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"Travels in West Africa" by Mary Kingsley

Travels in West Africa may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog.

In 1893, Mary Kingsley went alone to West Africa. She traveled to remote areas crawling with cannibal tribes, some of which had never been visited by a white man, much less a white woman. Some would say surprisingly, she lived to come home and documented what she learned and experienced in this fascinating book.

While a long read, Kingsley's quaint sense of humor makes the dry parts bearable. Her views on African problems and issues at the time are both sensible and logical to the modern reader; she never falls into the trap of basing her opinions on prejudice. This is evidenced by the fact that she esteems the most feared cannibal tribe, the Fans, as her preferred hosts and traveling companions.

Kingsley is at her best when writing in travel journal style. The rest of the book that is not travel narrative are her thoughts and research on West African "fetish”. Fetish seems to be her word for the religious and traditional customs of the natives, and it is her particular interest. This fetish talk is interesting in some parts, especially when she is talking about her favorites, the Fans. But it gets tedious toward the end. In the Preface she notes that this book was originally published in a much longer version that had since been cut down. She probably should have cut more. It also would have made sense to put the meatier chapters on fetish at the beginning to give the reader a suitable introduction to her interests and the tribes with which she comes in contact. See the bottom of this post for recommendations on which chapters to focus on and in which order to read them.

As a historical piece, Travels in West Africa is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the history of West Africa, particularly at this period of encroaching European influence. As a travel book, it is amazing for the fact that this woman did what she did. I have read a little history on Mary Kingsley and found that she was initially driven to West Africa with not only curiosity but also suicidal tendencies. Several members of her family had just died, and she felt little sympathy with the conservative, late Victorian English society that surrounded her. So she fled abroad, knowing full well that the majority of white men who went to West Africa succumbed to fever or other maladies. It turned out that West Africa treated her well, and she went on to travel for several more years. She eventually succumbed to typhoid in South Africa in 1900.


If you would like to read the Girlebooks' condensed reading of this book, our recommendations are as follows:

1. Read the two Prefaces and Introduction: This will give you an idea of Kingsley's writing style and sense of humor.
2. Go to Chapters 12-16 and skim over her musings on "Fetish". In this you will get a notion of the tribes she visits and what she's interested in.
3. Now is time for some travel narrative. Go back to Chapters 4-9 and read her excellent and sometimes terrifying account of her trip up the Ogawé.
4. Don't miss the narrative of her ascent of the great peak of the Cameroons in Chapters 16-20.


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