Acting like his life depended on it

Long before Richard Burton married Elizabeth Taylor, he (or at least a namesake) was a Victorian explorer fluent in 29 languages. Being barely fluent in one makes me inordinately jealous of the man’s skills, as well as what he termed his “wanderings”.

Burton’s wanderings took him through Asia, the Middle East and Africa. He was one of the first European non-Muslims to visit the closed city of Mecca. Disguised as a fellow hajj pilgrim and using his language skills, he was committed enough to get circumcised as Islamic law dictates, in case anyone deemed to check his religious affiliations. That’s not a length I would choose to go to myself.

His visit to West Africa had more of a direct purpose, on his way to take up the post of British Consul to the then Spanish Island of Fernando Po, now Bioko, part of Equatorial Guinea. It was 1861. For this reason I was in a sense following Burton’s route around the west of the continent. He began his sea voyage towards Bioko by creeping down from the European islands of Madeira and Tenerife, before stopping at ports in Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria.

Cape Coast, Ghana. Burton spent 24 hours in the town.

In many ways Africa’s coast is its heart. Colonisers from Europe and Arabia approached the continent from the sea, with colonisation migrating in towards its centre. Because of this, I had followed the route of many before me.

Burton’s dislike for Black Africans, considering them lazy and untrustworthy, made his exploits unpopular in more recent times. However, his achievements and discoveries mean he is still relevant today.

Burton was the first European to enter Harar, where he remained for 10 days as the guest-prisoner of the emir. Harar is a high walled medieval town in the eastern reaches of Ethiopia. Burton approached from Zeila in Somaliland. Following in his tracks again, I travelled in the reverse direction, from Harar to Zeila. Harar remains famous for its Hyena men. Since the 1960s men from the town have fed thin strips of meat to the Spotted Hyenas that live near to the town walls. The tradition is thought to have begun during a famine in the late 1800s when feeding the animals ensured they didn’t attack valuable livestock.

The strips of meat were brought out of a white bucket. Dangling the strips from his forefingers, the young man waited until the Hyena had stretched its odd bulk to reach the meat, nose close to fingers, before releasing it. The strip disappeared down the animal’s huge gullet instantaneously. The man then began to hug the animals, before the Hyena’s got bored and crept off until the following evening.
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