“We had two scout troops. One for the boys and one for the girls.”
My grandmother Edna always told her childhood stories in a very soft voice. Her life stories were my bedtime fairytales, and perhaps that is why I remember them so vividly.
“When we had days off, we went on hikes down to the valley, where there was a beautiful little creek and a natural dam, lovely to bathe and swim in. Sometimes, we stayed overnight under the starry skies, with a camp fire. We took turns watching over the camp during the night. It was exciting. You know, there were leopards, big monkeys and some snakes. Today, I don’t know how we dared”.
My grandmother made a dramatic pause and continued with tension in her voice:
“One day, there was an accident. The only one in all the years I was there. One of the boys in the senior class had a small rifle. He used it for hunting when he was at home in Mongolia. I don’t know why he brought the rifle with him to school, but in any case, he was about to shoot a crow and for some reason the rifle exploded and he got a piece of iron in one of his eyes. We all thought he was going to die. The blood and the screaming was unbearable. The closest doctor and hospital was in Hanchow. To go there, you had to travel one hour to the railway and then five hours by train. To complicate the matter, you didn’t know if the train would arrive that day or some other day.
It must have been horrible for him before he finally got to the hospital and was cared for. And we were so worried during the whole time – not knowing if he was to survive or not. You cannot imagine the euphoria when we recieved news that he was alive and on his way to return to school. Unfortunately, the eye was not possible to save, but at least he was still with us.”
My grandmother used to tell me these stories about scouting when I was little. I remember this particular one, because I always felt very bad on behalf of the poor boy who lost his eye. I imagined the pain, the long wait and how he was marked for life just because of one unfortunate moment.
My grandmother was not as sentimental about it. During her time in China, she had lost a little brother as well as friends of the family. She had been through robberies and her family had been threatened at gun point several times. She didn’t take life for granted.
She found scouting pretty exciting, though. Perhaps because it was an acitivity together with friends her own age. She told me how she and the other girls made their camps and tried to go to sleep, only to hear the bushes rustling and twigs breaking outside their tents. They were scared and thought it was wild animals – like leopards – but it was only the boys scout group, spying on the girls behind the bushes. My grandmother didn’t care much for that, even though I thought she found it a bit amusing, as she told me about it so many years later.
Fact is, my grandmother must have been one of the first female scouts – and in China she was certainly a pioneer.
Bodil Formark, is a Swedish historian, who has published the first thesis about the history of girl scouting in Sweden. Girl scouting in Sweden started in 1913. The scout movement wanted to raise girls to be good scouts. It was not about being a ”traditional girl,” it was about being a scout. But being a scout was not for everyone in the beginning. You had to have some basic economic standard – mostly upper or middle class – to be able to have free time to spend on scouting.
My grandmother became a scout when she attended the Swedish boarding school in China on the mountain of Kikungshan. The teachers were also the scout leaders, and the hikes were all about the mountain and valleys of Kikungshan.
The scout uniform for girls at the time was a shirt and a skirt. Pants were not considered suitable for girls back then. I don’t know if my grandmother threw her skirt away and climbed trees in her stockings as a child, but somehow I doubt it – she wore skirts very often, and seemed very comfortable with that.
In Sweden though, it’s said that the girls threw their skirts away as soon as they left civilisation. In 1913, there was a lot of debate in society if girls should be allowed to practice scouting. But society developed. In 1919, Swedish women finally got the right to vote (a right first excercised in the 1921 election), and it turned out girl scouting was not a threat to society after all…
The first years of the scout movement did not draw large numbers of participants. In 1925, the scout movement in Sweden had about 2 000 members, but only five years later they were up by 100%. During the mid 30’s the scout movement had about 8 000 members and in 1940 it counted 12 000. Today, there are about 70 000 scouts in Sweden. It’s really amazing how scouting has grown over the years. And the need to stay close to nature, learn practical skills and just have fun with others outdoors, will probably never go out of style.
I, myself, was a cave scout when spending a year in Australia. Even though I joined as a 17-year old, I had so much fun crawling through cave systems south of Sydney and getting to know Auzzie girls with helmets and overalls.
Both my kids have been scouts – landscouts and seascouts, and I can’t even begin to estimate the value of all they’ve learned. Sailing with scout friends on the Riddarfjärden just opposite the Stockholm City Hall is something not available to everyone. Hiking in the national reserve of Tyresta, outside Stockholm, or spending a week in a camp on a beautiful archipelago island, are memories for a lifetime.
Scouting has been in our family since scouting first started. I am so grateful for that and especially grateful to the female pioneers – such as Esther Laurell, Signe Hammarsten, and Emmy Grén-Broberg, who were teachers at “Wallinska skolan” (a girl school) in Stockholm and the first female scout leaders.
It would be lovely to hear more about scouting around the world – if you have a story, please share it with me ❤