Centering the Other: A review of Petina Gappah’s “Out of Darkness, Shining Light”– Toni Kan
Out of Darkness, Shining Light is Petina Gappah’s fourth book and second novel and like her other works her trademark wit shines though as does her pre-occupation with the lives of the ordinary people whose quotidian shenanigans imbue the narrative with gravitas.
The story is about the death of Doctor David Livingstone, explorer and adventurer and somewhat missionary. After the good doctor’s death at Chitambo, his faithful servants decide that it would be a good thing to carry his corpse to the coast from where he would be ferried to England.
So begins a journey from Chitambo through dangerous territory filled with slavers and wild men. This is a narrative constructed on an epic scale but instead of great men doing great deeds we have ordinary men doing extra-ordinary things.
Petina Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light is historical fiction of the first order. Set centuries before, it tells the story of one of the most humane explorers to journey through Africa. Livingstone came to Africa in search of the source of the Nile. Following Herodotus’ writings, the scot arrives Africa and spends years scouring the interior, tracing the four rivers of Zambezi, Kafue, Luapula and Lamame in what we now realize was a fruitless exercise. The composite drawn by Ms. Gappah’s words is of a poor explorer and poorer evangelist whose quixotic search is more suited to an anthropologist than adventurer.
Livingstone is in love with Africa and its people and it is only fitting that they in turn return the love after his passing by committing to travel thousands of miles and hundreds of days, his corpse borne aloft as they journey to return his remains to the land of his fathers.
That journey is undertaken by 70 men, drawn from slaves and free men, women and children who travel turgid with hope and love. Centuries later, in the stories that have been told of that journey, only two names have shone forth, Susi and Chuma. The others, as is usual with colonial narratives have been elided, as if only two men could have made that perilous journey.
In writing her novel, Gappah shines a bright light on the traveling party, bring into sharp relief the remaining 68 people, and by so doing provides them a fitting epitaph. This is instructive and impressive in a world where to quote Pericles, “the whole earth is a tomb for famous men.”
Where is the tomb for the not so famous and great? Where are their stories told? How are they remembered? Out of Darkness, Shining Light is that rare memorial for the forgotten and the ordinary, men and women whose single lives might have amounted to nothing but whose collective endeavours are the stuff of legend.
Meet Halima, David Livingstone’s cook and former slave whose motor mouth makes her a delightful narrator. Consider Amoda, a leader of men who is never slow to get his hands dirty as he sets an example of hard work. Witness Chirango, king-in-exile or maybe not, who approximates to that Soyinkean line – “his eyes are shifty and his ways are sly.” Get acquainted with Jacob Wainwright, scribe and Christian, the most repulsive yet fascinating character you may encounter in fiction. His self-absorption and self-righteousness make for deep psychological study. Then welcome the other members of this sprawling cast – The Nassickers, the Askaris, the Pagazis and the women from the beautiful Ntaoeka to the slow Misozi, from Carus Farrar to Majwara and then innocent Losi amongst others.
Petina Gappah’s novel is a devastating deconstruction of colonial narrative. It is a post-colonial treatise that offers a takedown of the persistent colonial narrative of absence and darkness. This is a companion piece to Achebe’s riposte to Joseph Conrad in his essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”. Where Conrad and many of his ilk saw absence and darkness, Ms. Gappah portrays a people who lived and loved and built civilizations albeit imperfect.
By reversing the role of the narrator and making the so-called Caliban speak, Petina Gappah thrusts the “Other” from the periphery into the center by some centripetal alchemy and it is a double whammy for colonial narratives because we do not just hear an African voice, it is also the voice of a woman. A being twice “Othered” assumes a centrality that is ennobling. The novel is on that note a political treatise – anticolonial and feminist to boot.
Halima’s irreverent narrative opens with an emphatic declaration: “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.”
The emphatic tone does not permit nor invite questioning. This is the definitive story and Petina Gappah tells it with aplomb, segueing between notes left in Livingstone’s extant journals as well as those by the American journalist, Henry Morton Stanley who was sent to find Livingstone after the good doctor disappeared for over five years.
Ms. Gappah infuses into the narrative, a fictional journal by Jacob Wainwright in a sleight of hand that is at once funny yet revealing. Written in Victorian style with all the flourishes and affectation, it punctures the lie that Africans were illiterate and uncouth. Wainwright for all his self-absorption is proof that the colonial (pre-colonial) enterprise produced some success.
But it is success tainted by melanin as Reverend Isenberg is quick to remind Jacob. “Well, well. Let us not get ahead of ourselves because you do, of course, labor under the unfortunate disadvantage of being black.”
Jacob Wainwright has seen the light and has become more Christian than the missionaries but is so clearly unaware of the Albert Schweitzer quote: “The African is my brother but he is my younger brother by several centuries.”
And this is why European explorers will come to Africa and suddenly ‘discover’ rivers where our forebears have bathed in for centuries. That is why Livingstone will deign to name a river after his dog, Chitane.
Ms. Gappah in confronting this absurdity puts the words in the mouth of the loquacious yet wise and perceptive Halima’s who tells Susi that “there are no such spots, for there have been people everywhere.”
Petina Gappah’s novel is an important addition to postcolonial literature from Africa. It is a historical as well as an anthropological treatise. It also is an anti-slave narrative and indictment of imunity. Her account of the massacre at Manyuema will tug at your heart long after you have read the last page on account of her matter-of-fact-no-frills presentation of a bloody incident that marked the beginning of the end for David Livingstone.
But it is finally a portrait, a composite of a great man, drawn by simple men and women, Africans who even after his death paid him a fitting tribute one that validates Livingstone’s journal entry – I have found it difficult to come to a conclusion on their character. They sometimes perform actions remarkably good, and sometimes as strangely the opposite. I have been unable to ascertain the motive for the good, or account for the callousness of conscience with which they perpetrate the bad. After long observation