The Old Drift - Namwali Serpell

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And so. A dead white man grows bearded and lost in the blinding heart of Africa. With his rooting and roving, his stops and starts, he becomes our father unwitting, our inadvertent pater muzungu. This is the story of a nation – not a kingdom or a people – so it begins, of course, with a white man.

Once upon a time, a goodly Scottish doctor caught a notion to find the source of the Nile. He found instead a gash in the ground full of massed, tumbling water. His bearers called it Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means The Smoke That Thunders, but he gave it the name of his queen. He described the Falls with a stately awe, comparing the flung water to British things: to fleece and snow and the sparks from burning steel, to myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam. He speculated that angels had gazed down upon it and said to each other, ‘How lovely.’ He even opined, like a set designer, that there really ought to be mountains in the backdrop.

Adventure. Disaster. Fame. Commerce. Christianity. Civilisation. He was mauled by a lion that shook him in its jaws, he said, as a dog shakes a rat. His wife died of fever; his beloved poodle drowned. He voyaged over land and along endless waterways. He freed slaves as he went, broke their chains with his hands, and took them on as his servants and bearers. Late in his life, he witnessed a massacre – slave traders shooting at people in a lake, so many, the canoes could not pass. He despaired. He was broken, broke; Queen Victoria had forgotten him; the Royal Geographers said he was dead. Then a mercenary Welsh bastard named Stanley presumed, shook his hand, and sent word to London. And in an instant he was infamous, as if risen from the grave. Yet he refused to return to Merrie England.

Doddering, he drove deeper into the continent instead, still seeking his beloved Nile. Oh, father muzungu! The word means white man, but it describes not the skin, but a tendency. A muzungu is one who will zunguluka – wander aimlessly – until they end up in circles. And so our movious muzungu pitched up here again, dragging his black bearers with him.

His medicine box went missing – who took it? They never found out – and with it, his precious quinine. Fever hunted him and finally caught him. He died in a hut, in the night, on his bed, kneeling, his head in his hands. His men disembowelled him, planted his heart under a tree, and bore his corpse to the coast. The HMS Vulture took his body home – what was left without the living was buried under stone in the Nave of Westminster Abbey. His people recognised him by the scrapes of the lion’s teeth on his humerus bone.

Such wonder at the resolve of his bearers. To travel with a corpse for months on end, suffering loss and injury, sickness and battle? Through blistering heat and blundering rain, beating off the taboo that to carry death is to beckon it? To come all the way to England, to face interrogation, to build a model of the hut that he died in? What faith! What love! No, no – what fear! That corpse, that body was proof. Without it, who would possibly have taken their word that a white man, among ‘savages’, had died of bad luck – a mere fever?

Men never believe chance can wreak great consequence. Yet the story of this place is full of such slips. Error, n., from the Latin errare: to stray or to veer or to wander. For instance, the bazungu who carved this territory into a colony, then a protectorate, then a federation, then a country came here only because Livingstone did. They drifted in and settled the land, drew arbitrary lines in the sand, stole treaties from chiefs with a devious ruse: a ‘Royal Charter’ meant for business, but used for state. Waving flags and guns and beads to trade with, they scrambled rabid for Africa, and claimed it was Livingstone’s legacy.

Neither Oriental nor Occidental, but accidental is this nation. Would you believe our godly Scotch doc was searching for the Nile in the wrong spot? As it turns out, there are two Niles – one Blue, one White – which means two sources, and neither one of them is anywhere near here.