Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wilfred Thesiger

The reason Wilfred Thesiger enters this blog is that he made a significant contribution to the knowledge of the Afar region, in the northernmost part of Ethiopia (and extending into Eritrea and Djibouti).  He is, or rather was (he died in 2003), a very interesting guy, possibly one of the last real explorers. On the one hand he was that quintessential colonial Brit, who went to Eton and Oxford, joined the Sudan Political Service, then fought in the war in East Africa. Good family, his father was sort of Ambassador in Addis Ababa (were Wilfred was born), and from there they went on holiday to India to visit his uncle, who was the Viceroy there. On the other hand he was one of those rare people, genuinely interested in the cultures he explored, and he would forsake all the obvious benefits of his upper class to explore unknown territory, dangerous territory. Part of this was no doubt to prove himself, create a name for himself, and part to satisfy his craving for big game hunting; but from what I have read so far, he was also fully committed to the places he went, sensitive to local culture, open to different experiences. His best travel writing, apparently, is from the Arabian Peninsula and the marsh lands of Iraq, in the 50’s and 60’s, but in 1987 he sat down to write his autobiography, or memoirs, rather, called The Life of my Choice – imagine, he was 77 years old then! An absolutely fascinating book, about his childhood in Ethiopia, his attending the crowing of the emperor Haile Selassi on a personal invitation, his subsequent exploration of the Danakil area (ending in Tadjura, a lovely small coastal town in Djibouti – I would have loved to go there, too) and many other travels.
Wish I were there, at the time!
(I often claim that I have been born too late, too late to join those fascinating explorations of the 19th Century, and even too late for the 20th.)

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