Travel Series: Africa

This post was written by Tiffany Kajer Wright, research services assistant.

In the fourth installation of our blog series in conjunction with the Around the World in (Almost) 80 Days exhibit, we’re examining historical travel in Africa. At Special Collections Research Center, our Archives and Rare Books can bring the past to life and inspire future travel plans. Whether going on safari or seeking to understand other cultures and religions, travelling to Africa has been regarded with excitement and shrouded with mystery. From the Sahara to South Africa, travelers have recorded their thoughts, drawn maps, and photographed their way across the continent.

Always considered an exotic and wild place, Africa has captured the attention of Western cartographers and geographers going back to the Roman Empire. In the early 1700s, Herman Moll sought out the most well-traveled people of his time and constructed a book of maps and descriptions of lands and peoples. He called his compilation The Compleat Geographer. To the best of his ability, he included every bit of the known world, and Africa was no exception.

Moll, Herman, The Compleat Geographer, G114 .C74 1709, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

The Sahara is the largest hot desert in the world stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sahel. Travel is traditionally done by camel, and Bryon Khun de Prorok did exactly that in 1920. He and his entourage ventured into the desert, and he wrote about their adventures in Mysterious Sahara. Throughout the book are plates of his journey, including a stop at the Oasis of Nefta in Tunisia.

Khun de Prorok, Bryon, Mysterious Sahara, DT333 .K4, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

Dr. John Paden, a Clarence Robinson Professor of International Studies, donated his papers and books upon retiring. He conducted academic research in Nigeria during the 1960s, and has extensive materials from that time. Among the books and papers, he also donated a musical instrument called a yomkwo and several Qur’an (Koran) boards. These are boards used to help students memorize verses from the holy book, as well as practice their handwriting.

John N. Paden, Collection C0194, Box 132, Qur’an/Koran board, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

John N. Paden, Collection C0194, Box 132, Qur’an/Koran board, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.













The word “safari” comes from the Swahili for “journey” or “expedition,” and was likely adapted from the Arabic “safar,” meaning “to travel.” If one goes on safari, one goes to Africa to do so. Edith McChesney Ker did, and later donated slides of her photographs from Africa and around the world. Her collection spans from the 1950s to the early 2000s and is about 10,000 slides. She demonstrated an obvious preference for wildlife and nature shots on her global travels, including the wildlife of Kenya and Tanzania.

Edith McChesney Ker, Collection C0077, Box 28, Page 21, Slide 1, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

In February 2016, Atlas Obscura posted a story about the honeyguide – an unassuming bird that led hunters to bees’ nests practically upon request in Tanzania. Over the summer, the story gained ground as other news outlets ran similarly-themed pieces. However, this bird’s behavior was recorded as far back as 1881! Near the village of Kavimba, in the country now called Botswana, Dr. David Livingstone encountered this amazing bird in his travels during the mid-1800s. J.E. Chambliss compiled this tale and many more of the doctor’s expeditions – alone and with Henry Stanley – in The Lives and Travels of Livingstone and Stanley.

Chambliss, J. E., The Lives and Travels of Livingstone and Stanley, DT1030 .C44 1881, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University.

Follow SCRC on Social Media and look out for future posts on our FacebookInstagram, and Twitter accounts. To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.

Around the World in (Almost) Eighty Days

Summer is approaching and travel plans have been made! Special Collections Research Center holds many images and books that represent great travel destinations in the United States and around the world. That is why we have planned a new exhibit – “Around the World in (Almost) Eighty Days: Traveling the Globe with Special Collections” to show off these wonderful pieces and maybe even help those who are still trying to figure out where to travel in the upcoming months. The exhibit will run from June 5 until mid-August and a reception will be held in Fenwick Library on June 15 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Hope to see you there – Bon Voyage!

A unique look into post-independence Nigeria: students showcase their artistic work in “egghead”

– Blyth McManus

Publications highlighting art works produced by Nigerian college students in the 1960s aren’t necessarily what one would expect in to find in the research collection of a Robinson professor in GMU’s International Affairs department, but GMU’s Special Collections & Archives recently acquired exactly that. Within Dr. John N. Paden’s generous donation of nearly 90 linear feet of material were two rare student art publications which provide insight into a very specific time and place in art history.


Robinson Professor John Paden

In the 1970s, Dr. Paden was a professor at Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria. The University was founded in 1961 and began admitting students in 1962. Dr. Paden’s work there was an important component of his larger work in Nigeria.

The publications provide a snapshot of the struggles Nigeria underwent shortly after securing its independence from England in 1960. Years of political and social turmoil followed its move into autonomy. Civil war broke out in 1965. The strong responses of some of Ahmadu Bello University’s students to the growing turbulence are candidly expressed through the visual arts and the written word in a publication produced by the Fine Art Department. Entitled “egghead,” the premiere issue was published in 1963. A second issue followed in 1964. The Smithsonian’s Collections website notes the existence of three issues in total, with the third listed as undated.  In addition to poetry and short stories, “egghead” features textile designs, three dimensional work, and paintings.


Excerpt from “egghead”, published by Ahmadu Bello University Fine Art Department, 1964. John N. Paden papers, #C0194, Box 89, Folder 3, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University Libraries.

In the inaugural June 1963 edition, two pieces stood out to me as particularly representative of the moment. First, an article by Josephine Osayimwase entitled “’Adire’ Cloth” discusses the traditional Yoruban cloth dyeing technique called “adire.” Osayimwase also discusses a later, altered form of adire, known as “eleko.” Formal evaluation of the patterns coupled with examination of techniques used to create the designs suggests a connection between traditional Yoruban artisanal production and some textile work being done in the US in the 1960s as tie-dye entered the visual lexicon of American craft. To learn more about adire textiles, visit the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum here. Hints of tie-dye fashions to come are visible in the 1960s patterns shown. The suggestion that traditional Yoruban textile work exerted global influence in that era is supported by scholarly research. One source states that by 1976, the export of Nigerian textiles was essentially a “cash crop.”[1]


Examples of furnishing fabric designs from “egghead”, published by Ahmadu Bello University Fine Art Department, 1963. John N. Paden papers, #C0194, Box 89, Folder 3, Special Collections and Archives, George Mason University Libraries.

Painters also contribute to the publication. Julie, by John Ogo, shows a woman gazing into the distance beyond the viewer’s left shoulder. Her hand rests protectively on her belly, implying pregnancy. The expression on the subject’s face and the strength of her gaze seem to indicate to the viewer that she and her unborn child are part of a new Nigeria that is focused on the future.

This publication is important because they show the students’ unfiltered responses to dramatic cultural upheaval. The creative production of these students provides a snapshot into what a generation of Nigerian people was experiencing at that time.


Resources: To learn more about the role that student publications played within the greater system of education in Africa, refer to:

  • Lindfors, Bernth. “Popular Literature for an African Elite,” The Journal of Modern African Studies,  September 1974. JSTOR –
  • Joseph, Marietta B. “West African Indigo Cloth” contains information about textile production and indigo work specifically. JSTOR –

Visit the finding aid for the John N. Paden papers to learn more about Dr. Paden’s collection as well as others available for research.

[1] Joseph, Marietta B. “West African Indigo Cloth.” African Arts, Vol. 11, No. 2., pp. 34-37, 95.

UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center: 1978. 95.

Focusing on African Safaris: The Edith McChesney Ker Collection

Photography is traditionally a profession dominated by men, but one of SC&A’s photography collections is the life work of a fascinating woman, Edith McChesney Ker.  Originally from Virginia, Edith’s life took an unexpected turn while  on an African safari in 1958.  While in Kenya, she met and fell in love with her future husband, Donald Ker, owner of Ker & Downey Safaris.  Edith later moved to Kenya to be with Donald and became an avid photographer of wildlife and nature.  The East African Wildlife Society used more than 50 of her photographs for their Christmas cards and calendars.  Furthermore, some of her photographs have been used in educational books for children.

After Donald’s death in 1981, Edith traveled around the world, capturing her adventures through photography. Many of the photographs in the Edith Ker Collection document these adventures.   However, some of my favorite images come from early years in Africa.

Rhinoceros and bird in Amboseli, Kenya

Rhinoceros and bird in Amboseli, Kenya

Elephants in an unknown river

Elephants in an unknown river

Crocodile in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

Crocodile in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda


Zebra in unknown location

Although Edith photographed all different types of animals, I especially like the photographs featuring lions.

Lion cub in Tanzania

Lion cub in Tanzania

Lion pride in Talek, Kenya

Lion pride in Talek, Kenya

Lion pride in unknown location

Lion pride in unknown location