Indiana University Press
  • Drone, Baby, Drone: Techno-neocolonialism and Postcolonial Mediations in Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift

The Old Drift embodies Namwali Serpell’s ideas of colonialism and post-colonialism as unstable descriptors requiring an imaginative retelling of Zambian national history, an alternate centering of marginalized figures, and a critical assessing of social protest in a society saturated with digital technologies. The paper examines how error, chance, and contingency determine the geographic, biologic, and gendered dynamics of empire, ideology, and subaltern resistance. It argues that the novel dramatizes techno-neocolonialism as the nexus of information technology, government agencies, and international businesses that generate conditions of subalternity for peoples deemed as threats or superfluous to the social order sustained by the postcolonial State. The novel foregrounds the politics of popular protest in Zambia as the drift of postcolonial mediations—imprinted with violence, haunted by imperialism, shaped by postcolonial contradictions, influenced by natural environments, crusted over with contingency, and re-narrated with subaltern agency.


Post-colonialism. Postcolonialism. Two terms. One with a hyphen, the other without. Namwali Serpell’s novel The Old Drift (2019) hovers between the two terms and more: it moves restlessly between and across them, foregrounding the ambivalence of Zambian nationalism, the contingent, chance-prone [End Page 132] interactions between the natural world and human habitation, the impact of information technology globalization on national governance, the rise of technoneocolonialism, and the struggle for subaltern self-determination in Zambia. But what do the terms mean? How does The Old Drift embody such restless movements and why?

Generally, the hyphenated term points to the disruption of colonial time, a set of events marking the shift from colonial governance to indigenous rule; the term without a hyphen draws attention to the sociocultural transformations necessary for decolonizing colonial society (McClintock; Mishra and Hodge; Ashcroft et al.). Postcolonialism describes the material conditions, which today include the production of global capital, labor, and power and thus calls into focus neocolonialism (Sethi). Whereas the post in post-colonial marks a political break, the post in post-colonial describes “alternative times, histories and casualties” that are necessary “to deal with complexities that cannot be served under the single rubric ‘post-colonialism’” (McClintock 297). Drawing attention to the specificity of European and Indian literary and philosophical genealogies in shaping postcolonialism as a field of study, some scholars question treating temporal breaks as coterminous with epistemological and sociological breaks, finding postcolonial studies and theory partially relevant to the study of Africa (Mbembe; Mususa; Getachew). Some have found the hesitation to historicize postcolonialism’s emergence in the Global North to be naive, including the field’s focus on subjectivity, culture, and obtuse jargon (Zeleza; Olaniyan). To others, the postcolonial is concerned not only with delimiting the extension of colonial time, but negating it, undermining it, and transforming it, which involves understanding and resisting how colonial mentalities and social institutions persist in post-colonial time and how transforming them involves rethinking the provenance of coloniality in the age of globalization and information (Loomba; Korang; Yaeger; Young).

Important as these arguments are, my aim is not to interrogate the field or its relevance to African studies and Africa, but to highlight the range of meanings the terms evoke and their analytical flexibility to understand the continuities and discontinuities, the overlaps and disjunctions, of coloniality, postcoloniality, globalization, and information technology, in order to study The Old Drift. The novel ends with catastrophic scenes of a dam break, flooding, devastation, and loss caused by microdrones that use forbidden internet servers and platforms to jam sluice gates; yet, the novel also gestures toward new possibilities for living and cooperative endeavor. My main argument is that to understand the nature of such digitally mediated subaltern resistance, we must examine the rise of techno-neocolonialism in Zambia: its on-going, uneven integration into a global field of sociopolitical and economic networks, its histories of nation-formation, its postcolonial challenges of governance, and its negotiation of the digital in the everyday lives of its peoples.

Writing not long after Ghana gained independence, and when many African countries were in the throes of obtaining self-rule, Kwame Nkrumah in Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965) cautions about the rise of new modes of domination that build artfully on earlier, colonial modes. He writes, “The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside” (xi). He adds that the “mechanisms of neo-colonialism are subtle and varied. They operate [End Page 133] not only in the economic field, but also in the political, religious, ideological and cultural spheres” (239). Nkrumah particularly underscores how companies outside Africa set up pan-African alliances with non-Africans in powerful positions; they maintain high interest rates, while the “invisible trade” of financial loans and aid packages requires African governments to collect and hand over data, give exclusive rights of operations, and provide access to mineral-rich sites (243). Along similar lines, Ella Shohat says that the “‘neo-colonial,’ like the ‘post-colonial’ also suggests continuities and discontinuities, but its emphasis is on the new modes and forms of the old colonialist practices, not a ‘beyond’” (106).

Tracing these continuities and discontinuities in the digital age, Ofunmilayo Arewa argues that the impact of information technologies on Africa continues colonial legacies in new guises, since “the colonial era overhang, which is pervasive,” is “exacerbated” and “limits potential digital developments.” Internationally, the Global South continues primarily serving the needs and interests of the Global North, where technological innovation presumably originates and whose export and implementation in Africa continues a relationship of dependency. David Pilling sums up, noting that since “the economic template established by Europeans has proved difficult to shift . . . the perennial puzzle of African development in the postcolonial era has been how to break the mould—how to extract Africa from its history of extraction.” Similarly, examining humanitarian initiatives that use digital technologies to collect, analyze, and reuse data about the peoples they serve, Mirca Madianou argues that “datafication increasingly serves the logic of efficiency and audit rather than the imperative of humanitarian reform and participation,” where “the risks of [digital] experimentation are outsourced to some of the most fragile environments in the world with value extracted for the benefit of stakeholders including private entrepreneurs and large companies” (7–8). When such dynamics influence humanitarianism, Bhakti Shringarpure posits that cultural and ideological cooptation become endemic. Peoples at a far remove (geographically, culturally, and politically) from sites of suffering become individual entrepreneurs, whose use of digital technologies normalizes a “Digital Savior Complex that foregrounds and reinforces existing colonial hierarchies between the savior and the saved” (179). Hence, techno-neocolonialism describes how such dynamics are possible because of, not despite, deep connections between entries and groups outside and inside the country. In the postcolonial State, it is elites and native power players who manage its institutions; but in terms of identity and agency, there is a discernable shift from colonial powers and foreigners to the indigenous.

Moreover, as Arewa points out, the lack of governance transparency in many African countries compounds public corruption, further marginalizing many groups of peoples. Geared primarily to serve interests external to Africa of the majorly Western-based IT companies, IT is not adapted to local needs. Rather, it is integrated in ways that perpetuate weak indigenous or local participation, making Africa the site for extractive labor, inconducive to generating a skilled workforce that can shape the digital economy for mutual benefit. Instead, by and large in Africa, we see the “exclusion and marginalization” of people when states are “undertaking law and policy” (Arewa).

Drawing from Nkrumah, Shohat, Arewa, Madianou, and Shringapure’s points about economic networks using African labor and resources often at the [End Page 134] expense of governance transparency, accountability, and equitable distribution of gains, in this paper I discuss how new iterations of colonialist socioeconomic logics in postcoloniality are evident in Zambia’s negotiation of the networked economy of the digital age. I argue that the novel dramatizes techno-neocolonialism as the nexus of information technology, government agencies, and international businesses that generates conditions of subalternity for peoples deemed as threats or superfluous to the political and economic order sustained by the postcolonial State. Techno-neocolonialism concentrates political and economic power within oligarchic groups that use the police, big business, the military, and government entities to forge close connections with global and local Information Technology companies, their allies, affiliates, and beneficiaries, to coopt or silence popular dissent and protest movements.

To understand the relationship of subaltern resistance to technoneocolonialism, a resistance that leads to a catastrophic, yet hopeful, ending in the novel, driven in large measure by digitally mediated platforms, underground communications, and automated, remotely controlled drones, we need to study the entwinning of the novel’s themes and forms, namely, how Frantz Fanon’s idea of the Manichean logic of coloniality extends into postcolonial Zambia, and W. E. B. DuBois’s “double consciousness” influences the psychology of the main characters and their interactions with others, Zambian culture, and African history. The Old Drift embodies Namwali Serpell’s ideas of colonialism and postcolonialism as unstable descriptors requiring an imaginative retelling of Zambian national history, an alternate centering of marginalized figures, and an assessing of the politics of dissent and revolution in a society saturated with digital technologies. Thus, to understand the climactic events that end the novel, we must examine how its multilayered narratives explore the paradoxes of coloniality and postcoloniality, the gendered nature of double consciousness that shapes character interactions, and the pervasive digital culture of contemporary Zambia that influences the nature of and possibilities of subaltern resistance.


The Old Drift begins in colonial time and continues into a post-colonial future. It weaves African macrohistories with Zambian microhistories: in 1855, David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary, explores Zambia and tracks the Zambezi River; in 1903, Percy M. Clark journeys into Northwestern Rhodesia to join the Old Drift, a colonial settlement; Northeastern Rhodesia merges with Northwestern Rhodesia to become Northern Rhodesia, a British protectorate in the 1920s; Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company become the British empire’s representatives; Italy extends its empire into Africa; Sir Stewart Gore-Browne creates Shiwa Ngandu, as a model estate; in the 1950s, Alice Lenshina Mulenga leads the Lumpa Church; in the next decade the church clashes with Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party, resulting in several hundred church members dying; Italian companies build the Kariba Dam in the late 1950s; in 1964, Zambia becomes an independent country, with Kenneth David Kaunda as President; in the 1960s, Edward Mukuka Nkoloso sets up the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy, and cadet Matha Mwamba becomes its iconic star; AIDS ravages Zambia in the nineties; international efforts [End Page 135] for a vaccine ensue; China becomes an economic presence in the late nineties; with the rise of the Internet, social media and online technologies acquire rapid social and governmental use in Zambia; in the novel, Digital-All Beads and drones are used for research and surveillance; the SOTP protests at Kalingalinga; the subalterns use microdrones to jam the sluice gates of the Kariba Dam, leading to its implosion; a flood overwhelms the region; a new post postcolonial entity comes into existence, Lusaka, a city-state, with Kalingalinga as its capital.

These historical and fictional events and peoples become not a picturesque backdrop against which the novel narrates its stories; rather, they provide psychological and intellectual fodder for various character interactions, particularly their modes of self-fashioning. In their interactions and self-perceptions, the novel’s African, Indian, British, and Italian families—marked by racial, ethnic, linguistic, historical, and geographical difference—foreground Zambian colonial and post-colonial history as a cross-cultural, cross-racial, and trans-geographical phenomenon. Annah Omune Sidigu’s characterization of the novel as a “triumphant and tragic retelling of the country’s birth and a sage forecast of what the future might hold for Zambia” underlines how the novel’s revision of colonial history becomes a postcolonial act of imaginative contestation. It is this imaginative contestation, which involves both a revisiting of colonial historical settings, and a revising of colonial values and practices, that endows The Old Drift with its author’s unique approach to postcolonialism.


Drawing from his experience as a psychiatrist during the French-Algerian war (1954–62), Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1963) argues that because colonialism is founded on physical and psychological violence, decolonization necessarily involves physical and psychological force. Fanon places violence at the heart of decolonization: “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder” (36); because “decolonization is quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men . . . decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” (35). The colonized peoples are dislocated, fenced in, brutalized, enslaved, and robbed of their histories, cultures, and languages. “The colonial world,” observes Fanon, “is a Manichean world” (41). Colonialism organizes society into cultural, political, economic, and geographic binaries. “The colonial world is a world cut into two. The dividing line, the frontiers are shown by barracks and police stations. . . . It is obvious here that the agents of government speak the language of pure force” (38).

Jean-Paul Sartre writes in his preface, “Violence in the colonies does not only have for its aim the keeping of these enslaved men at arm’s length; it seems to dehumanize them. Everything will be done to wipe out their traditions, to substitute our language for theirs and to destroy their culture without giving them ours. Sheer physical fatigue will stupefy them . . . the result, neither man nor animal, is the native” (15–16). Consequently, Fanon argues, “on the logical plane, the Manicheanism of the settler produces a Manicheanism of the native. To the history of the ‘absolute evil of the native,’ the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the settler replies’” (93). Thus, violence becomes a mode of liberation, a force to galvanize national consciousness. About Zambia, specifically, Andrew Sardanis [End Page 136] observes, “The towns were divided into European areas, African areas and Indian areas; they had separate housing, shopping, schools, churches and all other social activities” (12), which echoes Fanon’s notion of Manichean exclusivity.

The Old Drift acknowledges the Manichean nature of Zambian coloniality, but, nevertheless, refrains from privileging it as the primary lens for forging anti-colonial resistance. In this context, it is worth noting that Serpell views The Old Drift as a Zambian novel, concerned primarily with Zambian history and society, although her own life of migration and relocation in the Global North, or USA, positions her in the group of writers outside Africa writing about Africa (Dunton 4). Serpell comments, “I could say that, first, this is not a Zambian-American novel. This is a Zambian novel. . . . I am sort of in the middle. I’m a mixed-race Zambian, I’m very nomadic in my family, and my novel is very much about cultural syncretism, about the missing and mingling of cultures” (“A Novelist”). About her multiracial heritage, Serpell says, “I wanted to subvert expectations of what it means to be African. So the idea of ‘being Zambian’ gets contested at various points in the novel. . . . to be Zambian is a very complicated term, one I wanted to throw into contestation” (“Q&A”).

The discursive space between the insider position of the novel and the outsider position of the writer generates a liminality that, to Serpell, marks the space of colonial and postcolonial border crossings; in these spaces colonial binaries lose their self-evident nature, showing that the boundaries of their Manichean politics frequently overlap, complicating ideas of origin, authenticity, identity, and representation. Moreover, to Serpell, for all of colonialism’s ideological animus and Enlightenment-based rationality, the role of accidents and chance in the give and take of ordinary interactions that make up human life have just as much power to determine the course of empires and nations.

The “mosquito asides,” short sections in italicized prose interspaced throughout the novel and functioning as a dramatic device in the manner of a Greek chorus, give us a panoramic view of African history. Sprinkled with onomatopoetic expressions, proverb-like statements, mockery, and satire, the asides, in which the mosquitos acquire characterological standing, dive into the archives of African cultural history to introduce chapters, plots, characters, ideologies, dramatic settings, historical events, and speculative philosophy. The mosquitos signify the deep relationships of human beings and the natural environment; they symbolize the power of place and its myriad natural spaces in which plant, insect, and animal life influence and are in turn influenced by human life. In the first of these asides and in the first chapter of the novel, we see contingency and happenstance shaping the future of global empires.


It is 1903, and the explorer Percy M. Clark carves his name on a baobab tree. He is looking for the Old Drift, a settler community a few miles from Victoria Falls, also called Mosi-oa-Tunya, “The Smoke That Thunders,” in Kololo, or the Lozi language of Zambia. Clark narrates an event that takes place in a hotel dining room. Stricken with fever, yet eager to socialize in the hotel bar, Clark picks up random conversations and observes Pietro Gavuzzi, from Piedmont, Northwestern Italy, amble into the room with his British wife, Ada, and their five-year-old daughter, Lina. As a [End Page 137] prank, Clark grabs Gavuzzi’s hat, only to realize his palm gets filled with both the hat and Gavuzzi’s hair, eliciting a shocked reaction from the prankster. As Ada lunges forward to her husband, Lina “shriek[s] with fury,” striking a native who walks by with a tray, turning him into a person who “was never right in the head again. He be[comes] an imbecile, forever smiling at the daisies” (12).

Ordinary as this event might seem, it sets the conceptual framework for Serpell’s views on colonial power and postcolonial resistance. The people involved are from Britain, Italy, and Zambia, interacting in the bar of a dingy hotel room at the Old Drift. The juvenile, drink-fueled banter and prank foreground the contingency of the colonial encounter. Whereas Clark and Gavuzzi’s interaction is comic, Lina’s action is accidental, devoid of premeditation and colonial impulse. That it takes place during the early phases of European colonial adventurism in Africa cannot be gainsaid. However, ascribing causality to mundane activities in colonial society over privileges premeditation and rationality. What follows in the rest of the novel is the intergenerational saga of three families, whose members hail from Zambia, Britain, Italy, and India, and each of whom has a different understanding of empire and its discontents, each showing diverse inclinations for empire, imperial power, economic despoil, social advancement, anticolonial violence, and civil disobedience.

Highlighting this specific instance in the novel, Serpell observes, “This sort of thing happens throughout the novel. Everyone’s responsibility for any particular complication is always mitigated. Agency emerges in relation rather than as something we each possess deep inside of us (like ‘I did something wrong’). It’s very rare in the novel where someone actively does something wrong to someone else. Most of the time, there’s some set of contingencies that draw people into some kind of collision” (Serpell “Q&A”). Serpell’s ideas of colonial and post-colonial contingency and relationality are manifest as a novelistic device that enables the narrator, the author, and the characters to envision counter factual histories. In key sections of the novel, the characters engage in creating imagined doubles; they speculate on adopting other personas, which are not only designed to empathize with them but to view their own specific conditions with other eyes. It is a form of what W.E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” which is “a peculiar sensation . . . this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

But in The Old Drift, double consciousness is initiated through the novel’s authorial voice and by the characters themselves, not to evaluate their thoughts or actions according to external prescriptions only, which does happen, but to reflect on their and others’ material and psycho-social conditions and to read against the grain of their interpretations and their notions of national, familial, and individual history. These moments in the novel presage the final climax at the end when Joseph, Jacob, and Naila foment a public protest that includes jamming the Kariba Dam gates with microdrones, resulting in a cataclysmic fallout for the peoples, Lusaka, and Zambia.

Floods, dam breaks, miscalculation, swerving, error, chance, fever, contingency, mosquito bites, misunderstandings, disorientation, biodiversity, and ecoregions all shape human endeavors, just as much as ideology, science, and rationality. In The Old Drift, colonialism and its resistances have complex [End Page 138] dimensions and are manifest in motivated acts of control and violent exploitation and in quotidian interactions among colonizers and the colonized in specific bioregions where natural flows, climatic conditions, and the flora and fauna profoundly shape the trajectory of colonialism, conditions of post-coloniality, and modalities for subaltern resistance. The Old Drift’s impetus to rewrite Zambian history involves generating a postcolonial diffusionist historical fiction in which Zambian national history is freighted with double consciousness: the search for origins leads to diffusion, to many other points of reference that haunt national icons and myths. Notwithstanding the novel’s sharp critique of David Livingstone’s role as a foreign explorer bringing civilization to Africa, it does not cancel him or, in a Manichean gesture of revision, replace him with a Zambian icon, or view him through the single lens of anticolonialist ideology.


The first mosquito aside of the novel begins with David Livingstone’s entry into Africa, and his naming of Mosi-oa-Tunya, “The Smoke Which Thunders,” as Victoria Falls, in honor of the Queen. Decades later, at the turn of the century, Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company would extend imperial economic interests for natural resources in Rhodesia, which would become Zambia and Zimbabwe. Livingstone’s death due to malaria, his burial in Zambia, and the transportation of his remains by his close African associates along a long, torturous path back to the coast, and eventually to England, as a gesture of honoring the explorer and missionary, becomes an important event in shaping the reach and import of the British empire, and, more to the point, its cultural meanings, often varied and contradictory, extending into the next two centuries (Ross; Lewis).

Despite a dismal record of native conversion, Livingstone’s dual focus on spreading Christianity with commercial enterprise often meant undermining both British and Arab slave trading. To Livingstone, opposing slavery ideologically was not enough; undermining its commercial stakes by setting up alternate commercial activity would lead to greater self-sufficiency, thus making slavery as an economic institution less rewarding, less viable: “If Christian missionaries and Christian merchants can remain in the interior of the continent, the slave trader will be driven out of the market” (qtd. in Olsen 41). That in 2020, of Zambia’s 17.4 million population, 95.5 percent are Christian speaks to the enduring legacy of European missionary activity, ever since Livingstone’s forays into Africa increased European interest and imperial reach (US Department of State). Ted Olsen points out, “Like Livingstone, these missionaries didn’t consider themselves only preachers of the World. They founded institutions like hospital and industrial training centers. They also established schools, which educated generations of Zambians—including Kenneth Kaunda, who became the country’s first president in 1965” (38). In the contemporary moment, “the sheer diversity of churches suggests that, far from a singular evangelical movement coming to dominate Zambian theological practice and political culture, this proliferation reflects the fecundity of religious belief and the relative pluralism of views regarding the appropriate relationship between religious belief and political culture” (Larmer et al. 901). [End Page 139]

The infusion of modernity in Zambia is inextricably bound up with colonialism. While a vicious colonial ideology cognized the natives as the Other without reason and feeling, what comes across here is a notion of civilization that is about literacy and the application of rationality to social organization, which is modernity’s central enterprise (Mackenzie; Rijpma; Kilbride). Colonial and post-colonial Zambia are the products of a deep entwining of modernity, Christian missions, and European empire.

A strictly Manichean paradigm that overturns the legacy of European Christian missions in Zambia will necessarily mean rejecting Zambia as it emerged and currently exists, socially, politically, and historically. The novel’s mosquitos recognize this well, because they caution that where there is the desire to seek an authentic or pure “origin, you find a vast babble which is also a silence: a chasm of smoke, thundering. Blind mouth!” (2). The metaphor packs the punch of contradiction: the plurality of babble when contracted into singularity to claim origin leads to silence. What matters is to understand and negotiate Zambia’s “chasm of smoke, thundering,” its entangled history and inter-continental drift of colonial and postcolonial energies.

Livingstone’s death due to malaria, a mosquito-borne disease, underscores the power of the natural world to interfere with human initiatives. And to be sure, this story is narrated by the mosquitos, whose choral interruptions and asides frame the entire novel. This passage emphasizes it well:

Men never believe chance can wreak great consequence. Yet the story of this place is full of such slips. Error, n., from the Latin errare: to stray or to veer or to wander. . . . Neither Oriental nor Occidental, but accidental is this nation. . . . Where you sought an origin, you find a vast babble which is also a silence: a chasm of smoke, thundering. Blind mouth!


Citing the mosquito asides, Serpell comments, “So the mosquitos talk about the etymology of ‘error.’ It’s ‘to stray’ or ‘to wander.’ So error as this kind of overarching principle is being investigated and explored through the way the characters interact with each other over time. Zambia comes into being as an accidental nation and is following this—they call it ‘the law of the flaw,’ which is the tendency to swerve away from a straight and narrow path and to be in this constant state of drift” (“Q&A”).

Decades later, in the middle of the following century, Livingstone’s legacy drifts; it meanders into colonial Zambian society, transformed into a new register in the rise of Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, an anticolonial leader. Nkoloso’s, at times, outlandish scientific experiments betray not what might initially seem to be a capacity for mixing up sound projects with half-baked prototypes, but rather a tenacious postcolonial hope that colonized peoples are capable of rationality and scientific vision. Nkoloso dreams of nothing less than beating Russia and USA to the punch, by sending Zambian Afronauts to the moon. At the height of the space race in the 1960s, Nkoloso set up the National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy, to train young Zambians for space exploration. On the internet are videos with archival footage showing his training programs and snippets of interviews, where his responses to questions about science, technology, and Zambian education sound like a mix of sincerity, comedy, and parody. [End Page 140]

But The Old Drift shows another side of Nkoloso, one possessed of magnetic charisma; one recruited to fight for the British in the Second World War; one who becomes a teacher; one who seeks to reopen a school shut down by the authorities; one who fights for labor rights and multiracial schools; one who becomes president of a district of the African National Congress. For standing up against settler and native tribal collaborators, Nkoloso was arrested and allegedly suffered extreme physical punishment, resulting in odd public behavior periodically. He also gained the attention and favor of a rising politician, Kenneth David Kaunda, who would go on to become independent Zambia’s first President in 1964. The attack against Lilian Margaret Brown in 1960 resulting in her death was partly the result of activists and educators involved with Nkoloso. The space program functioned as a cover to enable Nkoloso and other Zambian anticolonial agitators to provide aid to rebel groups in neighboring colonized regions. According to reliable sources, the penchant he developed later in life for extravagant claims and projects were likely the result of suffering imprisonment and torture (Serpell, “The Zambian”).

Nkoloso’s commitment to the space program and abiding interest in the cadets’ success include teaching Matha Mwamba “how to drive a car, fix an engine, and put together a circuit board with a handful of wires and an old battery” (163). When Nkoloso speaks to local and foreign reporters, who respond with curiosity and amusement, Matha sees something else: “[She] had heard all this before, the way Ba Nkoloso blended together science and fable, African technology and Western philosophy. It confused others, but she had learned to see the world through his double vision. It was as natural to her now as the air through which she was swinging” (167). Eschewing the desire to replace the one with the other, the mosquitos connect Nkoloso to Livingstone: “If Livingstone was our white father, Nkoloso was our black prince—Bemba royalty they say. Equally smart, just as possessed, abrim with the will to explore. . . . There is no way to tell, but as flyers ourselves, we claim him as one of our own. Makuka Nkoloso, the ultimate bug—needler of conventions and rules” (200).

Matha and the mosquitos understand that Nkoloso’s “double vision” is about educating the new generation, inspiring them to become self-reliant, to take their place in Zambian society as leaders and scientists. It is, also, a social and institutional space for activists and political leaders to spur anticolonial rebellion within Africa. Nkoloso, like Livingstone, is a figure of doubleness generating a multifocal vision of colonial history and postcolonial culture where the binaries of colonizer and colonized cannot erase the profoundly transformative processes of give-and-take between Africa and Britain, between Africa and the world. In the postcolonial vision of The Old Drift, contesting empire does not come in the post-colonial period after independence; instead, empire’s contradictions and paradoxes continue, in different political and cultural registers, in postcoloniality.


The doubleness of history and identity takes a different turn in the life of Matha Mwamba, the star Afronaut. In a long passage in the novel, we see Matha experience a moment of dissociation from herself, in which she reimagines the events [End Page 141] affecting her. In this moment, her reimagination takes the form not of an alternate possibility, or another perspective, but as a reversal of a life-defining act. The passage reads thus:

She dreamed of a messy mass of blood slipping back inside her with a suction sound. A thick cord ravelled into tight loops. A baby clambered up feet first, bestowing weight and tightness to her belly. Her swollen breasts ebbed, their milky tide receded. Tears travelled up her check, trickling into her eye ducts. There was a gradual, deep unwrenching. Then streams of pleasure surged together, imploding with a swallowing action. She hiccupped a moan as sperm sprang back into a penis, which withdrew from her and deflated. A pair of hands left her cheek. A pair of lips drew away. Matha saw him clearly. Godfrey. Those lips as plump as her tomatoes, the keloid on his neck as thin-skinned, his tightcurled lashes like the tendrils on their stems. “Comrade,” he whispered and vanished into the dark.


The baby she had delivered is Sylvia; the father is Godfrey Mwango, her fellow cadet, a star like her in the space program. However, this moment happens after Matha learns that Sylvia has been kidnapped by her Aunt Grace, who “had more than once thought about rescuing the child” (211). Because Matha has a sexual encounter with Godfrey, a fellow cadet, and becomes pregnant, she crosses two social strictures: the gendered expectation that a woman like her should not be sexually active and that her pregnancy meant losing her status as the star cadet in the space program. Matha is shunned by her family. Fearful, distraught, and helpless, Matha yields to her sorrow, earning a reputation as the Crying Woman of Kalingalinga. Aunt Grace views Matha’s emotional breakdown as postpartum depression, thinking it is “excessive and premature” (197). Matha becomes part of The Weepers, women who gather together and moan publicly and privately together. Their travails include “a philandering husband. A stillborn baby. An abusive brother. But Mrs. Zulu did not care to hear why the women were sad and they did not dare share. As if they were a neverending funeral, they just gathered together to sit in the yard outside Matha’s home and cry all day long, their sobs beating through the air” (206). So intense is their humiliation that the women “did not dare share,” because sharing would invite further opprobrium; the pressure to maintain silence means becoming overcome with feelings of loss and hopelessness and generating loud lamentations, a form of non-textual, affective communication among themselves and with others.

What Matha’s family, friends, and community members fail to understand about the consequences of transgressing social norms as a woman is that some of them are deeply invested in sustaining the norms Martha crosses. For instance, “To her father, Matha’s pregnancy meant that her prospects for marriage and employment, not to mention life on heaven and earth, were ruined. . . . He had already slotted the news about her into an old story. The story went like this: no matter who the world shifts to accommodate her, this kind of woman finds a way to disturb the peace. This kind of woman is the nganga that sits at the top of the stream, kicking her feet to make it roil” (186–87). Making matters worse is her hero Nkoloso’s response to her pregnancy, wherein he chastises her: “‘You? Here?’ he laughed bitterly. ‘This is revolutionary business, Matha. Serious business. Not for girls who cannot keep their . . .’ He broke off” (193). [End Page 142] Shunned by her family and driven into poverty, Matha finds Nkoloso’s words particularly depressing, as “she felt like she was hearing his real voice for the very first time. She divined the store of disappointment inside it, like a cave hidden by a waterfall” (193).

Lying semi-clothed on mats, readying to give birth, on hearing others calling her and the baby inside her witches, Matha feels “as hollow as this empty room, her thought eddying around like smoke” (198). Learning about her daughter’s disappearance elicits, to Matha’s dismay, feelings of relief, not anxiety: “Sylvia had always been a reminder of everything that Matha had lost. Every day, she woke up, felt her daughter’s small squirming body beside her, remembered, and despaired . . . when she found the girl missing, there had been another feeling—a flash of relief that, for once, there was no skin pressed up against hers” (210).

Succeeding in Nkoloso’s ambitious space program means adhering to gender expectations. Despite impregnating Matha, Godfrey irresponsibly shuns her, leaving her to face her future alone. The contrast between Matha’s pursuit of education and innovative social endeavors and her mother Bernadetta’s relentless pursuit of social justice by supporting Nkoloso’s anticolonial activism is striking, because both pay a heavy price: Matha is left socially and familially abandoned, while Bernadette is arrested and dies in prison. The fact of her mother’s untimely demise rattles Matha, because “as a girl, Matha had always seen her mother as an ideal woman—the fury, the industry, the permanent sense of grievance. This world is not enough. . . . But when her mother had clawed at the fence, Matha had grabbed her fingers with pride, clutching the fervor there” (198).

The reality of gender imbalances in Zambian colonial and post-colonial society, and the power of gender ideology to shape professional prospects at tremendous personal and psychological cost, are not lost on Matha, as she recognizes that a core part of her existence as a Zambian is to be a woman: “Matha had never considered that being female would thwart her so, that it would be a hurdle she had to jump every time she wanted to learn something: to read a book, shout the answers, to make a bomb, to love a man, to fight for freedom” (199). Decades later, such enduring concerns led to the formation of the Zambia National Women’s Lobby Group (ZNWLG) and the Zambia Women Writers’ Association (ZWWA). In 2001, ZNWLG set up the Women in Politics Forum, which met at the Mulungushi International Conference, where they publicly affirmed the Zambia Women’s Manifesto, which sought to increase women’s participation and representation in various political institutions (Phiri 259–60).

While such political activism is vital for women’s empowerment, the psychological effects of a gendered double consciousness become evident when Matha reimagines in a dream her baby’s delivery and conception. The dream directly reverses biological and psychological moments. Here we see a sharp instance of DuBois’s double consciousness manifest its logical conclusion of radical self-alienation. She experiences “that dawning shock that comes when you look at yourself and see a person you might have pitied” (199). Matha views herself as others view her, as if she has to develop an alter ego, another self, another persona that can constantly check her real self, in order to play by gendered norms. Anticolonial activism comes freighted with gender ideologies, continuing the marginalization of some women in postcolonial Zambia. [End Page 143]


But to Sylvia, Matha Mwamba’s daughter, growing up away from her mother and into a teen and a young adult comes at a personal cost; she drops out of school, takes up with a stranger who becomes a friend, Loveness, and from her learns to walk the night streets to lure customers for her body. As a young woman, Sylvia, desperate to eke out her own life, submits to Mr Mwape’s seduction, which is complicated by the fact that he is her Aunt Cookie’s friend. Oddly, as a child, Sylvia, at her aunt’s behest, calls Mr Mwape “daddy,” though more out of casual formality than anything else. With her artful ways, and often drawing from her own experience of being abused as a girl by her uncle, Loveness becomes a shrewd, calculating woman who teaches Sylvia the arts of the street trade, albeit with strong reservations about not compromising their dream of attaining a middle-class lifestyle. Often mistaking her friend’s caveats for jealousy, Sylvia ends up befriending a Danish-Dutchman, who beds her. As the man exerts himself on her, Sylvia closes her eyes, imagining an alternate situation: “When he finally put his thing inside her, it hurt but not as much as Loveness had said it would. Sylvia turned her head away from his astringent breath, wondering whether sex had been painful for Loveness when her uncle had first ‘started’ her. She closed her eyes and tried to picture the big fat man bouncing on top of the skinny title girl—Loveness before she was Loveness” (240).

But this seemingly empathetic gesture by Sylvia to imagine what her friend Loveness experienced in being used by her uncle is also driven by Sylvia’s misguided jealousy that Loveness was not helping her become successful in their secret trade. As the man pushes himself off her body, having exhausted himself on her, they both light up cigarettes. Sylvia at this point moves a step further, from empathy to temporarily adopting her friend’s identity: “She felt a double feeling: she missed her friend and she hated her friend” (240). When the man asks Sylvia her name, she says “Loveness,” making complete her adoption of another persona—that of her close friend—to make sense of her own desperate attempts at self-sufficiency, glamor, and identity. That the women later end up setting up salon, whose business picks up well, testifies to their ability to make their patrons support them.

In this instance, Sylvia’s double consciousness involves attempting to experience Loveness’s life as a suave, successful professional of the trade. Such is her desperation to advance socially in the profession they have chosen that when Sylvia experiences for the first time a sexual encounter with an ideal patron, she feels let down. Sexual pleasure, if “sweetness” can be interpreted thus, comes as if her body has an afterthought following the act, because “the exact center of her body was ringing with a stinging, smarting sweetness” (240). Her excessive preoccupation with becoming like Loveness makes Sylvia lose her own standing as a person. The obsessive desire to emulate her friend turns into an ambivalent emotion of affection and hatred. Where DuBois’s double consciousness had a distinct racial dimension, here we see a deeply gendered experience of self-alienation through adopting other personas, to gain professional status in the ancient trade for pleasure that men have long established as a masculine normative. [End Page 144]


The multifocal historical vision of Zambian coloniality and postcoloniality that we see in the Livingstone-Nkoloso juxtaposition, the gendering of double consciousness in Matha’s pursuit of national pride through space exploration, and Sylvia’s mode of self-fashioning through self-objectification lead us to a central concern of The Old Drift: revisioning Zambian colonial history by foregrounding geographical difference, ideological fracturing, idiosyncratic agency, unpredictable happen-stance, and contingent macro politics. To question the nation is to foreground its constructedness, to give voice to that which is marginalized, to give expression to that which is suppressed. Put another way, the novel’s postcolonial rewriting of Zambian colonial history brings to the fore subaltern subjects, those left outside the national narrative, those deemed uneasy subjects to be accommodated into the national imaginary.

Zambia’s emergence as a nation-state is the product of a troubled history. Its official motto, “One Zambia, One Nation,” is less an accurate signifier of a stable, homogenous national community finding full expression in a new nation; rather, it is a socially constructed narrative to develop temporal and spatial coherence; it is, to use Homi Bhabha’s formulation, “the nation as a narrative strategy—and an apparatus of power,” whose attempt to create a common culture is often marked by an ambivalence that cannot fully erase that which is left out of the national narrative (292). It is this excess, this superfluousness of the nation, that the novel’s revisionary retelling seeks to foreground, an effort also evident in the scholarly revisions of Zambian history. Under the British as two entities, North-Eastern Rhodesia and Barotseland-North-Western Rhodesia (the latter a part of Cecil Rhode’s British South Africa Company, the BSAC) joined to form Northern Rhodesia in 1911. In 1924, the BSAC relinquished territorial control to the British colonial office. Decades later, in 1953, a new entity called the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was created, which included Nyasaland and Northern and Southern Rhodesia. In 1964, out of this group emerged modern-day Zambia, with Nyasaland becoming Malawi, an independent country, later a republic. For the next few decades, Zambia faced secessionist pressures from the region of Barotseland, whose Lozi peoples had a precolonial kingdom, was a separate British protectorate, and was facing economic marginalization in the new Zambian nation-state. As early as 1979, the nexus of the state, businesses, and parastatals (private or semi-private entities serving the needs of the state) formed a new, elite social class more interested in globalizing the Zambian economy and society (Mulford; Shaw and Anglin; Burdette; Larmer).

Moreover, revisionary histories are bringing to light other iconic figures like Harry Nkumbula, whose work with Kenneth Kaunda led to extensive organizing for the independence struggle, but also resulted in Kaunda’s breaking way from the Nkumbula-led Northern Rhodesian African National Congress to form the Zambian African National Congress (ZANC); such developments shed light on rivalries around region, ethnicity, and policy goals among African nationalists, which risk being subsumed by nationalist and, at times, party-led propogandist discourses of organic unity (Macola, Liberal Nationalism in Central Africa, “Harry Mwaanga Nkumula and the Formation of ZANC/INIP”). The tense relations between the Capricorn African Society and other groups like the ZANC involved [End Page 145] differences in emphasis on interracial solidarities and political strategies. The relations between the Tonga and Bemba peoples, large ethnic groups among more than seventy other tribes, show rivalries over tribal boundaries and national representation (Englund).1 We see paradoxical attitudes to nationalist struggles in how, for instance, Kalonga Gawa Undi X, of the Chewa peoples of Eastern Zambia, responded to the African National Congress (ANC) and the Zambia African National Congress (ZANC), which presaged the United National Independence Party (UNIP). Concerned about the erasure of local, tribal independence under nationalist parties, the chief countered the autocracy and, at times, dismissiveness of African independence leaders; eventually, after several negotiations, he supported the ANC, the ZANC, and UNIP (Kalusa). The Capricorn African Society (1949–63), posits Bizeck Jube Phiri, played a significant role in the struggle for Zambian liberalism; despite being led by a white majority, the organization “was a genuine agent for the propagation of multiracial party politics,” while seeking European investments and Western economic and political models for Zambian adaptation (77). These developments continue generating political ruptures and social divisions in postcolonial Zambia.

When the mosquitos say in their first aside, also a preface to the novel, “Neither Oriental nor Occidental, but accidental is this nation” (2), they underscore the developmental, fragmentary nature of Zambia’s emergence as a colonial entity and postcolonial republic. As Miles Larmer et al. point out, “Zambia is, more than most African nation-states, an entity that was imagined and constructed from without. Northern Rhodesia represented the colonial leftovers from the European scramble, its borders defined by prior and more sought-after claims to the territories to its south, east, west and north” (895). Central to post-colonial Zambia, then, was the national effort to cultivate and sustain the new republic’s official motto, “One Zambia, One Nation.” Right from the beginning of the novel, Zambia as a unified nation with a unitary history becomes suspect, which later develops into a pungent critique of the Zambian’s state’s neocolonial measures to apply 21st-century technologies to undemocratically surveil and manage its populations. This leads us to consider the rise of digital culture in Zambia.


Born in the late nineties, the three protagonists—Naila, Joseph, and Jacob—grow up in the Internet age. As young adults, they, like many in Zambia, the novel’s Zambia, that is, are constantly exposed to global music, culture, and ideas; they develop a cosmopolitan sensibility attuned to cross-cultural and cross-racial relationships. A school drop-out learning to find his way in the world, Jacob joins Solo and Pepa, orphans, to rummage through discarded heaps of electronic trash and, through creative enterprise, run an underground urban economy to barter and sell antiques, hand me downs, and improvised machines.

Such is Jacob’s natural ingenuity that by teaching himself the basis of electrical engineering shortcuts online and, with his grandmother’s help, Matha, he builds a drone helicopter, the Moskeetoze. His technical reputation catching the eye of the General in charge of the Lusaka City Airport where he runs a secret economy by surreptitiously pilfering freight from planes, Jacob’s drone technology transfers, under duress, to the General. But initial plans change, as “they were more [End Page 146] interested in surveillance drone than delivery drones now” (473). Not long thereafter, Naila, Joseph, and Jacob organize protests against the government. There are four issues that need explication here: the impact of the Internet; the AIDS crisis in Zambia; the entrepreneurial spirts of digital culture that bends hierarchies and institutional systems; and the nature of subaltern resistance in the contingent modality of the hive, the swarm, which dramatizes Serpell’s views on agency and power in postcolonial Zambia.

The rise of the Internet in the nineties led to an explosion of information and communication across the world, with the result that three decades later, almost all sectors of human life are being radically reconfigured. Space and time have compressed dramatically, as social media technologies enable the production and circulation of information in various modalities. Global figures for January 2023 show, for a global population of 8.01 billion people, 5.16 billion internet users (64.4%), 5.44 billion unique mobile users (68%), and 4.76 billion social media users (59.4%) (Datareportal). In 2019, figures show that Facebook had 2.4 billion users, while YouTube and Whatsapp each had one billion users. From zero mobile service subscriptions in 1980, Zambia registered, in 2020, 19.10 million subscriptions, a remarkable growth in the use of mobile devices and internet use (Our World in Data). A major difference between North American and African countries in internet use is mobile services and devices:

Due to low infrastructure and financial restraints, many emerging digital markets skipped the desktop internet phase entirely and moved straight onto mobile internet via smartphone and tablet devices. India is a prime example of a market with a significant mobile-first online population. Other countries with a significant share of mobile internet traffic include Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. In most African markets, mobile accounts for more than half the web traffic. By contrast, mobile only makes up around 48 percent of online traffic in the United States.

As Esteban Ortiz-Ospina observes, “Social media has changed the world. The rapid and vast adoption of these technologies is changing how we find partners, how we access information from the news, and how we organize to demand political change.” It is in these contexts that the millennial generation of The Old Drift, those born at the turn of the millennium marked by the rise of the Internet, is used to Digit-All Beads; functioning like mobile devices, akin to smart phones, they can be implanted in fingers. The beads are used by the government to send information about voting, credit cards, payments, including communicating with government officials.


The microdrone that Jacob and Matha design and prototype is the product of technological breakthroughs whose pioneering days included military innovation from the middle of the nineteenth century, to World Wars I and II, and later, after 9/11, in the US-Iraq War. Drones, known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), can be operated remotely by pilots stationed thousands of miles away. When equipped with live ammunition, armed drones can become lethal weapons of war. Due to [End Page 147] their sophisticated capacity, reliability, and design, the Global Hawk, the Predator, and the Reaper have become global symbols of warfare in the 21st century (Singer; Benjamin; Muthyala).

Out of Sight, Out of Mind presents a visually arresting interactive presentation about drones as predatory military technologies. It showcases drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to 2015 that caused more than three thousand casualties, including innocent men, women, and children; that it was during President Barack Obama’s presidency that drone warfare was finessed underscores the irony of symbolic diversity and the material and political effects of power. Of late, Africa has become a crucial node in the drone warfare network, as the US, in partnership with Niger, is setting up a vast drone base in Agadez, Niger. Air Base 201 is “the largest construction project that Air Force engineers had ever undertaken,” costing $110 million; it involves building, on 2,200 acres, “a runway more than 6,800 feet long and 150 feet wide,” particularly for the MQ-9 Reaper drone and large C-17 cargo aircraft. The goal is to “turn Air Base 201 completely over to the Nigerien military,” which shows the close partnerships of American and Nigerien governments to establish a drone base with Pan-African capability, the other drone base, smaller than Niger’s, being located in East Africa in Djibouti (Schmitt).

When, in the novel, the General takes Jacob’s drone designs and uses them to create a swarm of microdrones with which to forcefully overwhelm and puncture people’s skin to vaccinate them, when they gather to protest government high-handedness, we see complex military technology used by police departments and the military against their own people within their country. The hunt for global terrorists with armed drones transforms into the management of citizens and inhabitants of a town, city, and country for governments to exercise their power. Crucial to the efficacy of drones is surveillance. Without the ability to generate images and video feeds of what the drone cameras see, the technology loses its lethality. Put another way, the General’s use of microdrones for forceful vaccination necessitates constant surveillance of the people; the surveillant gaze of the drone is an extension of the State’s seemingly benevolent eye. The more it sees, the more it seeks to intrude in the private affairs of peoples (Rosen and Santesso).

What makes armed drones formidable technologies is their conjoining multiple digitally operable systems: hardware and software for remote, semi-autonomous ability to take off, hover, and land in various, especially hard to reach, spaces; the ability to carry lasers, guns, and short and long-range missiles; and the cameras, lenses, and gyroscopes needed to surveil an area or people by producing millions of bytes of information that can be endlessly visualized in loops, distributed, and digitally scanned.

While there are certain benefits to drone warfare, like less reliance on troops on the ground, less logistical support to set up infrastructure outside the country to support armed forces, and so on, it cannot be gainsaid that drone warfare is fundamentally changing notions of war and peace. With drones, a nation can be officially not at war, yet for years lob missiles into another country’s territory, while justifying such acts in the name of maintaining peace (Chamayou). Endless war becomes de facto. Peace is continually produced in a perpetual state of emergency. Governments concentrate power. Big Tech, lobbyists, aviation companies, defense contractors, military generals, and politicians form formal and informal networks [End Page 148] to further their interests, often to the detriment of the peoples they represent, and those who give them power over their lives. Moreover, the vexed relations between the state and civil society further undermine governance, generating mistrust among the people, because “the state had been known to use underhanded methods to reconquer the political arena and criminalize dissent, as if control of a country’s government was a birthright for the ruling elites” (Kaliba 7).

In the novel, the Digit-All Bead program is controlled by the government, whose interest in generating and collecting user data is not subject to checks and institutional reviews. The beading system is so invasive, observes Naila, that people cannot “deactivate them” because “it’s the perfect system to monitor us, to force compliance,” leading Jacob to note that the miners in the Copperbelt, to resist intrusion, had no choice but to lob off their fingertips where the beads are implanted (523). Such a fusion of the human body with digital technology radically alters the relationship between the state and the people: democratic resistance is possible only through bodily disfigurement, not only protests, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and so on. Such a substantive realignment of social power is possible because, as Thomas Streinz notes, the rhetoric of creative technological innovation obscures the need to ask questions about the ethics and politics of information technologies. Indiscriminate data collection becomes the norm against which rights and responsibilities are accorded and law and policy are written and implemented. This is “the power to datafy,” which is “another dimension of data inequality,” says Streinz, especially when the distribution and assessment of data is non-transparent and inaccessible to the people. As an intelligence analyst of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency comments, “We’re soon moving to a point where we think, essentially, every part of the planet will be imaged on a daily basis. As so we also then look at all that data coming in, and we struggle, and we think about the opportunity, though, with how to handle all of that data” (Lopez). When technology is fetishized, the ethics of its social, economic, and political uses become secondary to innovation, which takes a life and logic of its own. Left unclear is who determines how the data is handled; the who and the how, let alone the what, of such indiscriminate, fetishistic datafying requires the scrutiny of public policy and law and, by extension, civil society.

Put another way, the techno-neocolonial state turns some of its peoples into subalterns. A comment on the use of the term “subaltern” here is in order. In the context of nationalist historiography, peoples left out of the national narrative, deliberately or inadvertently, become subaltern, which, to subaltern studies scholar Ranajit Guha, describes a position, not only an identity, that is created in the boundaries between social classes: groups that are foreign to the country but have dominant influence, groups that are dominant but indigenous, and groups that are powerful at local and national sectors. Taking issue with this taxonomy, Gayatri Spivak argues against the assumed homogeneity of the subaltern, where there are “many ambiguities and contradictions in attitudes and alliances, especially among the lower strata” and those who are not the elites (80). My aim now is not to delve into the history of subaltern studies or sift through scholarly discourse to figure out the best definition of the subaltern for this essay. Instead, I wish to draw on Guha and Spivak by connecting their ideas, themselves adapted from the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci’s writings on the subaltern, which he continued to [End Page 149] elaborate and refine over several years. For this discussion, I will pick up two ideas from Gramsci that will help in showing the nature of subalternity in postcolonial, contemporary Zambia.

“The history of subaltern social groups,” observes Gramsci, “is necessarily fragmented and episodic. . . . subaltern classes are subject to the initiatives of the dominant class, even when they rebel; they are in a state of anxious defense” (19–20), because the subaltern is not a stable, abstract identity. Gramsci goes on to underscore the close connections between the state and civil society and its economic sectors. Changes in the “sphere of economic production” generate new or realigned class formations; these groups will seek to influence majority or government policies; dominant groups will develop strategies to “maintain the consent of the subaltern social groups and to keep them under control”; subaltern groups will make specific demands of dominant groups; new social formations emerge yet largely within parameters set by dominant groups; subaltern groups seek full autonomy, in order to establish a new state (10). Here, Gramsci lays out several phases that may or may not develop in tandem or chronologically. Rather, he adumbrates interactions between the state and civil society and the social realignments that generally come about due to shifts in economic practices; to Gramsci, the relationship of the dominant to subordinated groups is a matter of economics, culture, and politics. Marcus Green points out, “Gramsci insists that political society and civil society are not two separate spheres: they comprise an organized unity, for they are both elements of modern society” (6). That means the formation of subaltern groups and the nature of their demands emerge in the complex interplay of social, political, and economic forces that generate conditions of subalternity.2 This Gramscian insight helps us examine how the rise of digital culture in Zambia produces certain forms of subalternation that spurs people to use social media to mobilize mass protest movements against domination. Hence, to raise the question of the subaltern is to raise the question of state power, its dispersions, its concentrations, its effects, its mechanisms, its operations.

In The Old Drift, in terms of the rise of techno-neocolonialism, the subalterns are differentiated groups of people subjected to non-democratic, top-down impositions of public policy that enables the use of digital technologies for invasive data gathering, spying, and large-scale surveillance to stifle dissent, identify resisting parties, and monopolize access to a host of social services mediated through digital platforms like Digit-All Beads. They are, as we learn in the novel, the “inactive: the loiterers, the shitters, the unemployed—the idlers who jam the circulation of money and goods and information” (528). Techno-neocolonialism in this context describes the nexus of government agencies, information technology companies, political parties, and the police that generates and manages relationships of domination over peoples considered threats to the sociopolitical order maintained by the State. It is through technology, its platforms, devices, and satellite services, that are embedded in Zambian local and international economic and political networks, that dissenters, and the public at large, are silenced or punished, their freedoms curtailed. As we see in the novel, the Zambian postcolonial state actively produces subaltern spaces for deceptive manipulation and influence. It is for this reason that Jacob, Joseph, and Naila plan to disrupt AFRINET and tap into other WI-FI systems and make Digit-All Beads lose temporary functionality. [End Page 150]

In the novel, President Kalulu’s despotic attempts to concentrate power in his office leads him to round up protesters, arrest dissidents, close newspaper offices, bring frivolous charges against opponents, and engage in nepotism, all of which exacerbate tensions in the populace. When Digit-All objects to his policies, the president peremptorily shuts down AFRINET, the country’s internet provider, crippling the company and program for a week, and forcing new taxes on voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) communications. The government seeks to partner with Chinese, American, and European entities to develop vaccines and medicines to stem Zambia’s AIDS epidemic. Zambia was one of the sub-Saharan countries severely affected by the AIDS epidemic. Detected in the late 1980s in the country, by 2016 around 1.2 million people had HIV, with close to 21,000 people dying from it in that year alone (Patterson 34). The gendered impact of AIDS shows that “women are disproportionately affected due to several factors including gender imbalances in all spheres of life and Gender Based Violence” (UNICEF, Zambia 16). Per the report, “Thirty-six percent of women aged 15–49 have experienced physical violence since age 15” (DHS Program 312). In the novel, Dr Lionel Banda’s research to find a vaccine leads him to partner with other researchers to find the “Lusaka patient,” one who displays immunity while fully exposed to the virus. They find one from the “shadiest corners of Zambian society,” which meant “it was indisputable: they had revolutionized the hunt for the virus vaccine” (364–65).

But as the doctor’s son Joseph realizes, his father gets the virus, and so do his mother, Sylvia, his stepmother, Selina, and his brother, Farai. Frustrated that his relatives, especially his grandmother, are prone to glossing over these harsh truths, Joseph asks himself, “Did she actually think he had contracted The Virus, passed it on to a wife and a son, divorced, remarried, and then stopped fucking around? Did she not realize that sex was what had killed him?” (393). The stark difference between such a naive response and Matha Mwamba’s treatment for having a child before marriage and losing opportunities for personal and professional advancement shows that societal norms significantly shape the uneven spread of the pandemic, often positioning women, and those from the rural areas, at a disadvantage. Such contradictions show a dynamic of neglect that further affirms people’s mistrust of the state and its functionaries.

When Jacob, Naila, and Joseph argue over Zambia’s economic interaction with other countries, Jacob blurts out, “The Chinese fucked us. . . . They stole our work and then they took the credit for it,” to which Joseph replies, “Why you frikkin racist, men? It’s bigger than ‘the Chinese. It’s the Consortium,” a reference to US-China political and economic partnerships (306–07). But their immediate concern is that the government had taken Joseph’s Virus research and, in partnership with foreign companies, was “giving out free beta vaccines for the Virus . . . They should just say black version. They’re testing it on us” (307). Such criticism of the government and China can be viewed in the broad context of Sino-Zambian initiatives. Over the last three decades, there has been a dramatic increase in Chinese and Indian investments in Zambian copper mines, agriculture, banking, and the public sector. While poverty rates decreased largely due to such initiatives, the quality of life has not necessarily improved, in that the nature of the jobs lead to a cycle of low-paying employment and weak labor laws. Moreover, the state-backed interest loans to Chinese companies undermine local Zambian [End Page 151] companies that cannot avail of the same financial support. A challenge for Zambia is to decrease the risk of becoming a weak node in a global economy, a country whose resources and peoples end up being positioned in dependency relationships with other countries, leaving it more vulnerable to disruptions in the global order (Carmody and Hampwaye).

These new nexi for power politics have become “an accelerated and newer version of imperialism” (Nayar 193) and an Electronic Empire that “is not particularly locatable or containable, but it nevertheless has effects that can be discerned. It does not easily align with watchwords, or adjectival buzzwords, of what is called the world economy and cannot as such be integrated, total, systematized, synchronized, compatible, balanced, or complete” (Raley 728).

As public anger mounts, the three young leaders initiate a public protest event called SOTP (Sum of the Parts, or State of the Planet). To forestall them, the government freezes Digit-All temporarily, halting communications among the people, who soon feel “the well of that fierce, quivering vibration. A dark immensity lowered. . . . Not smoke, microdrones. . . . A dozen twinges, a hundred, a thousand, each no more panful than a normal mosquito bite. The swarm . . . had landed upon the crowd and begun to puncture them” (542–43). Simply put, the government successfully uses drone technologies and the Internet to implement a massive vaccination program with or without the consent of the people, an act the protestors view as neocolonialism. In the final sections of the novel, SOTP attempts a second public protest with a difference: jamming public infrastructure, the Kariba Dam, temporarily, to force the government to negotiate. Notwithstanding internal arguments about the negative impact on the populace, the young leaders settle for a strategic short-term public difficulty to obtain long-term democracy.


Jacob’s designing another set of microdrones foregrounds both a theme and novelistic device in the novel: the role of error, the impact of the natural world on human habitation, and the inspirational legacy of Edward Nkoloso. Just as the mosquitos regularly give us a philosophical and quasi-omniscient view of the grand scheme of things colonial and postcolonial, they also provide to Jacob a model to design a drone that can, like the insects, use subterfuge to go around official security and technology protocols and halt the function of a necessary public utility. Because “drones had turned out to be the most nefarious tech of all,” Jacob and his group decide to use Bluetooth technology to circumvent governmental control by creating “virtual private networks . . . and string a chain of communication from drone to drone to reach air towers outside the borders and tap into Wi-Fi from one of the seven countries that surround Zambia” (549–50). We learn earlier that in creating his Moskeetoze prototype, Jacob studies the wings and body of the mosquito, particularly its “built-in web of nerves, veins, and arteries” that “carry blood energy.” It seems that “the workings of animal biology seemed to mirror the workings of human society” (402); for his innovation, Jacobs replaces “blood with fuel, nerves with circuits, and the tiny hairs with antennae that would brush the planes of the world and send Wi-Fi signals to the cloud—and to other microdrones. . . . It would be a swarm that ate itself once in a while to stay afloat” (483). In the mosquito [End Page 152] aside that follows the previous citation, we learn that White colonizers were more suspectable to be ravaged by malaria, caused by mosquitos, than Black Africans.

A key lesson was to draw from the contingency of natural effects to develop subaltern subterfuge, like the mosquito and its ability to collaborate in murmuration. Their plan of jamming the gates of the Kariba Dam ends up dramatizing the novel’s preoccupations: the role of nature and chance in directing, deflecting, or destroying human endeavor and the deep contradictions of culture, nation, history, identity, and agency in influencing our being in the world. The use of microdrones to jam Kariba can be viewed as a political gesture that takes the very tools of state oppression and violence—internet, surveillance technologies, Digit-All Beads, smart phones, drones—to register discontent, to express dissent, and to demand change.

A corollary development in global culture, generally, is the overlapping of the political with the poetic in the use of drones. Artists like Mahwish Chisty, James Briddle, and Addie Wagenknecht and sites like Notabugsplat and Murmaration, a Festival of Drone Culture demonstrate the extensive range of creative and critical work emanating from different parts of the world.3 That these three protagonists, in the final plot of the novel, choose to use microdrones to deactivate dam gates, cut internet services, disrupt Digit-All Beads, and use communication networks to generate public dissent against the government demonstrates the cultural and political contradictions generated in the digital age.

However, such a gesture of subaltern resistance is not devoid of micropolitics and, more to the point, a reinscription of neocolonial mentality. As Jacob, Naila, and Joseph plan their subterfuge, Mai, who often enraptures them with “philosophical treatises on the nature of colonialism,” cautions them whether they “warned the peepo” (554–55). Joseph, in particular, worries about how their actions risk perpetuating techno-neocolonialism: “It always just harms the people it’s supposed to help. We’re shutting down a dam that provides electricity of millions. Mai is right. We should send out a warning now” (555). Naila and Jacob respond that because they—now are the ones acting on behalf of the subalterns—know that any negative effect would be temporary, presumably on account of their excellent plan, about the need to warn the public about the loss of electricity caused by their jamming the dam gates. Ironically, and tellingly, the subaltern leaders lapse into the conundrum that Gayatri Spivak notes is endemic to those seeking to foreground subaltern presences: the elites/intellectuals know what the subalterns want, the leaders will give them what they need, they know the true reality of the subalterns. These tendencies, Spivak astutely points out, construct certain subalterns as Other to effect social change on terms that do not grow organically from within subaltern groups (66–71). As Jacob, Naila, and Joseph accord to themselves the right to speak and act on behalf of the subalterns without preparing them for the potentially life-changing impact of their dam-jamming plan, we can, extending Spivak, “glimpse the track of ideology” (66), which introduces a new subordinate relationship between them and those whose interests they seek to represent.

Nonetheless, we see a new social mode of dissent and resistance emerge, whose modalities are digital, user-generated, multimodal, and distributive. Changing stop signs by blocking off words or symbols yields new terms or abbreviations, or even a new nomenclature. STOP becomes SOTP (Sum of the Parts). By hacking Digit-All Beads, the organizers send messages to thousands [End Page 153] of users with details for a public meeting; the messages also direct people to a website with a SOTP domain, and a response form inviting individual participation. Such an “infiltration of the capitalistic circuits” involving hacking public utilities and official signage generates popular unrest, leading to a massive gathering (535).

Evident here is a fundamental shift in Zambia society, as it becomes a networked society, which Yochai Benkler defines as “a particular historical moment when computer-mediated networks and communications have come (a) to play a particularly large role, and (b) to realign in ferly substantive ways the organization of production, power, and meaning making in contemporary society, relative to how similar aspects of social life were organized in the preceding century or earlier” (723). In the novel, we see how the networked society produces what Darin Barney et al. refer to as the “participatory condition the digital age,” which is the “degree and extent to which the everyday social, economic, cultural, and political activities that comprise simply being the world have been thematized and organized around the priority of participation as such” (vii).

It is the nature of digitality, of the networked society, to generate paradoxes of power and resistance; that is, digital technologies have a “double-edged quality,” which is “the “hallmark of so many technological innovations today” (Wasik). Despite being caught off guard and getting confused by the popular uprising, the government of Lusaka carries off a bold plan of cooptation: instead of preventing the people from gathering or jamming their beads, it sends swarms of microdrones carrying a vaccine payload and successfully injects thousands of people. Such a public display of forced state power not surprisingly creates a backlash. Soon, Naila, Joseph, and Jacob, and their friends, plot a counter move: using the tools of oppression, the microdrones, as the tools of resistance. They program a swarm of microdrones to seek transmitters hidden, by them, in the sluice gates; on contact, the gates jam, but not temporarily, as they anticipate, but with a rigidity they cannot loosen. Unable to de-jam the sluices, as the gates remain shut, water levels rise dangerously. In the final section of the novel, which is a Mosquito aside, we learn that the resisters had not planned on how error and chance could generate unforeseen outcomes. Inexorably, as the sluices thoroughly jam, the Kariba’s walls heave to the weight of water—and yield. A massive flood envelops the town, the city, the region, the country. Kariba—the dam connecting Zambia to Zimbabwe—is no more. National boundaries are submerged. Because it is a plateau, Lusaka survives.

We learn that with Kalingalinga as the capital, “a small community, egalitarian, humble” emerges: “People grow all the food they want to eat. There are a few clinics, and one or two schools. Beads are used for barter and voting. And in its midst our lone survivors, Naila’s two lovers, now old. Haven’t we told you? She died giving birth, but her son doesn’t know who his father is” (563).


In The Old Drift the insistent search for origins, for ideological purity, for racial homogeneity, for stable history, for cultural monopoly, and for Manichean rigidity leads not to certainty and objectivity, not to uniform colonization and pristine empires, or stable postcolonial states, but to cross-racial and cultural [End Page 154] hybridity, to the messiness of subaltern resistance and the disorderliness of decolonization. Whereas colonial history posits David Livingstone as “our father unwitting, our inadvertent pater muzungu” (1) in the novel’s postcolonial time of 2024, Naila’s child does not know its father; it could be Joseph; it could be Jacob; it is a secret the mother does not reveal, nor do the mosquitos. Just as Livingstone and empire cannot be wrenched out of Zambian history to reveal a glorious, innocent past, neither can Joseph nor Jacob be written out of the child’s mother’s life. Just as the colonial enterprise cannot be bracketed off as an epiphenomenon, the post-colonial state’s subjugation of its subalterns cannot be written off as inconsequential. The child, like the survivors of the Kariba flood, is destined to live in the new post post-colonial world of Lusaka. Their stories of beginnings, of origins, their hopes for the future are waiting to be told. This is the old drift, the drift of postcolonial mediations, imprinted with violence, haunted by imperialism, crusted over with contingency, and re-narrated with subaltern agency.

The Old Drift’s novelistic vision encompasses colonial and postcolonial histories; while exploring their uneven developments, it foregrounds the contingencies of life, of happenstance, of natural occurrences and biological organisms, as having significant influence over the exercise of colonial power and postcolonial resistance. In showing that the gendered dimensions of coloniality are perpetuated in stridently anticolonial activities, the novel demonstrates the disjunctive continuity of colonialism in postcolonial time. Far from enabling people and the government to ameliorate economically and socially depressed conditions, the growth of information technologies in Zambia generates subaltern conditions that facilitate oligarchic exercises of power and illiberal policies of stifling dissent. In Zambia’s networked society, microdrones become tools of subjugation and tools of resistance, but with a difference: the powerful ideologies of oppression and resistance are foregrounded in their materialist dimensions; that is, the efficacious operations of coloniality and postcoloniality depends in small or large measure on the unpredictability of natural occurrences, boundaries, topographies, and the inexplicability of mosquitos, or biological life, interfering with human motivations. It is the complex, unpredictable interplay of ideology, place, nature, and biology that the novel seeks to grasp and render in narrative the rich possibilities for rethinking colonial legacies through postcolonial mediations.

John Muthyala
University of Southern Maine


1. Harri Englund makes these points in reviewing several revisionary accounts of Zambian national history, in an essay that marks a critical intervention in highlighting a solid body of scholarship that includes Jan-Bart Gewald, Marja Hinfelaar, and Giacomo Macola’s One Zambia, Many Histories: Toward a History of Post-Colonial Zambia (2008), Liberal Nationalism in Central Africa: A Biography of Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula (2010), and Living the End of Empire: Politics and Society in Late-Colonial Zambia (2011); David M. Gordon’s Invisible Agents: Spirits in a Central African History (2012); Mile Larmer’s Rethinking African Politics: A History of Opposition in Zambia (2011); and Bizeck Jube Phiri’s A Political History of Zambia: From the Colonial Period to the Third Republic (2006). Many of these authors responded to Englund’s review in Gordon et al.

2. Massimo Modonesi argues that social domination can be viewed in terms of social class and social group: “the class condition, with its material roots in the socioeconomic terrain, and subalternity as a sociopolitical situation” (37). Where Gramsci uses class, not groups, generally, is when stressing “situations with greater political density or class conciseness, or, alternatively, to emphasize its location strictly in the realm of production, of workers as instrumental classes” (39); social groups in relation to subalternity “must be understood as class fractions” (39). In this paper, I use the terms subaltern/social groups as does Gramsci.

3. See the following websites: Mahwish Chisty,; James Bridle,; Addie Wagenknecht,; Notabugsplat,; Murmuration: A Festival of Drone Culture,


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