International Women’s Day: In which Mary Kingsley is better than me

"March 8 is the day of the rebellion of the working women against kitchen slavery! Say no to the oppression of household work!"

“Day of the rebellion of working women against kitchen slavery” didn’t catch on in quite the same way. Although perhaps it should have.

“…and as for the husband, neither the Royal Geographical Society’s list in their ‘Hints to Travellers,’ nor Messrs. Silver, in their elaborate lists of articles necessary for a traveller in tropical climates, make mention of husbands.” – Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa

Happy International Women’s Day, one and all! Being as it was originally instituted to celebrate the contribution of Soviet women to “communistic construction” and commemorates the day in 1917 when Russian women went on strike for “bread and peace”, precipitating the revolution, it is a day off here, which is most civilised. I am celebrating with bread (well, a croissant is close enough) and peace (a long lie-in) of my own, and by dusting off the blog, which I hope in the future will have slightly more life in it than in recent months.

A rundown of Tbilisi’s myriad charms will have to wait, however; since today is all about celebrating impressive women (communistic and otherwise), I want to talk about a particular hero of mine, the explorer and ethnographer Mary Kingsley. Being someone who is fond of getting to interesting places whenever possible, and inevitably doing so while being a) alone and b) female, a state of affairs that still raises the occasional eyebrow, I have long admired the Victorian ladies who upped sticks and headed with enthusiasm for the farthest corner of empire and beyond, often on the most tenuous of excuses, at a time when a woman alone faced considerably more difficulties than the odd amorous taxi driver. They wrote books with excellent titles like A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, and had unsubtle between-the-lines affairs with all sorts of interesting characters and in general lived a life full of excitement and incident, at a time when this was considered somewhat less than decorous. The considerably less intrepid nature of my own excursions notwithstanding, it is sometimes comforting to know that whatever slightly idiotic situation I may have gotten myself into, someone else has got out of much worse, often while wearing long petticoats and a corset, and Mary Kingsley is particularly useful for this.

Oh, as if you could climb Mount Cameroon dressed like this.

Kingsley was hugely impressive: aged thirty, she set out alone for the West African coast, which at the time was considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for Europeans. She had received no formal education; the first thirty years of her life were spent acting as a secretary for her father, writing up his amateur anthropological work and later on, nursing her invalid parents. She read widely though, and from her father’s library picked up an interest in anthropology and West Africa, and when her parents died in 1892, she was determined to set off on a scientific expedition and see these places for herself. After a scouting trip to the Canary Islands, in 1893 she packed up her things and boarded a steamship for the West African coast. Independent travellers of any sort were rare to non-existent in this part of the world; needless to say, a woman alone was considered thoroughly peculiar at best, and mad at worst. Undaunted, she landed in what is now Sierra Leone and over the next few years on two trips she explored several major rivers by canoe, discovered three new species of fish (later named after her), lived with local tribes and becoming the first European to venture into large areas of inland Cameroon and Gabon. She returned to Britain where in between lecturing on her travels and campaigning against the acticvities of Protestant missionaries, she wrote Travels in West Africa.

Someone needs to republish this with a decent cover. This is the best of a truly terribly bunch.

Someone needs to republish this with a decent cover. This is the best of a truly terribly bunch.

One of the reasons I admire Kingsley so much is that her writing is genuinely fantastic. Travels in West Africa beats most other Victorian travel literature for me because it’s so entertaining: witty, sharply observed, and always cut through with a self-awareness acknowledging the inherent peculiarities of character that make a person charge off into the middle of a large swamp just to see what’s there. There are long, sometimes rather dry (but still interesting) sections on the animist religions of the local tribes she encountered, and several lengthy and dull appendices about how great British traders are, but the bits where she gathers herself and plunges into the unknown are brilliant. For example, here she is exploring the mangrove swamps at the mouth of the Ogooué River in what is now Gabon:

“On one occasion… a mighty Silurian, as the Daily Telegraph would call him, chose to get his front paws over the stern of my canoe, and endeavoured to improve our acquaintance. I had to retire to the bows, to keep the balance right (it is no use saying I was frightened, for this miserably understates the case), and fetch him a clip on the nose with the paddle, when he withdrew, and I paddled into the very middle of the lagoon, hoping the water there was too deep for him or any of his friends to repeat the performance.”

Given that Kingsley herself immediately hopped back in the canoe and went out again as soon as she could, this encounter appears not to have put her off much.

Throughout the book, her intermittent interjections that she is only in Africa on a thoroughly scientific and entirely decorous anthropological and biological expedition are rather endearing, as every other page gives the lie to this as she merrily climbs Mount Cameroon, faces down leopards, falls into swamps, shoots rapids on the Congo river in tiny local canoes, and gives every impression of having a marvellous adventure (which isn’t to say she wasn’t a remarkably skilled anthropologist and naturalist as well). While being remarkably candid about her fears and the discomfort of travel, the upper lip remains stiff and her tone is always modest and self-deprecating; she maintained that in her entire career, the achievement of which she was most proud was learning to handle the local canoes with a degree of skill (while the approach she took – i.e. untie the nearest canoe, regardless of ownership, and start practicing – might be frowned upon these days, it was undeniably effective).

Kinsley with one of her souvenirs.

A good thick skirt: more useful than trousers when falling into a big pit of spikes.

Kingsley is a huge role model for me and by modern standards I would consider her actions in challenging the societal expectations for a woman in her situation so profoundly to be entirely feminist, but interestingly, she considered herself quite the opposite. Despite her groundbreaking explorations, she completely refuted any suggestions she was a “new woman”; indeed, she wrote many an outraged letter to any newspapers which might suggest as such, and dismissed women’s suffrage as a “minor issue”. She vehemently opposed female entry to the Royal Institution, where she had herself lectured many times (she did however, propose that women form their own equivalent institutions). She had always refused to wear men’s clothes while on her travels (perhaps to her ultimate benefit; one of the most well-known passages from Travels in West Africa concerns her musings on “the blessings of a good thick skirt” as she falls into a large, heavily-spiked, animal trap) and insisted that none of her achievements would  have been possible without the assistance of the (European) men she encountered on her travels. Reading her writing, that last statement is impossible for me to believe: the courage and determination shown in her travels and by her determination to challenge the government to rectify the injustices she saw in colonial policy are all her own, and she did things that no other European, male or female, had done before.

Kingsley only managed two “voyages out” to West Africa. Constrained by a lack of finances and what she saw as her duty to look after her brother back in London, she threw herself into lecturing and campaigning for changes in colonial policies, challenging in particular the predominate view that Africans were “foolish, drunken children” who required a benevolent colonial hand to look out for their best interests. In this she was in part successful, and received the dubious accolade of being described by the Colonial Office as “the most dangerous person on the other side” (the other side to the Colonial Office probably being where one wanted to be, given what went on in most European colonies in the 1890s). In public she was the face of a movement; in her private letters, she admitted to missing Africa terribly and couldn’t wait to be back.  In 1900 she was once more “homeward bound”, this time to South Africa where she worked as a journalist and nurse in the Boer war; after just two months she caught typhoid and died aged just 38.

Travels in West Africa is available for free as an ebook all over the place (for example, here and here), and I thoroughly recommend it, because it contains some fantastic writing. While I am unlikely to ever head up a Gabonese river in a canoe or, frankly, engage in any kind of similar activities even in a more congenial climate, Mary Kingsley is my inspiration in situations when I am losing my nerve, sense of humour and occasionally, both. Because in the end, if she could do it in a good thick skirt, I really have no excuse.

In which I have a Byronic moment

Former dictator was a big fan of building bunkers. Everywhere.

Following my usual habit of taking to the hills in case of temperatures above 25 C for long persids of time, come August and sick and tired of temperatures which resemble the outer reaches of the Sahara, I retreated for a long weekend to Albania.

Sometimes, the only thing to do is leave town

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Miracle-hunting in Ohrid: Orthodox Easter

Taken during the eleven minutes the sun was out this weekend.

Macedonia had a lot of hype to live up to, but I knew things were going to be all right when I heard about the miracle. Inside the church of St Demtrius in the old town of Skopje, the frescoes of the saints and martyrs, darkened by decades of candle-smoke, had suddenly brightened over the weekend of Palm Sunday, the haloes of the saints shining as brightly as the day they were painted. Squeezed into the back of the church behind hundreds of the devout and the curious, I can attest that the haloes were certainly very shiny, although not having any basis for comparison I couldn’t really say as to whether they were any brighter than usual. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help approving of the thoroughly practical nature of this miracle, so much less messy than statues weeping blood and more useful than pictures in your toast, which is the kind of thing my church tends to turn up. If even the unpreposessing building site of central Skopje could muster up a bona fide miracle, then surely Ohrid would be able to provide something spectacular for Easter.

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And now a hippopotamus.

Today and tomorrow are holidays here, but deadlines wait for no woman so I am sitting at home gloomily drinking coffee and researching national energy policies in the Balkans, wishing that I had remembered to go shopping yesterday (current food supplies for the next two days consist of a bag of sunflower seeds and some dried apricots). To cheer myself up, I am sharing one of the best pictures I found when digging up information about natural disasters in these parts:

If this doesn’t convince you that climate change is a bad idea, then I don’t know what will.

This is from 2010 when a private zoo in Montenegro was flooded and Nikica the hippo went AWOL. She spent several weeks lurking around the village looking baleful before being lured back into her enclosure when the floods subsided. According to her keeper she is “very peaceful and friendly”. I’m not sure I’d be entirely convinced of that if she was hanging out in my garden.

Back from Ohrid.

Lake Ohrid looking baleful and not wholly suitable for a beach holiday.

Just stating for the record that Macedonia has not disappointed, what with peacocks and monasteries and bona fide miracles and coffee and Roman bits and pieces and ten whole minutes of sunshine. There was a bit of minor excitement in Skopje this afternoon which I hope for everybody’s sake does not get any more exciting, but it has otherwise been a gorgeous weekend of which more anon.

No cavemen though, and no sheet-folding lakeside ladies, although in fairness the weather was not terribly conducive to laundry, so I am prepared to let it go for the moment;  I may have to come back in the summer to check.

Journey deep into the rainbow…

When I was living in Uzbekistan,the only English TV channel available was BBC World News. This was a little surprising given that BBC journalists had been banned from the country for several years at that point, but I was grateful for it. When watching Russian dubs of Mamma Mia palled (hard to believe, I know, but it happens), the BBC was my background noise of choice. Since they can’t use commercial advertising, the breaks between the updates on the antics of minor members of the royal family, studio audiences in Qatar arguing over US foreign policy, and interviews with African Union delegates which constitute most of BBC World’s output were filled with promotional shorts from the tourist boards of various countries. You know the kind: spectacular scenery/wildlife/ruins interspersed with shots of an attractive tourist couple being hugged by local children all improbably wearing national costume, learning traditional dances from nice young ladies in spiffy hats, and buying each other necklaces in the shiny new shopping malls, all set to an exciting soundtrack (cliché-filled narration optional) and finished off with a slogan of superb banality and/or incomprehensibility.

In the absence of any other TV, I became quite the connoisseur of these little promos. Back then, BBC World was dominated by Incredible India (I actually quite like this one) and Malaysia Truly Asia (snooooresville) with a sprinkling of South Africa: It’s Possible (the narration wins a prize for the most clichés packed into a minute, and believe me, the competition is stiff in this genre), all countries with well-funded tourist boards that could afford to get these commercials run multiple times a day. However, like all the best trainspotters, I was much more excited by the more elusive appearances from countries with slightly less generous marketing budgets; quite a few, now that I look back on it, came from the corner of the world I’m currently exploring.  Kosovo: The Young Europeans (not so much a tourism promo as a political statement), Montenegro: Wild Beauty (featuring a flying mermaid) and Croatia: The Mediterranean As It Once Was (what happens when a advertising company decides it can’t be bothered and just throws a bunch of random clips together) all showed up only once a month or so and were savoured accordingly. But how ever frequently they aired, they are all pretty similar. Mostly they are pretty uninspired. Sometimes they are hilarious (see above re: flying mermaids). Very rarely do they actually pique my interest in a particular country.

The one exception was one I only ever saw a couple of times, but it really stuck with me. It covers all the standard ground (scenery! ruins! dancing!) but you can tell that some genuine thought has gone into it (it even has a framing device!). There are some ill-advised costuming decisions (why is there even a caveman in the first place?), but also some really tasty-looking watermelon. There is a small child involved, but she somehow manages to avoid murderous levels of annoyance. They do not stint on the icons and archaeology. Congratulations, Macedonia, you have my attention.

All of which is an incredibly long-winded way of saying that this evening I’m flying to Macedonia for a week and I cannot wait. If there aren’t lakeside ladies folding sheets on their heads (what?) I’m going to be terribly disappointed.