Indiana University Press

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (2019) is decidedly about bodies of varied shapes and sizes, with beauty and without, bodies with the most enchanting and peculiar conditions, feverish bodies, withering in the throes of disease. Even commerce and enterprise in the novel are largely predicated on bodies; bodies that dig trenches and die in dams, economies that revolve around the scalps of women. In its presentation of bodies that operate and interact in ways that are as complex as the bodies themselves, it raises questions about how we read and consider women’s bodies in African literature. This essay is a reflection on the discursive agency of the bodies of Sibilla, Agnes, and Matha—the novel’s grandmothers. In particular, it contends with their dialectics, paradoxes, and fragmented nature of these bodies.


In a short essay on Michael Foucault’s eminent theory of the body as a surface of inscription, Judith Butler articulates a paradox. How can we conceive the body as a culturally constructed entity and surface on which events are inscripted, or as a material manifestation of forces that supposedly preclude it, without conceiving that the body exists at all before any such inscription? A body must exist before it is affected, transmuted, transfixed in the discourses that lend it cultural and historical legibility, she asserts. In closing her contentions with Foucault’s thinking, she asks a question that captures my approach in reading the bodies of three women in Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift. “How would a body as a cultural or discursive practice be described?” (Butler 607). It is my contention that the literary body provides an avenue for grappling with this question and that the bodies of Sibilla, Agnes, and Matha in the novel function, albeit differently, with agency in dialectical, paradoxical, and fragmented ways, characterizing a discursive [End Page 23] corporeality that is worthy of attention. Apart from sharing their status as the novel’s grandmothers, Sibilla, Agnes, and Matha each have something about their bodies that is extraordinarily awry. Because of the scope of the novel and the various complicated turns that their stories take once their lives begin to intertwine in Zambia, I focus mainly on the key functions and dysfunctions that are central to their characterization, which appear most strikingly earlier on in the novel. In this case, I am interested in the role Sibilla’s hair plays in her migration, in Agnes’s paradoxical covering of eyes, and in Matha’s weeping. I argue that these traits are their bodies’ key expressions of agency and what significantly shapes the course of their lives and consequently, those of their descendants.


The bodies of the novel are central to its intellectual and political commitments. They are much of what gives the novel its speculative verve—they are peculiar, intriguing, intimate. It is a book that beckons the reader close to its bodies by confronting us with most unsettling ways that they (mis)behave and interact.

The bodies I pay particular attention to act on their own accord, responding to their political and social environments and speaking in some instances with voices that seem louder than those of the characters themselves, through their unusual extremities, the ways that they move the characters to act, and in their disruption of cultural expectations. It is this discursive corporeality that is present in the novel that guides my reading of the novel’s grandmothers: Sibilla, Agnes, and Matha. Each to its own extent, their bodies develop discourses concerned with a feminist grotesque, knowledges of the body, and bodily agency.

It is of discursive consequence that Butler words her question as she does, framing the body “as a practice,” rather than a body doing the practice. In doing so, she locates the body at the center of the action. My reading of these women’s bodies in the novel thus treats the conditions, functions, and dysfunctions of their bodies as consequential. That is to say, I am not only interested in the ways in which the women’s bodies are culturally codified and inscribed on—I am interested in thinking about their bodies themselves as inscripting, as acting, as speaking. Reading the bodies gendered as female in African literature in this way is crucial. In “The Gendered and Commodified Female Body in Contemporary Nigerian Fiction,” Sule Emmanuel Egya highlights the inattention to women’s bodies in conversations of African Literatures. He rightly asserts, “the body, gendered and sexualised, is constantly staged in fiction, although hardly discoursed.” Egya suggests that it is necessary to treat seriously the discourses of corporeality, “the figuration of the female body, and to examine how the body is inscribed and textualism” (76). Indeed, ample attention must be paid to what society does to, inscribes on, and makes of female bodies. Additionally it also matters to consider the agency of the body, particularly to the ways that these bodies hold and engage in discourses that span beyond them. Much writing on the topic is concerned with matters of the body as an object—as a site that is acted or inscripted on. There is a need to also consider the female body in African literature as generative—as acting, reacting, enacting in ways that in turn speak back to, inscribe on, and affect culture and society. [End Page 24]

In this sense, I am concerned with corporeal discursiveness in The Old Drift wherein the functions and dysfunctions of the body disturb the dictates of normative patriarchal systems in ways that at times even confound the people these bodies belong to. Such consideration is particularly crucial in feminist readings of bodies, that understand the body as containing knowledge and discourses (Butler).

It means something that Sibilla’s body, at once beautiful and grotesque, ushers her forth into her future because of its covering of hair. It says something that Agnes’s body is a paradox, when she grows blind on the one hand and yet is described as having such a “watchful presence” on the other (Serpell 88). It is of discursive significance that Matha’s body, having withstood various banishments, from school, from political involvement, from love, retorts by weeping.

These bodies are important to consider, not only for understanding the novel, but also speculative considerations of the body in African literature. It matters as a feminist reading, an application of epistemological frameworks that considers embodied knowledges and seeks to disturb the patriarchal delineation between mind and body. This reading of Serpell’s grandmothers is particularly relevant in the time of reading in a global pandemic, where the body is not only a surface on which events are inscribed (Foucault 148) but is itself an event that inscribes on culture and economies.


Sibilla, the first of the novel’s three grandmothers, has one of the most curious, enchanted bodies in the novel. The crux of her corporeal significance is the tangle of incongruences facilitated by her hair. Sibilla is covered in long tresses of hair that grow thickly and quickly. She is, however, also described as beautiful. Hers is a body that occupies the borderlines of that which is aesthetically normative and that which is odd and absurd. Serpell’s rendering deploys the grotesque in order to disturb the dictates of a scripted feminine aesthetic. Furthermore, Sibilla’s hair appears to have a life and character of its own and is “like a part of her but also apart from her” (Serpell 29). At once attached and detached from her, Sibilla’s hair houses a set of dialectical realities that usher her along to her fate and future. This corporeal duality emphasizes the dialectics that Sibilla’s body operates along the lines of throughout the novel. In addition to the above-attachment and detachment to her hair, other sets of dialectical realities of Sibilla that occur on account of her hair include her entrapment and escape, plus her beauty and grotesqueness. In making sense of her hair’s related but oppositional qualities and affects as discursive, corporeal dialectic, I find Lenin’s reflections on Engels and Marx’s concept of dialectical materialism in Philosophical Notebooks (1972) useful. He writes:

The identity of opposites . . . is the recognition of the contradictory, mutually exclusive opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature (including mind and society). The condition for the knowledge of all processes of the world in their “self movement,” in their spontaneous development, in their real life, is the knowledge of them as a unity of opposites.

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Sibilla’s body holds this sort of “unity of opposites” that facilitates her development as a character over time. Her body is an image of what a body might look like as a discursive entity, as per Butler’s line of questioning. Each of these aspects of her body are best observed in her secluded childhood. One of the first ways we learn about Sibilla’s appearance is through the eyes of her mother, Adriana. It is quite clear that she is both shocked at and aggrieved by her daughter’s body, describing her as “unformed” and “not a child of the Lord Almighty” (Serpell 28), as she laments in a note to her Signora at Villa Sera. Adriana secludes her daughter in a hunting cabin, afraid for her safety. Sibilla’s beginning thus reveals the ways in which her body determines her relationship to the public, a relationship that evolves over the course of her story when she later migrates to the then Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and has a different sort of experience with race and class. But her secluded beginnings also create in her a desire to escape. Sibilla’s body adjudicates her relationships between the private domestic realm and the public. In those long years of isolation, her attentiveness and hunger for the world grows. We observe her mulling over her body, understanding the fact that it is not normative, and that it is markedly different from those of the women in her family.

Sibilla had observed hair on other people. Nonna had kinky white curls that crept outward from her head when it rained, haloing her frowning face. And Mama got hairier when she washed their clothes, the fuzz on her arms darkening with that first plunge into the water. This was reassuring. But Sibilla didn’t like her hair.

Aware that she has much more hair than the two women she lives with, Sibilla’s discomfort grows, and there is at once a sense of entrapment in her hair and an estrangement from it. Her need to escape seems to be brought on by her hair itself—it draws her forth into action. Sibilla’s hair facilitates yet another dialectical thread here, in the sense that it both leads to her entrapment and her escape.

One day, while her grandmother is asleep and her mother away at work, her curiosity turns into action. Her hair “flurried ahead, tugging at her, pulling her trotting along until she was outside the house” (Serpell 31). In this moment, whether born of madness or magic, her hair moves first toward the outside, bringing Sibilla in tow. Again, there is a notable degree of separation between Sibilla and her hair. What follows when she does finally end up outside clues the reader into one of two diametrically opposed perceptions that people in the novel seem to hold of Sibilla. She is perceived both as a monster and as a beauty. Outside, she faces a violent encounter with a group of boys who, struck by the sight of her, hurl stones and call her names.

That her first time outside is marked by violence shows the ways in which Sibilla’s body is subjected. This moment, tense with confrontation, highlights the subjectivity that Sibilla is under due to her nonnormative appearance. The boys are clearly horrified at the sight of her, calling out “Mostro! Mostro!” (Serpell 33). But the encounter does not end here—Sibilla’s body reacts! Her hair saves her. In a twist of events, her hair again performs dialectical functions, at once putting her under threat leading to her survival. Sibilla’s hair “began to rise . . . [and] long strands of hair steamed out from Sibilla’s body” (Serpell 35). [End Page 26] It asserts itself, rising from her skin and frightening the boys away, acting apart from her. Later, we see this apartness once again, this time acknowledged by her mother. While she is combing the leaves out of her Sibilla’s hair, Adrianna feels “an urge as strong as a contraction to reach inside and pull her daughter out” of her hair (Serpell 37).

The moment of Sibilla’s confrontation with the boys is a magnificent moment of the body reacting and fighting back. And yet, it also illustrates contradicting realities coexisting in one body. Thematically, Sibilla is a character who confounds congruence and poses a threat to a neat ordinance of normativity. Sibilla is under threat because she is grotesque, but as we will later know, Sibilla is also beguilingly beautiful.

Adriana’s mix of fear and repulsion fades when she sees her daughter fully shaven for the first time. “Christ, she was beautiful!” Adriana thinks when she discovers her in the larder. Even though her skin is “greenish and shadowed with tiny black holes” (Serpell 49). Sibilla is beautiful, a fact that comes to light at many other junctures in the novel and exists in a continual tension with her alarming appearance.

In her essay “The Grotesque as a Feminist Aesthetic,” Erica McWilliams asserts,

The significance of grotesque female bodies, then, is their capacity to incite deviance and, at the same time, be a means for bringing it under control. For Russo, they function as carnivalesque, a disruptive materiality in the social world, one that is at the same time transformative and counterproductive, hovering as it does around the threshold of chaos and order.


Sibilla’s body does not merely occupy the chaotic borderlines between beauty and beast, it embodies both quite unquestionably. Unquestionable in that both beauty and monstrosity are equally acknowledged and do not at all function to negate one another. Thus, her body reconciles that which is supposed to be irreconcilable in the female form, exposing the norm against which it is held even as it resists it. The novel neither owes nor attempts to offer an explanation for how this is so. The reader is invited to suspend their understanding of both beauty and beast and accept Sibilla. As glaring as these paradoxes are, the novel treats Sibilla’s body as a mere matter of fact. This contrast in how she is perceived, between Sibilla’s monstrosity and beauty, thus continues this thread of her corporeal dialectic and the ways in which her hair facilitates a tension in her life and story.

On her journey to the Federation, Sibilla reflects on her own sense of duality, on her detachment from her hair and feels like a double of herself (Serpell 66). What has thus far been implied in her story is confronted in a moment of reflection. Once she arrives in the Federation, she undergoes an instant social transmutation—we see her cross over from servant to master, from monstrous spectacle to mere foreign oddity. Sibilla leaves a life of relegation to the private and domestic realm and is now able to show up in the public. “Local Zambians had always accommodated Sibilla’s condition easily—they were so used to foreigners being strange, they had no expectations or judgments about the nature of that strangeness” (Serpell 311). [End Page 27]


As a descendant of Percy Clark, the decidedly racist photographer with whom the novel opens, Agnes is a member of a family that extends a colonial paternalism toward black Africans. Agnes spends her early childhood and adolescence as a gifted tennis player, and then suddenly begins to lose her sight. In the event of her blindness, she slips into a spell of denial, which she eventually overcomes, and it is when she returns to the tennis court, relearning to play with the rest of her senses, that Ronald sees her. For days, Ronald merely watches her, studying her closely without her knowledge. This moment, of Agnes being perceived without perceiving is thematically loaded, reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon—the mechanism for social control through surveillance, an idea largely predicated on the power of surveillance to result in compliant behavior and obedience. Its distinct features were a circular structure with a central point, the panopticon, from which a guard could observe prisoners without being perceived. This idea of a watchful gaze feels important once we learn about Agnes’s covering of eyes, which appears at the onset of her blindness. We learn that “For each drop of sight that disappears from her view, a small bump of the same size formed under her skin . . . She didn’t notice the strange and gradual pox; she didn’t connect the dots” (Serpell 80). These bumps, which many people perceive as eyes at different points in the novel, are equally reminiscent of Argus Panoptes, the mythological Grecian creature that is covered entirely in eyes. They are, on a number of occasions, perceived by other characters in the novel as a covering of eyes, and Agnes is frequently described as having a sort of embodied gaze. We learn that “Ronald sometimes had the impression that he saw eyes in her skin—or rather, felt them more like a watchful presence” (Serpell 88).

Striking, too, when the bumps first develop, is Agnes’s apparent obliviousness to them, which is rather consistent with her general disposition toward matters that one would deem important for her to note. It is with the same sort of baffling inattention that she falls for Ronald, but remains completely unaware of his race until someone brings it up to her. The same unawareness leads her to only discover that interracial marriages are still outlawed for Africans in the Federation only after she has arrived (Serpell 110). Agnes seems hapless and inattentive.

For all her apparent inattentiveness, however, Agnes is shrouded in a sort of suspicion because of her covering of eyes. Most notably, this watchfulness affects her trajectory when she is thrown out from the group of Marxist professors that she joins at the university, apparently because they are suspicious that she is spying on them. In spite of herself, Agnes comes across as embodying a sort of espionage, of colonial surveillance. Agnes’s body sees when she cannot. It watches, while she is unaware of its watching. She at once holds a strange sort of power in this sense—the same sort of power that the guard in Bentham’s panopticon holds, whether or not they are inside of it. And yet, she is also seen without seeing. Important in this idea of embodying surveillance is Agnes’s relationship to power. The paradoxical ways in which these ideas are embodied by Agnes suggest that she has contradicting relationships to power, largely as a blind white woman in a newly minted postcolony. Agnes’s body houses both subjectivities on account of her disability and power as a result of her race and wealth. [End Page 28]

We know, from the onset, that Ronald’s marriage to her was largely aspirational and that it is what proximity to her whiteness does for his status that matters most to him. But this marriage was equally aspirational for Agnes—dealt an unfortunate hand that leaves her unable to play tennis and shunned by her parents, a marriage to Ronald makes the most sense, as “he was a university student, which promised upward mobility” (92). However, the promise of their marriage doesn’t shimmer quite as brightly when they arrive in Zambia to no fanfare. Ronald quickly realizes that his affiliation with an English woman yields him little in terms of shirking him of the anxieties that come with being black around white elites. Try as he may to distance himself from the muntus, Ronald himself is one. His hope bitters to a palpable resentment, and it is clear he is irked by the eyes on her skin. Agnes’s body sets Ronald at great unease, causing him suspicion of political proportions. Although her whiteness is aspirational for him, we also know that he is suspicious of her. He desires what she can do for his standing, but he resents her, later in the novel quipping to his son, “Empire is always watching! You should know that from your muzungu mother” (Serpell 329).

Agnes is, in this sense, an anatomical paradox if ever there was. How can someone so covered in eyes be so blind? Her body raises questions around the gaze, around the distinction between seeing and watching. She is the personification of a sort of watchful power, a white gaze. In embodying this, her body betrays her best efforts to belong. While she attempts to assimilate and find her place in Zambia, initially by marrying Ronald and eventually by attempting to participate politically at the university, her body functions to cast suspicion on her. The novel’s sympathies do not seem to lie with Agnes, and the events that unfold around her cast her with an air of suspicion. Her covering of eyes, of which Ronald is hyper-aware and wary, positions her in a manner that hinders her belonging. Agnes’s embodied discourse is one of coloniality, one of which her native husband, although he himself is a questionable character, is very suspicious.


Of the three grandmothers, Matha Mwamba stands apart. Mainly, in that she is the only black African one, and secondly because she is a fictionalized version of a real, Zambian woman who existed in history. It is partly on account of this, I contend, that she at times feels quite fragmented. Truly, her bright and youthful beginnings are quite difficult to reconcile with the gloomy air of the majority of her adulthood. Throughout her childhood and early adolescence in the novel, Matha is described as “very bright” (Serpell 145) and is “by nature a laughing girl” (Serpell 142), with “a cursed way about her. Always laughing” (Serpell 186). In contrast, when she falls pregnant and her tears begin to fall, Matha gradually fades and darkens. When she finally gives birth to her baby, she is called a witch, her weeping having progressed to such a state that she is associated with the occult. “Eventually, the weeping stole her voice” (Serpell 197), we learn.

Matha’s tears are her most notable anatomical attribute, and they begin to fall unceasingly when she conceives her child, is dismissed from the Zambia Space Program, and is mysteriously abandoned by Godfrey, her child’s father. They begin to fall when she finally accepts that Godfrey cannot be found. On the surface, it may seem to be her heartbreak over Godfrey’s absence that triggers her [End Page 29] weeping, but Matha has, thus far, experienced a set of disappointments in a number of realms that demonstrate her subjectivity by virtue of being a black African woman. This moment is the last in a series of banishments; first from the mission school because of her mother’s crimes, then from Godfrey’s affection, and finally from the space program.

This consideration of Matha Mwamba’s weeping as a logical, rational, proportional response to her “compounded losses” is a necessary one (Serpell 197). For all her brilliance, Matha suffers legitimate losses under colonialism and patriarchy and responds to them in context and not merely because she is pregnant or heartbroken. In fact, the novel later offers a moment of clarity, when Godfrey has returned, and Matha is surprised that she does not, like she expected, stop crying because they are reunited.

In the midst of her plans for bitterness and grace, Matha hadn’t considered that, when Godfrey came home, she might not stop crying. As it turned out, she simply carried on. Drip, drop, a shower, a squall and in between, the seep of time. Had her man not come back? Had her love not come back? Had her love not returned? . . . Maybe their love had run through the season allotted to it. Maybe even heartbreak breaks if you give it enough time.

That Matha continues to cry suggests that the reasons for her weeping are greater than Godfrey. Godfrey himself, who is nicknamed “God” in a sort of coy allusion to the divine, is a pathetic character. Much like Ba Nkoloso is at once grandiose in Matha’s eyes and a lunatic in many senses. Neither of their deifications culminates in anything other than disappointment for Matha, and given Matha’s eventual return to religious devotion, Serpell renders a sort of tension in these men that at once exalts them and dethrones them—a representation I read as pointing to the contradictions of masculinity as at once being a force that meaningfully shapes the lives of women but in the end falls flaccid in its power.

In her essay “Melancholic Women: The Intellectual Hysteric(s) in ‘Nervous Conditions,’” Supriya Nair explores the intellectual hysterics of women in post-colonial states, treating with a seriousness the psychological and physiological impact of colonization on women’s bodies. Nair asserts that this was taken for granted by earlier scholars and thinkers and dismissed along patriarchal lines that rationalized emotional responses from women as typical and apolitical. Nair posits, for example, that in Jean Paul-Sartre’s infamous preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the struggle against oppressive colonial forces “is necessarily issued as a matter between men” (132). In exploring a few critiques of these gendered exclusions of women, Nair further writes,

Michelle Cliff dryly categorizes the causes attributed to women’s madness: “child- lessness, celibacy, ‘change’ . . .” (30) all biological, if we read “change” either as PMS or menopause, none of them registering intellectual trauma, all of them suggesting emotionally frustrated rather than politically conscious women. . . . The narrative of liberation follows the scenario of the macho revolutionary process of individuation: boy meets gun and the rest is history. What this history fails to record is a different kind of tension that the colonized female, who has not been inactive in physical, guerilla or military action, embodies in her other equally valid reactions to colonialism and patriarchy.


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Interestingly, this counters many a discourse of black African women, which are often predicated on strength and power, often casting us as abject in their patriarchal subjugation, or as unbelievably strong women who make the world work in spite of their conditions. But Matha is neither. Matha falls publicly apart, in a most visible and visceral manner.

In Zambia, crying is private and communal: women come together behind walls to wail. Matha’s public, personal grief seemed odd, rude even. Women stared and clucked. Men avoided her path. Schoolboys laughed at her. Matha spat in their direction and kept weeping . . .

Her weeping, thus, is extremely political. Where it has failed her to attempt to escape and better her circumstances, the only reaction that Matha has is in her body. Matha grieves and is broken, and she transgresses the norms of her society by falling all the way into her disillusioned mourning and wearing it publicly.


I began this essay with Butler’s question of considering the body as a discursive practice, and then proceeded to outline some of the key ways the bodies of the novel’s three grandmothers acted and reacted. In a novel so committed to corporeal matter and matters, it is very likely striking that other bodies that are of great consequence are not considered in this reading. It feels important to acknowledge and account for these exclusions. The first is the fact of the grandmothers’ lives themselves and that the considerations of their bodies is largely focused on earlier sections of the novel. Sibilla’s life stretches on far beyond her migration to Zambia. In her own ways, Agnes grows politicized, and we later watch her contend with the loss of her son to AIDS. Matha’s life does not end with her weeping and she, too, deals with a loss of her own. This essay is less about the span of these women’s lives and more about the ways in which their distinct anatomical attributes function at particular junctures in this novel, depicting various discourses of bodily agency, each in their own right. These are very present in the first sections of the novel, where the functions of their bodies are animated and their speculative and magical realist natures most distinct. Serpell’s imaginative exaggeration of their bodies is useful for contending with the body as discursive. A second glaring aspect of this essay is the exclusion of bodies that are arguably equally striking in what they embody and raise, especially as we read this novel in the context of a pandemic. Sylvia, for example, whose body is a site of medical experimentation as a result of a genetic mutation in her blood, has one of the novel’s most notable bodies, itself riddled with its own set of complex discourses of virus, epidemic, and the complicated politics of disease. Sylvia’s exclusion from this essay is a mere consequence of the limits of scope. The Old Drift’s corporeal commitments are many, as are its thematic threads, its intimations of intimacy between bodies, its deployments of bodily motifs. An exhaustive consideration that unpacks all of the ways that Serpell treats bodies would be as sprawling as the novel itself. A focus, then, on the ways in which Sibilla, Agnes, and Matha’s bodies each propel them into their fate and respond accordingly is an important one that considers the agency of the female body. [End Page 31]

In essence, what really is central to my consideration of these women is the idea of their bodies as both discursive and subjects of discourse—as both the matter of fact and the fact of the matter. That their bodies are seen as acting in such interesting, contradictory, and important ways ushers us into how we read their descendants and informs our attentiveness to matters of the body in the rest of the novel. The depiction of bodies that house oppositional themes illustrates Namwali Serpell’s disruption of bodily, genreational borderlines, which she spoke to in an interview with Public Books, remarking, “[B]y now, I’ve had to justify many times why the different genres map onto different generations. And I honestly think it’s just a pun on ‘genre’ and ‘generation’” (Serpell, “‘The Places Where Things Blur’”). The novel has all of the ailings and failings of any living body. On reflection, there is a lot in the rest of the novel’s characters that is a question of genealogy, as any good family saga raises. It raises questions of what we inherit and how bodies pass on the matters of the past in their material form. As is true for the bodies of the novels, there is both beauty and the grotesque, both connectedness and dissonance, both hope and uncertainty.

Takondwa Priscilla Semphere
African Leadership Academy


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———. “‘The Places Where Things Blur’: Namwali Serpell on ‘The Old Drift.’” Interview with Sharon Marcus. Public Books, 17 June 2020,