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Travels in West Africa

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8th December 2011, 11:04 AM



I read this on the Kindle, downloaded free from Amazon. It is actually a re-read since I first read the book before going to E. Nigeria to teach many years ago. Mary Kingsley was the neice of Charles, a single, well to do late Victorian woman. She was no feminist, opposed the suffragette movement, said that "the best of men" were superior to "the best of women" and traipsed through the African bush, mangrove swamps and navigated liitle boats on fast flowing, rock-strewn rivers, wearing long skirts and petticoats.


Her travels from 1893-5 or 6 took her to Fench Equatorial Africa, the German-speaking Cameroons and touched on the southern edge of Nigeria (Calabar). She was really an anthropologist with interests in zoology and botany. She liked and got on well with West Africans, even though she regarded them as "inferior". She was not a Christian, disagreed with the missionaries' efforts to get rid of polygamy, but had great admiration for their heroism and fortitude. Many of whom died of fever as soon as they arrived on the malaria-infested coast. She wrote very sympathetically of Mary Slessor's work rescuing baby twins and their mothers from death. Had MK been alive in the late 1950s, she would have discovered that twins were still being brought to the Scottish missionaries to be looked after in Arochuku (Mary Slessor's place), and that they, and not her, were right about polygamy!


MK was an acute observer and writes dispassionately and objectively of the people and their customs, some of the latter quite horrific. Her courage and bravery were unquestioned. I enjoyed her vivid descriptions of travelling in a small boat up the torrent swollen Ogowe river and of her arduous climb up the Cameroon mountain. There are some wonderful descriptions of the wild terrain, the colours, the vegetation, the mountains, the mangroves etc.


This is a long book and I skipped some of the longer descriptions. I'm glad though I did not miss her account of staying with a cannibal tribe. She awoke one night to an awful smell in the hut. She searched around and found a bag containing a severed hand and fingers. She calmly placed the bag outside and went back to sleep.


MK returned to England 1896. Her book was a great success because it gave so much hitherto unknown information about West Africa, its lands and peoples. She answered a call to go to South Africa in 1897 to nurse the wounded in the Boer War. She died there a few months later of fever. She was just 38.

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