Thursday, 21 February 2013

An unpleasant discovery

Mary Kingsley in jungle dress
Picture the scene. Mary Henrietta Kingsley, intrepid Englishwoman, has been schlepping through a gloomy West African rainforest for hours. She’s tired. Her boots are sodden. Her long Victorian skirt has seen better days.

At dusk she stumbles into a clearing and finds herself standing among a cluster of low huts. This is Efoua, a small town of the Fang tribe. And the Fang, as Mary well knows, are cannibals.

Well, alleged cannibals. They have a reputation. But Mary’s first impressions are entirely positive. Yes, people stare in amazement at her. But on the whole these “fearsome” Fang seem like a friendly enough bunch. They want to trade, they want to palaver. A chief offers one of his huts for the evening, and Mary gratefully accepts.

That night she drifts off feeling “perfectly safe and content”, her head resting on a tobacco sack. But in no time she’s awoken by an appalling smell. The stench seems to be coming from little bags hanging from the roof of her hut. It has, Mary notices, “an unmistakably organic origin”.

What happens next sums up Mary Kingsley. Taking down one of the offending bundles, she unties its string and tips the contents into her hat. “They were a human hand,” she writes, “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.”

Mary would later learn that Fang folk liked to keep “a little something” of those they dined on “as a memento… an unpleasant practice when they hang the remains in the bedroom you occupy”. But she is unfazed. She simply puts the grisly body parts back where she found them and opens a door to let in air. “It was a perfect night,” she writes, “and no mosquitoes.”

The next morning, after her usual cup of tea, Mary was on the road early. The small party of African porters she was travelling with left Efoua with her – ten men in total, all of them still in one piece.

Mary’s visit to Efoua features in her 1897 bestseller Travels in West Africa. Katherine Frank’s biography of Mary Kingsley, A Voyager Out, is also worth a read

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