The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell Read Online (FREE)
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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.