Dr. David Livingstone died in May of 1873 in a village called Chitambo (in present day Zambia), located in central Africa. His African attendants buried his heart there, embalmed his body, and then transported it along with his papers over 1500 miles to Zanzibar so that they could be returned to England. The journey took 200+ days and two of the men on the trip Susi and Chuma gave a short account of it, mentioning illness and deaths within the travel party and other dangers along the way. In Out of Darkness, Shining Light, Petina Gappah imagines this journey through the eyes of two other members of that party: a female African cook and freed bondswoman named Halima and a freed slave turned missionary named Jacob Wainwright. Both of these people really existed and Wainwright did write his own journal (recently made available online) about his time with Dr. Livingstone. Author Gappah uses these characters and the transporting of Livingstone’s body as a way to examine colonialism’s lasting impact on the continent and its peoples.
Livingstone spent many years in Africa searching for the source of the Nile. As party to his expeditions, Livingstone retained native people as guides, map-makers, cooks, and so on. A minister and doctor, he abhorred the slave trade and sometimes bought slaves their freedom so that they could join him. Halima is one such case and the novel opens with her narration. She is proud of her history and frequently talks of it not just to the reader but to the other members of Livingstone’s traveling party (one gets the sense that they roll their eyes anytime she brings up her past). Halima, the cook for the expedition, was born to a slave in Zanzibar and was raised in the house of a rich and powerful man. Her mother was favored there, and Halima was exposed to finery and greatness. Livingstone bought Halima from a slave trader as a companion for an attendant named Amoda. Livingstone told Halima that when his travels ended, he would buy her a house with a garden. When Livingstone, aka Bwana Daudi, is found dead, having been ill for some time, Halima and the others mourn, yet Halima also expresses to us her inability to make sense of the man’s obsession with the Nile and the abandonment of his family to find something so useless.
Jacob Wainwright’s history is similar to Halima’s in that he also was enslaved. Jacob’s uncle sold the boy and his family to slavers after the death of his father. British war ship captured the slave boat and freed those on board, including Jacob. Jacob’s gratitude for what the British did for him is deeply ingrained in him. He and the other freed boys are sent to a church-run school in India, The Nassick School, where they learn English language and manners as well as a trade. Jacob’s dream is to become an ordained minister and then a missionary in Africa, converting those who would have enslaved him. Jacob is a great admirer of Dr. Livingstone and applies to become an attendant on one of his early expeditions in Africa but is rejected due to his young age. Jacob feels slighted and is resentful. Through his narration, the reader sees Jacob’s sense of self importance, his arrogance. He knows he is smarter than his classmates and called by God to lead others to salvation. Jacob eventfully makes it back to Africa as part of Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone. He then joins Livingstone, thinking that the great man makes a priority of Christian conversion of the natives. His disappointment is palpable when he discovers that Livingstone has not even converted his own assistants and that he helps the men procure women and allows them to live in sin without marriage. Like Halima, he does not see much point to searching for the source of the Nile when conversion is so much more important.
The characters Halima and Jacob don’t think much of each other. Halima laughs at Jacob’s uptight ways, his wearing of impractical English clothing, his disdain for others in the party and his obvious attraction to Ntaoeke, another female attendant. Jacob thinks Halima is a terrible gossip and ignorant woman. He thinks that women and children should not be involved in Livingstone’s travels at all, as they are an encumbrance and distraction.
One important thing that Halima and Jacob have in common though is that they are both taken in by Chirango. Chirango is another member of Livingstone’s party and perhaps the most interesting character in the book. If David Livingstone embodied the promise of a future without slavery, where Jacob could become a missionary and Halima a free woman with a house of her own, then Chirango represents reality. Chirango tells his fellow travelers that he came from a great family that ruled a land where they were sultans until the Portuguese came and took it from them. Chirango stirs up a lot of trouble within the party, stealing and trying to buy a couple of child slaves of his own. Chirango has a number of ugly run-ins with authority, and he seems to be a tricky, greedy, unreliable man. His actions and his words at the end of this novel are a stunning rebuke to his traveling companions and would generate a lot of discussion in a classroom or book group.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a mesmerizing read. The characters have stayed with me long after finishing the story, and I find myself thinking frequently about “great men” such as Livingstone and the unnamed and unknown peoples they encountered. I think about the promises these men made, what they represented, and the aftermath of their expeditions in Africa and elsewhere. The slave trade that they condemned may have ended, but the exploitation of the continent was just beginning.