Out of Africa: David Livingstone’s servants preserve his legacy

Petina Gappah’s novel “Out of Darkness, Shining Light” imagines what the 19th-century explorer’s African servants thought of his quest. 

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster
“Out of Darkness, Shining Light” by Petina Gappah, Scribner, 320 pp.

History books tell the story of David Livingstone, the 19th-century explorer and physician who spent years searching for the source of the Nile River. The familiar tale is generally told as the accomplishments of one man. Petina Gappah’s work of historical fiction addresses this lapse, providing the imagined voices of two others vital to his efforts: the real-life figures of Halima, an enslaved young woman who served as expedition cook; and Jacob Wainwright, an East African who preached as a Christian missionary and was Livingstone’s secretary.

The two were among those who tended to Livingstone during the time of colonial rule in Africa. The book, though, recounts their final service. When he dies, they help construct a monument in the village where they bury his heart. The pair are among dozens of workers who transport Livingstone’s body and his notebooks more than 1,000 miles to the coast for safe transport back to England. Without this generous act, Livingstone’s final work would likely have been lost. What history lost, of course, were the voices of Africans who made his story possible. 

The strenuous journey, an act of supreme devotion, provides the two attendants with an occasion for self-reflection. Halima, clear-eyed and sharp-tongued, perseveres through the hardships, but questions whether the man deserves her devotion. Livingstone, after all, had left his wife and family to pursue his research despite their needing him at home. If he lacked dedication to his own family, does he deserve it from others? 

Jacob Wainwright, freed from slavery and educated by Christian missionaries, uses the trek as an opportunity to read Livingstone’s journals, as he hopes to publish his own writing. What he discovers in the pages is a man who spoke out against slavery but relied upon the slave trade to expand his explorations. Wainwright, too, begins to wonder if the man they revered is unworthy of their efforts. 

Gappah, a Zimbabwean writer with a law degree from Cambridge, poured years of research into her novel, which is apparent in the rich detail found in its pages. Her vibrant story exposes not only Livingstone’s hypocrisy, but also the growing doubts of Halima and Jacob. She shines a light on colonial Africa and the evils of the slave trade, but in the midst of this darkness, she gives voice to those whose sacrifices were unheralded. While Livingstone's heart was buried in Africa, it was the generous hearts of his servants that helped his work survive. 

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