Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Imagination: A Conversation with Rev. Dr. David Livingstone

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” I spoke loudly over the roar of falling water, as I stepped up to the imposing figure standing tall, at the edge of the cataract.

“Indeed,” he replied, greeting me briefly, before turning again to gaze in wonder at the great stretch of the falls before us. “Look at that! Magnificent!”

Zimbabwe - Victoria Falls (Steve Evans CC BY 2.0)

We stood in silence for a long minute before Dr. Livingstone continued.

“I can see why folk here call it Mosi-oa-Tunya – ‘the smoke that thunders.’ This cloud of spray has been visible for days as I traveled with my companions to this wondrous place. And the rumble of the falls does indeed sound like thunder.”

As though hardly aware of my presence, he mused aloud. “But I have decided these falls shall be named after our great Queen Victoria, in honour of the British Empire.”

I spoke again. “You are the first European to discover these falls. You are also the first European to travel across the continent, from the mouth of the Zambezi River on the Indian Ocean, to reach this place. I understand you plan to continue on from here to the west coast?

No answer. I tried another tack. “You are quite the traveller. I’m doing a cross-continental journey too – I’m following in your footsteps. Well, not quite the same route. And I’m not walking.

Map of Conjectural Geography of Central Africa, from Dr. Livingstone's Notes (The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, from 1865 to His Death, Volume II (of 2), 1869-1873)

Dr. Livingstone finally replied to my first comment, as he continued to think aloud. “Yes, I’m the first European to discover these falls. And this naming – ‘Victoria Falls’ – will promote my mission to encourage commercial trade in this part of Africa. Trade in local goods – perhaps sugar, from new plantations. That will be a much better alternative to the horrors of the slave trade.”

He turned and looked at me earnestly for the first time. “Do you know that even though the British Parliament passed a law to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade back in 1807 – half a century ago – this abomination continues in many places – especially up and down eastern parts of the continent. On the east coast, where I began this journey, Portuguese and Arabs drag their captives to ships and the horrors of the slave trade continue unabated.

In reality, Livingstone did not respond to my questions. He did not move. His bronze statue stood unwavering, at its prominent location above Devil’s Cataract at the western edge of Victoria Falls. For this conversation I had travelled back in time over a century and a half. And it would be yet another twenty years before Zimbabweans began discussing the proposal to rid the famous tourist site of its imperial name and restore the original – Mosi-oa-Tunya. I think it is a good idea. But will the tourists get it?

David Livingstone memorial at Victoria Falls (Tim Rogers, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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