IN HER LATEST novel, Petina Gappah reimagines the death of Scottish missionary and doctor David Livingstone, focusing on his African servants, the names history forgot. They are Christians, Muslims, healers, porters, women, and children: a family of strangers who band together to carry Livingstone’s body, marching more than 1,500 miles in 285 days, so his remains may be claimed in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, and returned to England.
Every name on this trip holds stories that could occupy a novel of their own. To encompass them, Gappah employs two distinct narrators: Halima and Jacob Wainwright.
Halima, the doctor’s cook, is known for her sharp tongue, which ridicules the caprice of men and repeatedly tells of her youth as a sultan’s slave. In the early days of the journey with Livingstone’s body, Halima mourns the doctor, whom she calls “Bwana (Master) Daudi,” like a paternal figure. Though the men on the journey take credit, she is the one who proposes a way to preserve the doctor’s corpse for the long road ahead.
But Halima’s love for the bwana does not prevent her from noting his contradictions. She wonders why he would leave his family to search for the source of the Nile, argues with his colonial perception of a children’s game, and questions how a man who condemns the slave trade would have one of their company whipped.