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The Old Drift

Namwali Serpell’s debut novel The Old Drift was published in 2019 and has already won several awards. And rightly so, because it is a challenging, many-layered novel about relationships between states and people that change with the world around them. Serpell’s home country of Zambia serves as setting as she guides her readers through the 20th century via the experiences of three families. This entails several clever plot twists: From stories of early colonialists and Zambia’s independence movement, she takes us through the worst years of the AIDS epidemic and into the near future, where micro-drones are used in service of both totalitarian purposes and political resistance. The over 500 pages are absolutely worth reading.

The various family stories are told for the most part from the perspective of women. First, the grandmothers are introduced, all of whom confront more or less mysterious struggles. Sibilla, who grows up in Alba, Italy, is covered all over her body in long, fast-growing hair. She is locked up until Federico frees her and they emigrate together under a false identity, to what was then called Rhodesia. Agnes is from a well-to-do British family and used to be a gifted tennis player until, as a young woman, she goes blind. She marries Ronald, a student who is her family’s guest in the semester break.  He takes her with him to Lusaka, his home town. Matha grows up in a Bemba village and, with the help of her cunning mother, she receives a school education for a few years. After her mother’s death, she joins the independence movement. When her boyfriend leaves her pregnant, she cannot stop crying for decades.

All three women end up living in Lusaka, the capital of the country that will become Zambia during their lifetime. The three grandmothers do not meet. But, as readers, we learn that their forefathers had a fateful encounter at the Victoria Falls Hotel. This happening, unbeknownst to them, connects their fates and those of their children and grandchildren, from whose perspectives the story is continued.    

Real historical figures appear repeatedly alongside the fictional characters. For example, Serpell introduces the British photographer Percy Clark as Agnes’ grandfather. The real Percy Clark followed in the footsteps of the colonist David Livingstone at the beginning of the century and undertook an expedition on the Zambezi. In the novel, the character of Percy Clark serves to illustrate Europeans’ reckless search for fun and adventure on the African continent, and their racist attitude towards local populations.

Another historical figure is Edward Nkoloso, a Zambian resistance fighter and the founder of the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy. Nkoloso wanted to be the first – before the USA and Russia – to send people to the moon. In The Old Drift, Matha is an afronaut in Nkoloso’s programme. All in all, Serpell repeatedly portrays Zambia as a country of innovation. In addition to advances in space research, there is excellent research being done on AIDS treatment, and the grandchildren are responsible for developing the smallest drones in the world. But time and again, the consequences of colonialism put Zambia at a disadvantage in global competition. The USA or China have more money and are therefore faster and more powerful.

The Old Drift deals with political and ethical questions of historiography, scientific progress and one’s own actions. The characters represent not only different positionings, but also different political attitudes. They’re rough around the edges and it is difficult to fully sympathize with any of them. Conflicts run through the whole novel, but are always interrupted by small anecdotes about love, sex and festivities. This complex book is very much worth reading and invites its readers to laugh, to cry and to (re)consider different perspectives.

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