Reviewed for Lusaka Times by Mwanabibi Sikamo
The Old Drift starts with a pun.
Victoria Falls. Sentence or Prophecy?
As you read on you get the feeling that the whole tale is a double entendre without the smut. It’s a Zambian story, or more accurately stories, written about Zambia for the world. Only, there are inside jokes too; stories that will resonate with Zambians and maybe Africans in a slightly different way. Things we all know but wouldn’t dare say out loud to visitors.
It also feels like a rediscovery of my country. A remembering of historic facts gleaned from textbooks and vague childhood recollections. Farcical tales that are, in fact, historically accurate. We really did have a space program and they really did use drums to train astronauts. Namwali is a teacher and it shows. There are so many gems, so much ‘useless’, highly interesting information, like the Chrysler Copper Car that was used during Zambia’s Independence Day celebrations or the recognition that so much of our language is derived from sound. Kalingalinga is still a compound in Lusaka but it’s also the sound a bell makes. She plays with language, seamlessly infusing Bemba, Nyanja, made up colloquialism like “Halifogali”, never explaining what they mean. Confident in the knowledge that there is an audience that understands exactly what she is saying.
And yet, it is still a Zambian story written for the world.
The Old Drift has been dubbed the first great Zambian novel and it’s clear why. Namwali Serpell, the author, won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2015. A prize that has been won by authors like Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, who have gone on to become household names. Her short story, The Sack, was highly acclaimed and it was clear from that offering that her next piece of writing would be worth the read.
The story starts at the beginning. The beginning of our discovery by the white man. The only sort of discovery that matters. History, the book says, always begins with a white man.
A band of travellers gathered to seek their fortune at the Victoria Falls, form the source from which the tale drifts. And it does drift along. Form and direction are never as paramount as the story. The Drift in the title refers to a name for the settlement formed at the Falls but it also describes the style of writing. A leisurely approach that readers of Namwali’s short story, “The Sack”, will be familiar with. Just when you start to get to grips with a set of characters, you are thrown off course, drifting towards yet another storyline. It’s a style that one has to get used to. The Old Drift requires you to take time away from reality and immerse yourself in its world.
The characters and sets of characters within storylines each take their own course. Tributaries to the whole, they will eventually collide. It’s reminiscent of the Oscar winning movie “Crash” in which individual lives and experiences are woven together to form one fabric.
The Old Drift is highly ambitious. It’s a large book that doesn’t always feel that way. A sweeping saga that takes you from before Northern Rhodesia to beyond present day Zambia.
The book cannot be described as historical fiction but its also not always fantasy or science fiction. There are moments when The Old Drift skirts with the political and as a Zambian you hold your breath because no one ever mentions dissidents like Lenshina, a woman whose religious beliefs led to an uprising of sorts and the deaths of many of her followers or how the, still often maligned, Tonga people were treated when the Kariba Dam was being constructed on their traditional land. There are overtly fantastical threads such as the woman with hair all over her body but there are also passages describing the Zambian landscape, as it is that feel much like a fairytale. Reading African fiction based in a country like Zambia is still, sadly, a novel experience. We are not used to recognizing the magic that surrounds us: the sounds, creatures and activities that we take for granted. This is where the double entendre works best. It feels like a gift from Namwali to Zambians and Africans. A reminder that our world is anything but ordinary.
At its core the novel is about humans of different ilk’s having to accept one another or not being able to. It’s about how similar we all are despite our differences and how love ultimately supersedes everything. There are many unlikely love stories. In fact, The Old Drift can be described as a series of love stories and it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to say that this feels a little like Namwali Serpell’s love story to Zambia, our history and what it can become.
Namwali is another author in the current crop of Africans who are unapologetically themselves. They don’t italicize our languages or attempt to be polite about the fact that Europeans came here for economic reasons and stayed not because they were better than us but because it was better for them. The Old Drift is a novel that, despite its own assertions, reminds Africans that our histories do not start with White men but our future is interconnected.
Namwali Serpell was born in Zambia and now lives in San Fransisco, where she is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. The Old Drift is her first novel and since being published on 26th March 2019 has received rave reviews from the New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, Publisher’s Weekly, The Times UK, the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Times, and the Washington Post.