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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Congo and the Cameroons by Mary Kingsley

by Suzan Abrams

It's hard to picture the formidable but well-humoured Victorian explorer and writer, Mary Kingsley furiously scribbling her detailed journals complete with comic observations, over 150 years ago and this with a similar satire afforded to modern-day Britain in its New Age.

If memories are to be steadfastly recaptured and visualisations of the old world hung thoughtfully as a hazy mind's portrait, then it is to be considered one of our most fragile and precious gifts indeed as it often is with all enchanting obscure literature; that Kingsley's stories have been tenderly sealed in this pocketbook classic aptly titled The Congo & The Cameroons from the Penguin Books series of Great Journeys from where even Marco Polo with his enthusiastic expedition to India is heartily embraced.

Despite her stern countenance, Kingsley's humour was light and her mood seldom wore thin. I did not get the impression of a deadpan Christian disposition as I was more inclined from reading Kingsley to picture her instead, the chatty jovial adventurer.

She was the quintessential *Mary Poppins after all; a sort of endearing Disneyland figure with her well-meaning and slightly liberal rules; that one immediately conjures up so as to be maternal and schoolmarmish and this bearing a steely attitude as she busily barked commands to her faithful African help insisting that they form her entourage for a challenging Cameroon mountain climb and this if you will have it; on a lazy Sunday morning when goodness knows... everyone else desired a lie-in. Pleas of an injured toe or a burnt breakfast proved to be of no avail.

Otherwise, she may have with wide-eyed passion, furrowed eyebrows, a quizzical expression and that too, all nicely shadowed by a sly come-and-get-me-if-you-dare attitude, sailed up the Congo basin, splattered with crocodiles as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Now if you will take a minute to read this as she splashed about with boats on the Congo filled with cat-fish, maggots, mosquitoes and mangrove flies, she would have had you know: "Now and again, the strong musky smell came that meant a crocodile close by, and one had to rouse up and see if all the crews' legs were on board, for Africans are reckless and regardles of their legs during sleep. On one examination, I found the leg of one of my most precious men ostentatiously sticking out over the side of the canoe. I woke him with a paddle, and said a few words regarding the inadvisability of wearing his leg like this in our situation; and he agreed with me saying he had lost a valued uncle to a crocodile. His uncle's ghost had become a devil which had been a trial to the family ever since..."

I had also added Mary Poppins for a vivid imagination, as Kingsley insisted on opening her umbrella in the midst of heavy equatorial jungle downpours, knowing as she admits that it was a completely useless thing to do but at the same time "wasn't it all proper?" This reflected her English-ness in more ways than one, plus the fact that her constant pursuit for a good flask of tea followed her everywhere, from mangrove swamps into ravines and from forest-tongues into native villages. Kingsley was well-rewarded of course as her "beloved natives" always made sure with even-tempered understanding, that a tea caddy had been dutifully slipped into her bag. Still, it must be added that Kingsley treasured West Africa and its people as another may have cherished a sparkling jewel.

Her hastily-penned notes in makeshift tents during a valuable expedition interim, reflect her sunny affectionate disposition, her energetic fortitude and high skills at hurried decision-making.

Her thoughts are compassionate and emphatic for her loyal workers who diligently lead the way through think foliage and stubborn tree belts. At catching sight of a shiver, Kingsley had often handed the unfortunate native her own blankets and when observing with eagle-eyed sharpness, a native go hungry or stay parched with thirst while armed with a silent forebearance; had often handed him her own food and drink with not a moment's hesitation.

Naturally, as with all weary reflections, Kingsley too was once in a while overcome by wishful thinking. This, especially on a day when nothing went right. Then she would regret her wanderings from England with the odd muttering.

However, as it was even with me while in East Africa, a sudden change of scene would instantly masquerade the perfect antidote with which to illuminate the mind with new joys.

In Kingsley's case, one of these was surely the wildlife, even as here she gasps, "Never have I seen anything to equal gorillas going through bush; it is a graceful, powerful, superbly perfect hand-trapeze performance."

Sometimes despite herself, Mary Kingsley was led to a strong annoyance especially when roused from precious sleep by the gullibility of the village-folk: "The women of the village have been keeping up a most melancholy coo-ooing. These foolish creatures are evidently worrying about their husbands who have gone down to market in Ambas Bay and who they think are lost in the bush. I have not a shadow of a doubt that they are safely drunk in town...
...September 21st, 9.30pm. I was aroused by uproar in adjacent hut. One husband had returned in bellicose condition and whacked his wives and their squarks and squalls, instead of acting as a warning to the other ladies, stimulated the silly things to go on co-ooing louder..."


Sadly, Kingsley died from typhoid while working as a nurse when treating Boer prisoners in Africa. She was just 37 and according to her wishes, was buried at sea. This afternoon, I can almost catch her guffaw while picturing her next to me, having a right ramble with a delicious Earl Grey. Kingsley would have enjoyed its aromatic flavour after all. I am convinced that nothing flees but time.

***********

*Mary Poppins: A famous children's classic of a governess who flew down from the skies with her umbrella to apply for a job in a difficult household.

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