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Zambian History Comes Alive In Namwali Serpell's 'The Old Drift'

In her Anisfield-Wolf Award-winning novel "The Old Drift," Namwali Serpell charts the history of her homeland of Zambia.

Set primarily in the sub-Saharan African nation, Serpell's tale spans more than a century of Zambian history by weaving together the stories of three very different families - one Zambian, one English and one Italian.

Three generations of characters intertwine. Many of them are fictional, but a few are based on historic figures dating back to 1904.

For instance, at the center of the novel is a group of revolutionaries from the 1960s that became known as the Afronauts.

Edward Mukuka Nkoloso began a Zambian space program in 1964, the same year the Republic of Zambia gained its independence from the United Kingdom.

Edward Makuka Nkoloso (left) with fellow Zambian freedom fighter Andrew Mwenya [National Archives of Zambia]

Journalists from England and the United States traveled to Zambia to interview members of the newly formed nation and Nkoloso's burgeoning space program attracted their attention

"He was doing a kind of do-it-yourself training program. He was rolling his space cadets down hills in empty oil barrels to simulate anti-gravity conditions. He was swinging them from trees. He was creating what he called a rocket.  Largely, the West did not take this seriously. They thought he was a quote, ‘amiable lunatic,'" Serpell said.

A newspaper photo shows cadet Matha Mwamba in training. [The Sydney Morning Herald, November 22, 1964]

However, Serpell took Nkoloso seriously and researched his earlier life as a political dissident and freedom fighter for the novel. 

"The more research that I did the richer the story became," she said.

Serpell gravitated to the lesser known story of Nkoloso's protege and Zambia's only female space cadet, Matha Mwamba, who is at the center of the novel's narrative.

"According to everyone I spoke to and all of the records I managed to get access to in the archives, [Mwamba] was the smartest of the team and had as high an education as a young woman in Zambia could have as a 16-year-old in the '60s," she said.

Serpell imagines a full life for Mwamba in "The Old Drift" as well as for others in the family, like her grandson who helps take the novel beyond 2020 and into the future.

A newspaper photo shows cadet Matha Mwamba in training. [The Sydney Morning Herald, November 22, 1964]

"I began to think about other aspects of the near future that I was interested in exploring, particularly because people don’t think of Africa as a place where people have technological ideas. But in fact they do. There’s an immense amount of creativity that’s untapped, I think because of lack of opportunities and lack of resources,” she said.

As the novel looks at Zambia's past and imagines its future, it is still very much of the present.

Early in "The Old Drift" a British character speaking about Zambia's possible independence says, "A foot on the neck doesn't feel the cramp."

Despite the scene having been written a few years ago and it being set in 1964, it conjures images of George Floyd's death in 2020.

While it seems prescient, Serpell has been writing about this issue for some time as she's spent the second half of her life living in the United States.

“There were George Floyd protests all over the world as we know and there were George Floyd protests in Zambia, in Lusaka. People recognize what it looks like to have a foot on the neck, or a knee on the neck."

Serpell is proud "The Old Drift" has won Cleveland's Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the literary prize given to writers who address racism and diversity through their work.

“To me it is a great honor to be in such wonderful company, and it’s also very exciting to me to be amongst a group of writers who all have very different takes on race and culture and diversity.

The interview with Namwali Serpell is part of a series featuring the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners.

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