because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Friday, June 8, 2012

Beryl Markham

Born as an upper-class European and raised in Kenya by African workers while her father ran his farm and her mother lived in England, Beryl Markham was only allowed to hunt and skin animals because she was White. Kenyan women weren't permitted to participate in such "manly" processes. But this serves as a great example of how opposing forces can sometimes create strange and wonderful results.

She grew up barefoot. Her first language was Swahili. Her best friend was an African boy named Kibii.  She made sure she was always expelled from school so she could focus on the things she really cared about. And being left largely to her own devices, she was more or less "adopted" by the various African family groups around whom she spent virtually all her time. Eventually, she even moved into her own mud hut with a thatched roof. So, when her father's ranch went bust, Markham -- just eighteen -- refused to go to Peru with him, choosing instead to stay in Kenya alone as a horse trainer rather than to just play it safe.

Several husbands and several more unapologetic affairs later, she was introduced to flying and jumped from horses to planes without hesitation. She logged her hours and learned how to read a map, clean jets, and take apart an engine. And in short order, she had her commercial pilot's license. But that wasn't enough for her. Later, she would remark, "A life has to move or it stagnates. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday."

So it was completely in character for Markham to ultimately take on the challenge of crossing the Atlantic from Europe to North America, a particularly long and difficult flight that had been accomplished successfully only once before because it goes against the prevailing winds and had taken the lives of several other people who attempted it. Taking off from Abingdon, England, on September 4, 1936, in a driving rain, Markham battled violent weather for more than twenty-one hours before crashing to the ground in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Arriving in New York City wearing a bandage on her forehead, looking to all the world like an Englishwoman, but carrying an African spirit in her in-your-face woman's soul, she went down in history with her arms raised in the typical African greeting. Salaam!

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