Skip to Main Content

WINNER OF THE 2020 CHAUTAUQUA PRIZE

ONE OF NPR’S BEST BOOKS OF 2019

“Engrossing, beautiful, and deeply imaginative, Out of Darkness, Shining Light is a novel that lends voice to those who appeared only as footnotes in history, yet whose final, brave act of loyalty and respect changed the course of it. An incredible and important book by a masterful writer.” ​—Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing

“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.” So begins Petina Gappah's powerful novel of exploration and adventure in nineteenth-century Africa—the captivating story of the loyal men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone's body, his papers and maps, fifteen hundred miles across the continent of Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there. Narrated by Halima, the doctor's sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, a rigidly pious freed slave, this is a story that encompasses all of the hypocrisy of slavery and colonization—the hypocrisy at the core of the human heart—while celebrating resilience, loyalty, and love.

This reading group guide for Out of Darkness, Shining Light includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

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.

So begins Petina Gappah’s powerful novel of exploration and adventure in nineteenth-century Africa—the captivating story of the loyal men and women who carried explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone’s body, his papers and maps, fifteen hundred miles across Africa, so his remains could be returned home to England and his work preserved there. Narrated by two of his attendants, Halima, the doctor’s sharp-tongued cook, and Jacob Wainwright, Livingstone’s rigidly pious secretary, the story winds through the continent in the time just before its colonization by European powers.

With an unforgettable cast of characters and a powerful journey of struggle and perseverance, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reenvisions a historical event through the eyes of those often written out of the story. Sweeping, profound, and deeply funny, this is a story that encompasses all of the hypocrisy of slavery and colonization—the hypocrisy of humanity—while celebrating resilience, loyalty, and love.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The very beginning of the novel is narrated by a chorus of voices, the voices of all of David Livingstone’s companions, who point out that the act of fidelity they showed to Livingstone—carrying his body and papers home—unintentionally enabled some of the violence of European imperialism. In beginning Out of Darkness, Shining Light in this way, what does Gappah hope to accomplish?

2. Halima thinks often of her childhood and her mother, a concubine of the Liwali of Zanzibar. How does she compare her present circumstances with her life as a child?

3. Describe Halima’s relationship with Bwana Daudi. What does she do after his death? How does the rest of his retinue react to his death?

4. How does Halima feel about Susi? About Amoda?

5. How does Halima understand Bwana Daudi’s “Nile madness” (page 51)? How do you understand it?

6. What are Bwana Daudi’s feelings about slavery? What does Halima, and the rest of his retinue, think about his position on this matter?

7. Whose narration do you prefer, Halima’s or Jacob Wainwright’s? Why is that?

8. Jacob believes that he is a “natural leader of men” (page 112). How do you think the rest of the companions see him?

9. How did Jacob reach the Nassick school? How did he leave? What are his hopes for the rest of his life?

10. Jacob believes Halima is “empty-headed” (page 132), and in fact has many disparaging thoughts about most of his fellows. Why does he regard them so negatively?

11. Jacob writes that “woman is . . . how sin came to the world” (page 149) and that he would like to send all the women away, but later on the journey he falls in love with Ntaoéka—orchestrated by Chirango—and is quickly and devastatingly disappointed. How does he react to this?

12. On their travels, the companions encounter “bodies tied to trees, slave sticks, skeletons” (page 213). Each member of the retinue has a different history with and experience of slavery; describe some of them. How does the novel engage with the practice of slavery?

13. Chirango attempts to torture a hyena to death, in Jacob’s telling, before he is stopped by Susi. What does this reveal about his character?

14. Jacob describes manumission to Halima, reassuring her—though not with much kindness—that she is a free woman. Why did Halima not know this before? What must have this news meant to her?

15. Chirango reveals that he is responsible for the deaths of Losi, Amoda, John Wainwright, Kaniki, and Misozi. Why did he admit it? Why did he do it? What is his punishment? And what do you make of this revelation?

16. How do Halima and Jacob’s narrations reveal their biases, the complexities of their relationships, their histories—and even their hypocrisies?

17. Where do Halima and Jacob end up? How does the particular point in history in which they live shape their experiences after their travels with Livingstone?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read Petina Gappah’s earlier works, An Elegy for Easterly and The Book of Memory.

2. Research David Livingstone’s life.
Photograph by Henry Oliver Hakulandaba

Petina Gappah is a widely translated Zimbabwean writer. She is the author of two novels, Out of Darkness, Shining Light; The Book of Memory; and two short story collections, Rotten Row and An Elegy for Easterly. Her work has been short-listed for the Orwell Prize, the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN/Open Book Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and the Prix Femina (etranger), among other honors. She is the recipient of the Guardian First Book Award and the McKitterick Prize from the Society of Authors. A lawyer specializing in international trade and investment as well as a writer, Petina currently lives in Harare, Zimbabwe.

"Narrators Nyasha Hatendi and Sibongile Mlambo create a rich vocal tapestry for this historical novel. We trace the journey of Africans who are carrying explorer David Livingstone's body across the continent in order to return it to England for burial. Hatendi and Mlambo alternate between the main characters, Jacob and Halima, who make the perilous trip with a retinue of 69 men, women, and children. They bring front and center the brave Africans who worked to accomplish the impossible, traversing hostile territories in memory of someone they came to respect, admire, and love. As Jacob, Hatendi speaks with the confidence of an orator, infusing the character with dignity not readily given to colonial subjects. Mlambo brings out Halima's spiritedness, which is unexpected from an African woman of that time."

– AudioFile Magazine