Writers & Company

Zimbabwe's Petina Gappah casts new light on David Livingstone's search for the source of the Nile

The Zimbabwean lawyer and writer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her fascination with the 19th-century explorer and his obsession with one of the world’s longest waterways.
Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean lawyer and writer. (Henry Oliver Hakulandaba)

When Petina Gappah was a child, she read a story about the 19th-century explorer, missionary and doctor David Livingstone and his famous (and failed) search for the source of the Nile River. 

Now the acclaimed Zimbabwean novelist and short story writer has reimagined Livingstone in her own book, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, focusing on his many African servants and companions. 

Gappah recreates the journey undertaken by Livingstone's African retinue to bring his body from present-day Zambia, where he died in 1873, to Zanzibar, on the east coast of the continent.

Centering on two voices — Halima, a young woman slave; and Jacob, a pious young man educated by missionaries — Out of Darkness, Shining Light is an exploration of power, violence and resilience in pre-colonial Africa. 

Gappah won the 2009 Guardian First Book Award for her short story collection An Elegy for Easterly, which was also shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. She was described by the jury as "a master of tragicomedy." 

Gappah spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Edinburgh.   

A love for adventure

"I used to read a lot of adventure stories. The first book I read in which black people appeared — [albeit] more as objects than subjects — was King Solomon's Mines.

I loved Treasure Island, Westward Ho! —  anything that had adventure in it.

"We read it as a class when I was 12 years old. I loved Treasure Island, Westward Ho! — anything that had adventure in it. I loved ships. I loved the idea of sailing away.

"The idea that this Scottish man, David Livingstone, left his country to come to Africa to look for the source of the Nile, seemed to me like a wonderful adventure."

Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone, circa 1860. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dr. Livingstone, we presume? 

"[Livingstone was drawn to] the thrill of being the first to unravel this great mystery [of the Nile]. It wasn't just a mystery that had obsessed his own generation — the Victorian explorers and their admiring public — it was also a mystery that had been with mankind since the beginning of knowledge. You had Herodotus talking about 'the four fountains, rising out of the Earth.' 

It wasn't just a mystery that had obsessed his own generation. It was also a mystery that had been with mankind since the beginning of knowledge.

"It's a mystery that had preoccupied men of learning for many years. The idea that somebody could be the first to actually unravel this mystery — I can totally understand why Livingston was so obsessed with the idea."

A map of Central and Southern Africa made at approximately the time of the voyages of Livingstone. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hearing of Halima

"Until I started digging into the history of expedition life, and reading Livingstone's journals, I didn't know that there were some women in these parties. I had always thought of it as a very male enterprise. But there were actually women that travelled with the different explorers, some as 'road women,' or companions to the expedition leaders and some would be picked up on the roads to be washerwomen or employed as cooks.

"Halima was employed by David Livingston as his cook. What happened was his expedition leader took a fancy to her when they met at one of their stops. Halima was the slave of an Arab merchant. David Livingston persuaded the Arab merchant to part with her to keep his expedition leader happy. 

"That's how Halima came into Livingston's employ and life. The way Livingstone writes about Halima is what gave me the inspiration to create the character. In his journal, he talks about how she is 'the best spoke in the wheel'; she's a good soul with an honest heart and she has an outrageous tongue.

The way Livingstone writes about Halima is what gave me the inspiration to create the character.

"Henry Stanley, in his own journal entry about how he met Livingstone, also writes about Halima and how he could hear the sound of a furious gossip as they sat talking.

"I had great pleasure in making her an absolute chatterbox who is also a very good observer — a very acute observer of human life. She is sharply intelligent, but has no frame of reference for what she observes."

Henry Stanley and David Livingstone are paddled by African natives along the Ruzizi river. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Myriad motives

"The loyalty of Livingstone's companions is something that I actually set out to investigate: under those circumstances, was it truly loyalty that motivated them to do this extraordinary thing of carrying his body for nine months?

"I found that, because there were so many of them — there were about 70 people in the party — loyalty certainly would have been a factor. There may have been other motives as well, such as sheer greed or fear. Some of them may have thought that they would be rewarded for carrying his body. Some may have thought that if they didn't bring back evidence of his death, they might be accused of having killed him.

The loyalty of Livingstone's companions is something that I actually set out to investigate.​​​​​

"There were no white people around the village where he died. Some of them would probably have felt that carrying back his body was a show of goodwill — and to show he died a natural death. 

"In a party of so many people, there would have been different motives for doing such an extraordinary thing."

The coffin of explorer David Livingstone lying in state in the Map Room at the Royal Geographical Society, April 1874. (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Livingstone's legacy

"The president of the Republic of Zambia actually led a service of thanksgiving for the spirit of David Livingston. That tells you a little bit about how David Livingstone is remembered in Africa. He benefits from the fact that he wasn't a colonial explorer; he was precolonial.

"He did contribute — unwittingly, unknowingly — after his death to the Scramble for Africa. But he didn't go into Africa in the way that Stanley did, as an emissary of the king of Belgium.

He did contribute — unwittingly, unknowingly — after his death to the Scramble for Africa.

"Livingstone wasn't anyone's colonial agent. He went in with the intention of looking for the source of the Nile and with the intention of Christianizing the continent — at which he failed abysmally — and with the intention of ending the slave trade, in which he only succeeded in his death.

"Livingstone is associated with Christianity and with ending the slave trade. Those are the two things for which he is admired by contemporary Africans, even today."

Petina Gappah's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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