Monday, 22 December 2014

TRAVELS IN WEST AFRICA by Mary Kingsley

The sub-title of this book is "The Classic Account of One Woman's Epic and Eccentric Journey in the 1890s." This is understatement. This one woman is BONKERS.

Mary Kingsley was one of these unfortunate English women who are forced to say home to look after their elderly parents till late in life. When they died within 6 weeks of each other, in 1892, this lady, who had never left her small provincial town suddenly decided that obviously her next steps were to travel to West Africa.

She had no experience, no supplies, and very little money, but off she went, allegedly collecting fish for the British Museum but mostly just having a fabulous time, slogging her way through jungles full of malaria, wild animals, and actual cannibals. One night, when sleeping in a hut, she decided to open a bag hanging from the rafters.
I then shook its contents out in my hat, for fear of losing anything of value. They were a human hand, three big toes, four eyes, two ears, and other portions of the human frame. The hand was fresh, the others only so so, and shrivelled
These Victorians are incredible. I can't even handle dirty public toilets! How will I ever be epic?

The book is basically a diary, and is essentially written in the comic mode, and is full of the joys of travel. Here she is after crossing a swamp:
One and all, we got horribly infested with leeches, having a frill of them round our necks like astrakhan collars, and our hands covered with them, when we came out. It was for the best that we had some trade salt with us. It was most comic to see us salting each other; but in spite of salt's efficacious action I was quite faint from lost of blood, and we all presented a ghastly sight as we made our way on into N'dorko.

You could almost forgot how awful it must have been, because she writes so joyfully, but then she will casually mention how her face is bleeding from sun tan when she smiles. As she says:
There is nothing like entering into the spirit of a thing like this if you mean to enjoy it, and after all that's the wisest thing to do out here, for there's nothing between enjoying it and dying of it. The sun is broiling hot; everything one has got to sit on or catch hold of is as hot as a burning brick, and there is no cabin, nor even locker, on our craft; so I prop myself up against my collecting box and lazily take stock of the things around me, and write.

As the book goes on the determined cheeriness almost starts to seem insane, and indeed at one point, when considering whether or not to climb a mountain, she sends her men down, but carries on her self, saying "if she dies it will not matter a ha'penny worth to anyone". You begin to wonder how much of the trip is for fun, and how much for suicide. And yet there is so much charm in her small personal account of her crazy adventure, I can only hope she was as happy as she tells us:
I went to my comfortable rooms, but could not turn in, so fascinating was the warmth and beauty down here; and as I sat on the verandah overlooking Victoria and the sea, in the dim soft light of the stars, with the fire flies around me, and the lights of Victoria away below, and heard the soft rush of the Lukola River, and the sound of the sea-surf on the rocks, and the tom-tomming and singing of the natives, all matching and mingling together, 'Why did I come to Africa?" thought I. Why! who would not come to its twin brother hell itself for all the beauty and the charm of it!

Typhoid got her in 1900.

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