Out of Darkness, Shining Light, by Petina Gappah

Petina Gappah’s novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light, is based on the true story of David Livingstone‘s last (posthumous) journey. When Livingstone died in Ujiji (in what is now western Tanzania) in 1873, the members of his expedition buried his heart there before preserving the rest of his body and carrying him to Zanzibar so that it can be shipped back to the United Kingdom. Gappah’s narrators are pulled from the pages of Livingstone’s journal and from the journal written by a European-educated African man who joined Livingstone shortly before the explorer’s death. Halima, Livingstone’s cook, and Jacob Wainwright could not be more different—making for a tale that is often as humorous as it is harrowing.

Halima narrates the first third and part of the last section of Out of Darkness, Shining Light. Halima was born into slavery in Zanzibar, passed from one master to another, before she was purchased by Livingstone as a cook and “traveling woman” for one of his male employees. Through Halima’s story, we see the great man in more humble circumstances and at his less glorious moments. When Livingstone dies, her goal is to make sure she gets what she was promised: her freedom and a house of her own, at long last. She has a delightfully wicked sense of humor that I relished. I enjoyed her voice so much that I wished she had a larger part in this book.

An illustration of Livingstone’s body being transported to the coast, from an 1882 biography. (Image via Wikicommons)

Jacob Wainwright is not pragmatic. His goals are impossible (converting the entire continent). Most of all, he doesn’t see things as clearly as Halima. The only exception—and one of the more interesting parts of his narrative, to me—are his views on Livingstone. To white people, Livingstone is a great hero. No one looks too closely at his day-to-day actions. Wainwright is dismayed by Livingstone’s participation in the slave trade and his practice of having women accompany the expedition to keep the men “happy.” Wainwright is more upset, however, by Livingstone’s almost complete failure to evangelize. Wainwright’s deepest wishes to be a missionary unfortunately blind him to a lot of bad behavior.

Halima’s perspective shows us how Africans and African Arabs and Europeans have adapted to each other’s presence, while not glossing over the horrors of slavery and racism. Wainwright’s perspective reads as very European; I would diagnose him with an inferiority complex. Instead of hanging on to his own heritage, Wainwright tried to remake himself and remake every other African he encounters. In her author’s note, Gappah references The Scramble for Africa, a non-fiction book by Thomas Pakenham, that recounts the history of rapid colonialization at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. In Halima and Wainwright, I saw some of the same struggle for hearts, minds, and bodies.

While I wish there had been more Halima and less Wainwright in this book, I was fascinated by the interplay of their perspectives. I was also hooked by all the historical detail Gappah put into this novel—the names of peoples and places that don’t exist anymore, a novel that gives voice to Africans without a white person taking over. Out of Darkness, Shining Light is an amazing journey.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

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