Each section of The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell begins with the voice of a mosquito, or a swarm of mosquitoes- a fitting device for a tale of Africa.
“Zt. Zzt. (lots of Z’z) and a zo’ona And so. A dead white man grows bearded and lost in the blinding heart of Africa.”(Livingstone, I presume) “With his rooting and roving, his stops and starts, he becomes our father, unwitting, our inadvertentpater muzungu. This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man.”
Colonialism, imperialism are words that inspire different emotions depending on whether you are the colonizer or the colonized. But whenever the European colonizers interfered in the natural development of the many places they felt would benefit from “civilization” (and supply untold riches to their imperial overloads) they diverted what might have been the history of an indigenous people into a new channel that forever combined native history with that of their colonizer. In this case, since we are in Africa, we have the further marker of skin color, which was often the case in colonization, as white Europeans (and later Americans) believed the white race far superior to any nation made up of folks with darker skin.
Namwali Serpell begins her tale of Zambia at a falls, mistakenly thought to be at the source of the Nile. They named the falls Victoria after the long-lived English queen. We hear the story of the first colonizers to arrive near the falls where the Brits who follow Livingstone to Africa set up their earliest town and drifted over Africa, and returned to settle near the Falls. Percy Clark was one of these early settlers. The Gavuzzi family owned and operated the Victoria Falls Hotel for a while.
Colonizers eventually decided they would build a dam at the falls, a dam which will flood the lands of the Tonga people. These people have their entire history and culture tied to this land and would like to stay and drown on their land when it floods. The colonizers will not allow this. They disperse the Tonga people and raise a revolutionary spirit in them which never dies out. Each section of The Old Drift is written almost as a short stories. These short stories drift forward in time, but the stories always connect. The book ends back at the falls where it began, but despite a kind of belated divine justice, Zambia lives on.
Serpell’s characters are colorful, plentiful, full of human failings and quite loveable (for the most part). The European Giuseppe Corsale who returns to Europe to party in a gone-to-seed salon meets a child born with hair over her entire body that engulfs her and grows and grows. Sibilla, who captivates both Giuseppe and his brother Federico, learns that she has her own Zambian connection. Her father and grandfather are the same Gavuzzis who ran the Victoria Falls Hotel. Federico kills his brother, takes over his identity, marries Sibilla and takes her to Africa. His position at the dam construction makes his family a wealthy family in Zambia.
Ronald, an African man, goes to England to study, and falls for the blind ex-tennis star, Agnes, daughter of the rich family who gives him a place to stay. He marries Agnes and takes her to Zambia. They also, through Ronald’s position as an engineer, become a wealthy Zambian family, of mixed race – a thing that probably never would have happened if Agnes could see. The children of these two families involve themselves in the life of their new nation (they know no other) with, as the author tells us, many errors made.
A revolutionary spirt buzzes through the entire story as do those mosquitoes, and the urge to freedom drifts through generations of Zambians. Ba Nkoloso gathers in Matha’s mother and Matha is practically pickled in revolutionary chants, speeches, and writings. Matha dresses like a boy to attend school. She takes part in the Afronaut program of her mentor which aspires to beat the Americans to the moon. Then she enters puberty and her fellow Afronaut, Godfrey, now with ambitions to be a rock star, impregnates her and sends her spinning off track for almost an entire generation. Her daughter Sylvia, beautiful and adventurous, takes the family back into their connections to the colonizers. The thrum of freedom is almost louder than the swarms of mosquitoes. So many great characters in this novel.
Freedom becomes less and less likely as Zambia becomes entangled in European and American capitalism and eventually computer technology through the “Digit-All bead” which turns hands into a computer interface. Addictive and enslaving, especially once government learns how to connect all to the cloud or the “swarm”. Those pesky mosquitoes are both inspirational and deadly.
The AIDS epidemic hits Zambia, the symbolic offspring of Ba Nkoloso, that original Zambian revolutionary and the children of Europeans alike. Are Zambians being used to test new AIDS drugs – are they the new lab rats? It becomes easy to understand the yearning for freedom. These young Zambians of the near future, create microdrones that connect and swarm, that drift wherever you direct them, called Mosketoze. They are used to convene a political rally and they bring about the ending that I cannot tell you about.
Although even to comment on this excellent novel, turns me into something of a colonizer, I will, as my ancestor’s did, drift into this Zambian space and bequeath TheOld Driftby Namwali Serpell to all adventurous readers everywhere.