Thursday, July 24, 2014

A wild woman

I am currently reading a fascinating book called WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES – Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés.  It is research for the thriller Michael and I are working on that has an extraordinary woman as the protagonist.

The word wild here does not mean what we currently associate with the word, such as crazy, uncontrolled, or outside normal behaviour.  Simply put, it means natural, as in close to nature.  And close to nature doesn’t mean living in a jungle or on a beach.  A wild woman is a woman who is as close as she can be to her natural self – not constrained by male, female, or societal expectations, not afraid to show her true self, and with an awareness of what that is.

Needless to say, the wilder a woman gets, in the sense above, the more frequently she is frowned upon or ostracized.  She makes people uncomfortable, usually men.  My guess is that woman too, at least publicly, shun her because that is what they are meant to do, but perhaps deep down there is a twinge of envy.

My aunt Dorothy was the wildest woman I’ve ever known.  And she certainly suffered the approbation of many of her contemporaries.  What was so wonderful about her was that she was remarkably talented in many ways and wasn’t afraid to let her talents blossom.

There are of course favorite family stories of her exploits.  Among other things, she was one of the first women pilots in South Africa and won a prestigious air race against an all male field.  She must have loved that.  She was also South African junior tennis champion and a fine field hockey player.  I think she represented the Transvaal province in that sport.

Then there is the time, the story goes, that she was at a party, probably in the late 1930s, dressed in her full-length evening dress, when she accepted a dare to walk out of the party and go to Cape Town – nearly 1500 kms (9000 miles) away - just as she was.  So she walked out then and there.  For nearly two weeks, nobody heard from her, neither those who dared her to go, nor her family, which was beside itself with worry.  But she made it to Cape Town and then back again.

During World War II, she joined one of the women’s auxiliary services and served in Kenya where, after the war, she decided to settle.  It was here that she became well known for the polo ponies she reared.  But it's another event that put her in the headlines around the world.

In the early1950s, the independence struggle had started in Kenya, and the most active against the oppressive British rule were the Mau Mau headed by Jomo Kenyatta, who was later to become President of an independent Kenya.  The Mau Mau freedom fighters often used violent means to discourage the mainly British settlers and to make the country inhospitable to colonists.  For example, some farmers were murdered (mutilated is a better word) by the Mau Mau, as were some indigenous Blacks who either supported the whites for whom they worked or who opposed the freedom movement.  

Jomo Kenyatta as president

The situation became sufficiently grim that all farmers took careful precautions.  My aunt and a friend, Kitty Hesselberger, lived on a farm in the highlands.  On one occasion, the Mau Mau attacked their stables, hamstringing the polo ponies.  As a result, every evening when the two women were sitting in the lounge reading, they had handguns on their laps or next to them.

Armed grocery shoppers

On January 5th, 1953, they were listening to the evening news, Dorothy in her chair and Kitty standing at a table cracking nuts, leaving her gun on the mantelpiece.  One of their servants came in carrying hot water, but he looked frightened, which alertted the two women.  A few seconds later, several large men came in wielding pangas (cane knives or machettes) or simis (two-edged knifes sharp enough to shave with).

One of the men grabbed Kitty and pushed her over the back of a chair and was about to stab her with his simi when their pet boxer dog, Damsel, flew at the man and caught his knife arm in his teeth.  Meanwhile Dorothy shot one attacker, then turned her gun on the one who had grabbed Kitty.  She shot him, but unfortunately also killed Damsel.  The man, wounded, ran from the house, only to collapse and die outside.  Seeing another fleeting figure, Kitty dropped that man with a single shot.  

Then they heard noises from the toilet – the door was locked.  So they blasted through the door, but the man, also wounded, had climbed out of the window and escaped.

Source unknown, but pretty accurate!

Outside every farmhouse in the area was a light at night that neighbours could see.  If it went out, the neighbours came to the rescue.  Kitty shot the light out, and an hour later help arrived, only to find three dead bodies, one dead boxer, and two women, who probably each had a scotch in their hand and a cigarette in their mouth.

Aunt Dorothy and Kitty Hesselberger shortly after their ordeal

Aunt Dorothy later in life with a painting of Damsel in the background.  Damsel's collar is drape over the picture.

Dorothy and Kitty were the first civilians to repel a Mau Mau attack, which deed was reported around the world and eventually made itself into their friend, Robert Ruark’s book Something of Value.  He wrote an interesting article about the Mau Mau in Time magazine, which you can read here.

Cover of Time containing Robert Ruark's article on the Mau Mau. (That's not him on the cover!!)

The women received the Order of the British Empire, and Damsel was given the doggie equivalent.  I have a painting of him, his citation, and his collar in my home in Cape Town.

I didn’t see much of Dorothy when I was young because she lived in Kenya and I didn’t.  But her visits were always eagerly anticipated, not only for her unconventional approach to the world, but also for her stories.  I remember once I was obviously talking too much at dinner and holding up progress, so she grabbed the back of my head and pushed it into the soup bowl admonishing me to suck it up so we could get to the main course.

I think that it was after that visit the she and another aunt, Margaret, drove from Johannesburg to Nairobi in a Morris Minor.  What a trip that must have been.

After I left school, I saw her more often, usually in England where she spent many years after leaving Kenya, or in South Africa where she spent the rest of her life.

When she turned ninety, I gave her as a present a flip in a Tiger Moth – an open cockpit biplane, similar to the one she had learned in in the 1930s.  Even though her eyesight had deteriorated considerably by then, I don’t think I have ever seen a happier person as her after she landed.  She was ecstatic.

Aunt Dorothy after her flip in a Tiger Moth

Dorothy, or Dot as we called her when she wasn’t around, was a truly wild woman.  She has always been an inspiration to me – her life and attitude inspired me to listen for my own drum and then to march to it.  Sometimes it's not easy to hear it, and sometimes it's not easy to march to it.  But I certainly enjoy it when I do.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Stan, Aunty Dot was splendid! Your recounting of her is an inspiration to me too. I think it is still true that women who march to their own inner drummer are often looked upon as eccentric, at best. Called "crazy" more times than not, especially if they freely express their inner feelings. Viva, Dorothy! is what I say. I'm just sorry you did not include that 50's style cartoonish drawing of the battle against the Mau Mau intruders. It looks like a cover for a dime novel. Mmmm. Now there's an idea!

  2. My error. The drawing is now in the blog. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. Beautifully told story, Stan! Also a nice bookend to go with Zoë's tale of motorcycle shopping. It sounds like her's was a life well lived!

  4. Very nice, Stan. So many memories. I was scared of her when very young and as a teenager I loved visiting her in Kenya, which I did most years. For days I had to work, e.g. mow the lawn, add up colums of figures, feed the geese. And then she could take time off and we'd go to a splendid lodge. Often met up with friends of hers, e.g. Joy Adamson. Very special for a shy girl from a village in Holland !!! And then I saw her a lot during her last years in Joburg where I also lived. Always enjoy all the blogs. Thank you all.

  5. If I'd not seen your byline on the post...or for that matter had I read it in a completely different context than MIE, I'd still have known she had to be your relative. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

    I smiled when I read you describe her as a wild woman for I've heard some modern women--far less accomplished than your aunt but right in step with her mindset--describe themselves as a "BITCH." Babe In Total Charge [of] Herself.

    What a story.

    By the way the book about women running with wolves, triggered a memory of book by Mary Renault, "The King Must Die," which is her take on the myth involving Ariadne helping Theseus flee the Minotaur and Labyrinth and going with him to Naxos, only to end up with Dionysus--a real party guy. Renault has her coming home from a night running around with Dionysus female orgiastic followers (maenads) blood soaked--a real turn off to Theseus.

    I know, I'm spending too much time with literary types.:)