Mary Harper’s commitment to the African continent started early. Her father, an academic, worked mainly in Africa and India and much of his daughter’s formative schooling took place in Kenya, a country which maintains its pull on her heart. “I’m probably more at home there than I am in many parts of the UK,” Mary observes.
Meanwhile, Mary’s mother had begun professional life in the world of fine art before becoming a teacher and subsequently a nurse with Save the Children. It was she who would play the leading role in the crucial next step of Mary’s education. “Mum was an American, a bit of a hippy and she was horrified by most of the boarding schools that she looked at for me in Britain. Bedales was the shining exception for her; I came over for the standard tests and interviews and loved it from the word go,” Mary recalls. “I liked the other people who were being interviewed and tested with me and hoped that they would all get in as well and I liked Alastair Langlands too, even though I thought he was the most bizarre character! The outdoor setting was another huge plus for me – back in Kenya I would spend my whole time outside and I loved the sense of space and freedom that I saw at Bedales.”
The early days at Bedales were made somewhat easier for Mary by the presence of a family friend in the year above. “That was Marion Pocock, who basically adopted me after I arrived and made life a lot smoother at a time when there was quite a sense of social hierarchy at the school,” she recalls. “One of my early memories is of Alastair Langlands making us all write an observational essay each week on what seemed to us to be the most banal things. Two sides of A4 every week and we all hated it at that time but looking back as the journalist that I’ve become, I can see that it must have helped hugely in turning me into a more observant writer as I got older. We also had to learn a new poem every week, which was much more up my street.”
Friends were the most important aspect of Bedales life to the young Mary, although she was also dipping more than a toe into a number of the school’s array of extra-curricular activities. “I was quite naughty a lot of the time, didn’t take games especially seriously and probably thought that I was too cool for drama, which was a bit silly,” she admits. “I loved the school dances, though, and adored a lot of the outdoor work, where John Rogers was a very important figure to me. We had loads of animals around us at home so I loved the fact that Bedales had them too and in general, being outside in the wild countryside was something on which I absolutely thrived. One holiday, a group of girlfriends and I stayed on an extra week at school to help with some herringbone brickwork – it might have had something to do with the fact that we all had a crush on the guy who was in charge of the construction!”
Academically, Mary was flourishing, emerging as a student with an unusually well-rounded range of subjects in which she excelled: “Because I was good at maths, I also did further maths at A-Level and was the only girl to do so; at the beginning of my 6.1 year I was planning to do six A-Levels, which was absolutely ridiculous in retrospect – maths, further maths, history, English, physics and chemistry. In the end, I dropped physics and English in order to make the whole thing a bit more manageable.”
Mary pays tribute to a number of intellectual mentors: “Ruth Whiting was a huge influence for a number of reasons,” she says. “She refused to make any differentiation between boys and girls; boys were never allowed to dominate in her class and she encouraged us all to express ourselves and be bold. I could occasionally be disruptive during other lessons but I would never have dared do that with Ruth – she commanded such respect, mostly, I think, because it was so obvious that she lived and breathed the school. In the sciences, you had Don Spivey and Harry Pearson. Once again, I was practically the only girl doing chemistry A Level and Don used to get so excited during lessons, especially when an experiment involved explosions! Harry was a different character, much more laid back, but another excellent teacher.”
By her own admission, Mary was having too much fun at school to address the subject of her future too seriously: “I felt that if it wasn’t paradise, Bedales came pretty close but I was also well aware that it was a time that was coming to an end. I’m not really the nostalgic type – my character means that I’m always looking forward to the next thing.” The next thing, in Mary’s case, would be Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where she read social anthropology. “That was Ruth’s influence again,” she says. “I was all set to go to university in London but she absolutely insisted that I apply to Oxbridge and gave me a handbook detailing all the various courses that were on offer. I can’t say that I read it too thoroughly – I may well have been rather tipsy at the time – so my choice of subject wasn’t exactly the result of mature reflection!”
University would provide Mary with another three largely happy years. “Bedales was very helpful preparation for Cambridge, not least because there were a number of OBs from the year above me already up there,” she says. “The school had also been so good at teaching boys and girls how to get on and be friends, which was something else that stood us in good stead for university, where so many students not from a co-educational background were having to make that journey of discovery for themselves.”
Africa once again began to loom large in Mary’s life at around this time. “I spent a while in Senegal while I was up at Cambridge and after I graduated, I went back there to work for a development organisation because I wanted to learn more about West African history and politics, as well as the growth of Islam across the continent,” she explains. Now fluent in Wolof, the predominant language of Senegal, Mary returned to England to take a Masters in African Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Pleased with the experience, she immediately secured a grant to begin a PhD.
Fate, however, would divert Mary from her academic path. “An OB sent me an advertisement that was looking for someone to work for the BBC African Service,” she remembers. “My application went in late and I had no great idea that it would be successful but I went to the interview, was asked to write something about the country of Benin, which was somewhere I happened to know a bit about, and to my delight, I got the job.”
The role initially required Mary to write a number of reports on Africa that would be translated into various languages. Not long after she joined, however, she was being sent to what was then known as Zaire to meet the country’s despotic President, Mobutu Sese Seko. “It was an extraordinary opportunity, almost unheard of for someone as junior as I was, but I was given the best possible advice that any aspiring journalist could receive before I went, which was to open my eyes and ears and say what I saw,” Mary says.
The trajectory of Mary’s BBC career became a steeply upward one, particularly when she began working on the BBC World Service’s seminal programme, Focus on Africa. “We had the most superb editor, Robin White, and largely because of him, it was an amazing time to work on the programme,” Mary reflects. “It really did become required listening – we might be interviewing opposition politicians or rebel leaders from across Africa on any given day and by the end of the programme, we would be hearing from the Governments of those countries, demanding their right of reply. Things have changed a lot since then, of course – the Foreign Office stopped its funding of the World Service and we moved from the wonderful Bush House to our new HQ – but those were great days.”
When Mary joined the BBC, her mother’s work for the Save the Children fund had taken her to Somalia, where she still was when that country’s murderous civil war erupted in the early 1990s. “It was hell on earth and there was almost no way in the early days of the war in which anyone could find out what was happening on the ground,” Mary says. “I was lucky enough to be able to call my mother directly, get a picture of events and report about them under my own name, which ultimately led to me being sent out to Somalia in 1993.”
It was the year of the Battle of Mogadishu, the unsuccessful attempt by US troops to arrest one of the Somali faction leaders, and the beginning of Mary’s ongoing love affair with Somalia. “Somalia was and is an incredibly dangerous country but I grew to love it for the dynamism and sense of humour that its people have managed to retain against all odds,” she notes. “For nearly 30 years, they have become used to doing without a functioning government and I can only admire their resilience and their streak of resistance to authority.”
“The more I discover about Somalia, the less I find that I know and I still feel this great responsibility to go out there as much as possible and bear witness to events, while taking as much care as I can to keep myself and those around me out of danger,” Mary continues. “I have six armed bodyguards when I am in places like Mogadishu but you learn not to think about that while you’re there. I’m lucky enough to know and trust a number of local people and if they think that something is safe, I’m happy to rely on that.”
In February 2009, Mary was appointed Africa Editor by the BBC, one of the top jobs available in the region to which she is so devoted. “In terms of being a journalist, what I do is perfect for me – I’m certainly not interested in any sort of management role,” she insists. “Journalism is in my blood now. People ask me whether I ever get fed up with focusing on Africa and the answer is always absolutely not. My first book (Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State) was published in 2012 and I’m very excited about the second that I’m writing now, which focuses on the Al-Shabaab militant group. I don’t think that I’ll ever stop being a writer.”
The 18 year-old Mary Harper, as she prepared to leave Bedales, would very possibly have approved of the life that her older self has forged. “I think that the girl I was at that age was extremely independent and didn’t have much time for authority so I think that she’d have been quite proud that I still am,” Mary suggests. “Mind you, I’m now at the stage where I’m no longer embarrassed to admit that I do work hard, whereas at Bedales, I was more the secret worker who publicly claimed never to do much in the way of revision!”
“Not very long ago, I went to the funeral of James Wadeson, who was my first boyfriend from Bedales,” Mary concludes. “Seeing so many OBs together there, as at other events, it struck me that a remarkable number of them had achieved great things and gone into interesting careers without in any way being motivated by money or status or any of those less important things. That’s when you begin to understand the depth of the influence that the school had on us. It’s certainly obvious to me why I have turned out to be the person that I am. We were all allowed and encouraged to be individuals; when I tell people now that I went to Bedales, the response is always the same – they understand who and what I am.”
Mary was interviewed by James Fairweather in June 2018