Literature is among the most powerful tools that can be used to promote equality and to tackle racial injustice. In fact, much of the progress that has been made in championing for the rights of marginalized and oppressed groups can be attributed to literary works. However, there are groups whose experiences remain in the shadows. Africans are among these groups. There are a few authors who are working tirelessly to ensure that African voices are heard. Namwali Serpell is among these authors. Through the Old Drift, she exposes readers to the rich, complex and dynamic lives and cultures of the African people.
Among the many things that Serpell does well is respectfully and accurately depicting the ways of life of Africans. She does this by exploring the cultural practices and beliefs of the people of Namibia. The very fact that some of the characters in the novel are either African or have roots in Africa is indeed commendable. For years, Africa and its people have been under-represented in literature and many other areas. It is as though authors and literary creators do not feel that African stories are worthy of broadcast. Serpell clearly shows that in addition to being remarkably interesting, African narratives have earned their place in literature.
The fact that it sheds light on the African experience is not the only feature that makes the Old Drift easy to recommend. This novel is also structured in a way that enhances the reading experiences. The various narratives in the novel are clustered into phases. By splitting the different narratives, Serpell makes it easier for the readers to approach the novel with some confidence. Moreover, while the three stories are related, each one is so rich and interesting that it can stand on its own. Basically, Serpell ensured that all her readers would find some narrative that resonates with their own experiences and is therefore relatable.
Another element of the Old Drift that enhances the reading experience is its wide range of characters. While they operate in the same world, the characters are vastly different in terms of their individual experiences, perspectives, and even age. The diversity of the characters is certainly deliberate. By including grandmothers, fathers, and grandchildren in the world that she created in the Old Drift, Serpell provides readers with opportunities to understand worlds beyond their own. For example, young readers can learn about the reality of old age by giving special attention to the older characters in the novel.
As noted earlier, what makes the Old Drift particularly special is its boldness in amplifying African perspectives. Most of the events in the story are set in Namibia, a country in Southern Africa. By selecting Namibia as the setting for the Old Drift, Serpell certainly exhibited courage. She took the risk that some of the readers would lose interest because of the novel’s setting. However, it is also reasonable to suppose that Serpell understood that many of her readers have been eagerly waiting for such a compelling book that introduces them to the true situation in Africa.
Even as one acknowledges and celebrates the Old Drift for its Afro-centric approach, it is also important to point out some of the novel’s drawbacks. Among its limitations is that it does not do enough to elevate African characters onto a large and high platform from which they can share their stories. For example, it not until they have gone through a number of chapters before readers meet the first African character who is adequately developed. This is a serious failure as it could suggest that the few African characters are nothing more than mere tokens.
The limitation addressed above raises questions about Serpell’s commitment to telling African stories. It is indeed concerning that she did not place African characters at the center of the novel. However, this failure should not discourage readers from picking up copies of the Old Drift. Even with its numerous shortcomings and flaws, the novel remains remarkable in its portrayal of the rich African culture.
As one reads deeply, they are able to identify even more flaws in Serpell’s the Old Drift. In addition to the lack of substantial characters with African roots, the novel also misrepresents Africans. For example, much of the information about African culture that readers receive is provided by non-African characters. To have an even greater impact, Serpell should have allowed the African characters to tell their own stories. Even the most well-meaning foreigner cannot faithfully tell these stories.
In the few instances where Africa has been portrayed in literature, its depiction has been inadequate, incorrect, and insulting. For example, the portrayal tends to focus on the disease, war and poverty on the continent. Without whitewashing the situation in Africa, Serpell offers readers a fresh perspective. For example, she describes an ambitious space program launched by and involving Africans. This depiction is a welcome departure from the negative narratives that readers are accustomed to.
In conclusion, when she set out to write the Old Drift, Serpell must have understood that her target audience was desperate for freshness. They had had enough of the narratives that they had heard about Africa. Serpell’s novel is an encouraging and courageous effort that deserves a spot in the list of the most influential works of this era. Readers need to keep their minds open and abandon all notions that they have about Africa if they are to fully understand Serpell’s vision.