BOOKS: Zambia retold in three family sagas

Saturday August 31 2019

'The Old Drift' by award-winning Zambian author Namwali Serpell.

'The Old Drift' by award-winning Zambian author Namwali Serpell. PHOTO | TEA 

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Three unrelated families over the course of two centuries and several countries tell the story of the making of Zambia.

The Old Drift, by award-winning Zambian author Namwali Serpell, begins in 1903 at a colonial settlement (for which the book is named) near the Victoria Falls on the River Zambezi.

Englishman Percy Clark, a failed chemistry student and unapologetic racist, has just arrived in Northern Rhodesia (modern day Zambia) to seek his fortune.

But the tale really revolves around three very different women in the same era—Agnes, the daughter of wealthy English parents and a rising tennis star, whose career is cut short when she loses her eyesight.

She falls in love with a foreign student and relocates with him to Zambia.

Sibilla is the daughter of an Italian house maid whose father once lived in The Old Drift. Sibilla and her lover flee Italy to Zambia after her lover kills his brother.


Matha Mwamba is a smart Zambian teenager with a bright future but who falls pregnant by a man who abandons her.

The novel is divided into three parts—The Grandmothers, The Mothers and The Children—as we follow the turbulent lives of the three women against the political upheavals in Zambia.

Their progeny include a famous doctor, a prostitute, petty thieves and an uneducated whizz kid. Each chapter focuses on a particular character.

Their stories weave individually and then are entangled as they attempt, and sometimes fail, to live out their dreams and decipher their identities.

The daughter of a British father and Zambia mother, Serpell has previously struggled with her own mixed identity and sense of belonging.

There is no single theme in The Old Drift. Like the many tributaries that feed the Zambezi River, the book covers several genres including historical and science fiction, forbidden love, mixed marriages, and even magical realism.

For example, the freckles on blind Agnes’ face sometimes appear like real eyes and the long hair that cover grandmother Sibilla’s entire body occasionally takes a life of its own.

A profusion of hair, mosquitoes and tomatoes runs the course of the book like common ingredients of the different anecdotes.

Memorable as well are the lesser known real events such as the Italians that built Zambia’s Kariba dam, British photographer Percy Clark who ran a curio shop at Victoria Falls in the early 1900s and Edward Nkoloso, the Zambian science teacher in the 1960s with grand visions of reaching the moon, feature too.

Yet the lyrical style, evocative scenes, real and fictional characters, and sometimes humorous language means the book does not feel like a straightforward retelling of history, even though it is mostly chronological.

A universal theme

Although the context is Zambian, this story could easily have been set in any other African country with a colonial legacy, Indian diaspora, and is grappling with HIV/Aids.

Yet this is not a predictable narrative.

Most impressive are the characters. The Old Drift has at least nine major personalities, gripping and faulted individuals with lives that could form separate stories on their own.

The family tree at the beginning helps you to keep track of the people. However, you miss not being able to stay with a favourite person all the way to the end. Also intriguing are the unnamed narrators that deliver monologues at the end of each chapter.

At over 560 pages, it is easy to get lost in this complex story or get enmeshed in a particular narrative.

Then the author cleverly drops in a coincidental event that connects you to the past or one of the other families. The Old Drift is not a quick and easy read, but in the end the various threads finally merge at a futuristic time.

Better known for short stories, this is the first full-length novel by Serpell, 39, and it took her almost 20 years to write.

In 2015, her story called The Sack won the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing and she surprised everybody by sharing her £10,000 prize money with fellow nominees.