Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?

Happy birthday, David Livingstone! Born 200 years ago, on March 19, 1813, in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, Scotland, David Livingstone greatly influenced the Western world’s attitudes toward the continent and people of Africa. He died May 1, 1873, in an area of Africa we now know as Zambia. 

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who penned, “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.” David Livingstone took that concept to an even higher level. When he was trying to find men to trek across the continent of Africa with him, his instructions were, “If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don't want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”

By the time he was twenty years of age, he had resolved within himself to devote his entire life to the alleviation of human misery. He had been influenced by the writings of a medical missionary to China, and presumed he would spend his life there. China was embroiled in war at that time, however, and another notable Scottish missionary, Robert Moffat, persuaded Livingstone that Africa was the place he should serve. So, the Scottish missionary- surveyor- botanist- zoologist-explorer-medical doctor and anti-slavery campaigner, finished his medical, theological, and scientific courses, and sailed for Cape Town, arriving five days before his twenty-eighth birthday in 1841.

By the summer of 1842, he had already gone farther north than any other European into the difficult Kalahari country, and had familiarized himself with the local languages and cultures. Livingstone’s missionary and medical endeavors were always combined with his love and talents for exploration and scientific research. Early on, he was the first European to view and record information about Lake Ngami. Between 1852 and 1856, he was the first European to view, survey, and document information regarding the “mile wide” Zambezi River as it plunged over one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. He named the geographic wonderVictoria Falls in honor of his magnificent British Queen. 

David Livingstone was the first to successfully make and document the transcontinental journey across Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean. Aided by the Royal Geographic Society of London, he explored systematically the entire Zambezi River basin searching for an inland waterway across the continent of Africa. He was the first to reach the large Lake Malawi in1862. Some of the other “firsts” for discovery, surveying, and documentation were Lake Mweru, Lake Bangweulu, the Lualaba River, and even though others had viewed the expansive Lake Tanganyika from one spot or another, Livingstone was the first to explore, survey, and fill in the missing details regarding the huge body of water. He was eventually awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London for his incredible work.

Livingstone was an unusually determined fellow. When sick, tired, hungry, or otherwise challenged he would say, “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.” But, at one point in his pursuits, he was completely out of contact with the outside world for about six years. He was dangerously ill with malaria, dysentery, pneumonia, and ulcerated feet. He sent letters out with native runners. Only one of his forty-four letter dispatchers made it to Zanzibar. 

But until the end he would continue to write, “I determined never to stop until I had come to the end and achieved my purpose.” . . . “nothing earthly will make me give up my work in despair.” Livingstone had admittedly wanted to discover and document the true source of the Nile River. He died without having successfully accomplished that. However, he more than achieved the grander, overarching dream of his life to devote his entire energies to the alleviation of human misery. “I will place no value on anything I have or may possess except in relation to the kingdom of Christ.”

My nearly thirty years of travel throughout Africa allowed me to criss-cross the established paths of Dr. David Livingstone many times. I was able to travel in every country that he worked as a missionary, doctor, and explorer. I traveled by boat, train, airplane, and Land Cruiser. David Livingstone walked. In 1986, I visited Victoria Falls for the first time. On a later occasion, I was in Harare, Zimbabwe, needing to get to the city of Livingstone, near Victoria Falls. All the commercial airlines in that part of Africa were on strike. 

I was able to hitch a ride on a small, private plane from Harare to the city of Bulawayo. There, I was stuck. Fortunately, the next day there was a cancellation on the overnight train, and I was able to secure a ticket on the sleeper train for the twelve-hour ride to Livingstone. As the fiery sun began to rise over Mozambique and the Midlands of Zimbabwe, I lifted the blind on the sleeper car and peered out over the vast expanse of southern Africa, wondering how David Livingstone would respond to what had happened to his Africa over the past 200 years.

Before getting into a taxi at the Livingstone train station and crossing over the Zambezi River at the border into Zambia, I took time, again, to visit the large statue of David Livingstone near the thunderous roar and spray of Victoria Falls. All over that part of Africa, as far north as Tanzania and Zaire, it was not unusual to run across memorials or signs pointing to where Livingstone had performed his missionary work or had held his medical clinics.

While working in Africa, viewing the results of his influence, I was impressed that Livingstone must have faced some pretty serious alternatives before he was twenty years old, and had made some intuitive choices at that time that had set into motion far-reaching consequences. Those choices and consequences had influenced and guided his behavior throughout his life. He stayed committed and focused until he died. He seemed to judge the value of something by deciding how much of his own life he was willing to exchange for it. The price ended up being high, but the accomplishments were astounding.

I have tried to allow Livingstone’s life to influence me. I have tried to make some of those same far-reaching choices that would help me consciously exchange people’s applause or approval for long-haul accomplishments. I would hope that I could stop chasing prosperity in order to pursue purity, and choose righteousness over riches. That’s not necessarily the popular thing to do these days, but it might just be good, long-lasting advice to “Not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Happy Birthday, Dr. David Livingstone!