’s family, and nourished on the vision of how he will re-establish himself when he returns to Umuofia. It is during this time that Christian missionaries arrive in Mbanta, where he is living in exile. For the most part, they are an object of derision, except for the outcasts who are raised up. More significantly, the alienation of Okonkwo and his son, Nwoye is completed when Nwoye converts. Achebe describes the change that occurs in Nwoye:

“It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow.. The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted his young soul–the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed”

The church remains on the margins in Mbanta while Okonkwo throws a farewell feast in grand style.

Things are different back in Umuofia. There the mission work and the British who have come with them have made much greater inroads. The Reverend Brown, realizing that the traditional beliefs are strong, opens a school and a hospital. Tribal sons learn to read and write the language of the English and learn the stories of Christianity as they do. The medicine of the hospital is more powerful than tribal remedies in healing. The local trading post pays high prices for their palm oil. Their courts and officials establish English laws that resolve conflicts differently, and hang those who take lives. Okonkwo sees how these changes are undermining the tribe and tries to mobilize resistance, particularly when a different missionary takes a less irenic and a more culturally insensitive approach. As the title suggests, “things fall apart,” both for Okonkwo, the tragic hero, and the tribe.

Achebe’s portrayal helps us understand that the Igbo were not “savages,” but had a rich culture. Yet he also doesn’t dismiss the compelling character of the Christian message, particularly as it is portrayed in the words and deeds of Brown, who is highly respected, and respectfully discusses theology with tribal leaders who disagree with him. He gains through goodness. More troubling is the partnership between the missionaries and the colonial power, determined to subdue the tribes to colonial rule. The power of this novel is that it doesn’t resort to a simple binary of saying tribal life was good, the coming of Christianity bad, or the reverse. Rather, he portrays both the nobility and and fallibility of the people and institutions in both cultures, and the transition from one way of life to another, welcome by some, wrenching for others. Most of all, he helps us see all this from the perspective of the supposedly “primitive tribes” who were “pacified,” the title language used by the colonial commissioner for the book he was writing. He helps us see that these tribes were far from primitive, and that their encounter with colonialism was far from peaceful.

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.


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.