Jan/Feb 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

Out of Darkness, Shining Light

Review by Ann Skea

Out of Darkness, Shining Light.
Petina Gappah.
Faber. 2019. 302 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 34533 5.

(Being a Faithful Account of the Final Years and Earthly Days of Doctor David Livingstone and His Last Journey from the Interior to the Coast of Africa, as Narrated by His African Companions, in Three Volumes)

This sounds like the voice of Jacob Wainwright, who was one of seven former slaves employed by Livingstone on his expedition to find the source of the Nile. These young men had been rescued from slavers by British Gunboats and educated in a missionary school in Nassik in India, before being returned to their homeland. Jacob, as we get to know him through his (fictional) journal, is earnest, proud, ambitious, and exceedingly godly. His journal entries are written in the style of an 18th century novel like Pamela or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, and they are laced with praise to "The God of Israel and the God of Moses" and with Jacob's own religious ambitions. Jacob, however, has his weaknesses, and as he inadvertently reveals in his account, he is especially fallible when Ntaoéka (who is described by our other narrator, Halima, as "a beautiful trouble-maker") seems to favor him.

First, however, we meet Halima, who was, in fact, David Livingstone's female African cook. She is talkative, sociable, opinionated, acute in her opinions of others, and often very funny. In re-creating Halima, Petina Gappah has relied for facts on Livingstone's diaries and on other contemporary accounts of the expedition. She begins her early chapters with extracts from these documents, but she has used her imagination to bring all her characters to life.

Halima's voice is quite different from that of Jacob Wainwright. She laughs, sings, gossips, loves to speculate on the motives of others, and enjoys the company of Susi, one of the senior porters, although she knows this stirs the jealousy of her husband, Amoda, and of Susi's "roadwoman," Misosi. She voices her opinions boldly and can be sharp-tongued with anyone, including Livingstone. When he is not writing but wants to chat with her about trivial things, she gets impatient:

"There is a lot of work," I said, "and I cannot stand here chatting, so if you don't mind, could you move off to bother someone else?"

But Halima is intelligent, and it is she who persuades the group to carry Livingstone's body back to the coast.

She begins with the facts:

"This is how we carried out of Africa the poor broken body of Bwana Daudi, the Doctor, David Livingstone, so that he could be borne across the sea and buried in his own land. For more than one thousand and five hundred miles, from the interior to the western [sic] coast, we marched with his body... two hundred and eighty-five days after we left Chitambo, we reached Bagamoyo, that place of sorrow, whose very name means to lay to rest the burden of your heart."

Halima tells us much about Livingstone, his habits and foibles, his interaction with the tribal chiefs through whose territories they pass, and the way in which he treats those who accompany him and conducts his expedition. She tells us of her own former life as proud daughter of the favored slave/cook of the of Liwali (Sultan) of Zanzibar; how she was passed on to a Muslim judge; then sold to an Arab merchant; then bought by Livingstone as a wife for Amoda and promised her freedom when the expedition ended. She tells us a great deal, too, about the background and the behavior of other members of the expedition.

Jacob Wainwright, who discusses "the Unnecessary Presence of Women in Expeditions," naturally has a poor opinion of Halima. Astonished to hear that Doctor had purchased her as a wife for Amoda, he writes that she is...

"...a particularly troublesome woman, given to much levity and unable, apparently, to think seriously on any matter. Her propensity for causing quarrels among the women is great. The Apostle James may have written about her when he said: even so the tongue is a little member and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!"

Between them, Jacob and Halima describe a remarkable expedition, a remarkable journey across Africa: unfriendly tribes, deceit, magic, warfare, deaths, and a world where slavery, although abolished in England, was still a very real part of African lives.

Through her narrators, Petina Gappah has given a voice to the lively group of Africans who were essential to David Livingstone's last expedition, and who cared enough for him to make sure his bones and his diaries and documents were saved and returned to his own country. She shows, too, how slavery was still endemic in Africa at this time; how terrifying it was for the expedition members to see evidence of the way some notorious slave-trading tribal chiefs captured and mistreated men, women and children; and how even fervent abolitionists like David Livingstone still benefited from slavery. Her skill has made this story enjoyable, interesting, and thought-provoking.

To give the last word to Halima:

"On the long and perilous journey to bring him home, ten of our party lost their lives. There were no stones to mark the places where they rest, no epitaphs to announce their deaths. And when we who remain follow where they led, no pilgrims will come to show their children where we lie. But out of that great and troubling darkness, came shining light. Our sacrifice burnished the glory of his life."


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