Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah
What do we know of Dr. David Livingstone? Certainly he is no longer a household topic of conversation. Dr. Livingstone was the English explorer who was determined to find the source of the Nile River. That’s about the extent of what I knew, and it almost seems quaint that he devoted his time, efforts and ultimately his life in that pursuit, the world being so small now and all. We are all familiar with the phrase rumored to be spoken by Dr. Stanley upon finding the wandering Dr. Livingstone, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” We don’t know that actually happened. Somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of my brain I vaguely recall he was buried in England but his heart was buried in Africa. I wish I knew how I knew that but as I read this book and before I got to that part of the story the memory percolated forward in my mind. But that’s about it. That’s about what I knew.
One of my favorite things about books and authors is learning the story behind the story. That’s what this book is. Of course, if we think about it we realize if Dr. Livingstone was going to wander Africa for years looking for the head of a river he was going to need help. We forget that part. We forget the porters, guides, cooks, slaves, and villages encountered en-route. We forget that Dr. Livingstone was wandering during the time slavers were rounding up people to transport across the ocean. We forget the hierarchy of sultans and chiefs and what it’s like travelling through lands not acquainted with a crazy white man’s ways. We also forget that all of these people are so much a part of Dr. Livingstone’s story and he couldn’t have had his story without them.
When the time came and Dr. Livingstone dies his companions must decide where to bury him and once the decision is made they must decide how to carry forward with their decision and then do it. And that’s the story behind the story. Not the white man’s story but the people’s. It’s in the first sentence: “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 story behind this story is told by two people, Halima, Dr. Livingstone’s cook, she was devoted to him but didn’t spare words when she had to stand up to him. And Jacob Wainwright a freed slave. As this story is told through these two it is also told through the lens of slavery and the hypocracy of owning them, not through the lens of white man’s history.
Fascinating, absolutely fascinating.