Studying Hemingway in East Africa

by Joseph L. Mbele

For the whole month of January, 2013, I was in Tanzania, with 29 students from St. Olaf College. We were studying the African writings of Ernest Hemingway while visiting some of the places he visited and wrote about.

Student w childHemingway is a famous writer, world traveler, big game hunter, and fan of bull fighting and boxing. About ten years ago, I discovered that he also greatly loved Africa. I embarked on exploring this aspect in earnest.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1899, Hemingway learned about Africa from his earliest years as his father took him to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where, among the exhibits, there were stuffed animals from Africa, including the celebrated lions of Tsavo.

In 1909, retired president Teddy Roosevelt was on safari in Kenya for many months, writing accounts of his safari in the U.S. media. The American public, including the young Hemingway, followed the adventure with great interest.

As time went, Hemingway’s interest in Africa grew. In 1922, while living in Paris, he reviewed a famous novel, Batouala, written by Rene Maran of Martinique, who worked as an official in the French colony that is today the Central African Republic. The novel was set there, and Hemingway liked the way it depicted the life of the villagers. This novel helped shape Hemingway’s own writing style.

Finally, Hemingway visited East Africa in 1933-34. From that experience, he wrote the book Green Hills of Africa, and two famous short stories: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” He also wrote journalistic pieces and letters. He visited East Africa again in 1953-54. From this experience he wrote a major manuscript, which his son Patrick edited and published as True at First Light. This was shorter than the original manuscript. The entire manuscript was published in 2005 as Under Kilimanjaro.
tribeHemingway’s love of Africa shines through these writings and the more I read them, the more I wondered why people were not paying much attention to this side of Hemingway. I decided to create a course, which would give students an opportunity to follow Hemingway’s footsteps in East Africa, while reading his writings about those places.

I created the course, ”Hemingway in East Africa,” in 2006, for Colorado College and took students to Tanzania in 2007 and 2008. This year, I traveled with St. Olaf College students.

Such trips work well if the students are given some orientation beforehand, especially on cultural issues. Fortunately, based on years of advising Americans going to Africa, I had written a book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. As part of the orientation, the students read this book.

We traveled in various places in northern Tanzania: Arusha, Mto wa Mbu, Karatu, Babati, Moshi and Namanga. We did game drives in the game reserves where Hemingway had hunted: Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, and Tarangire. Hemingway wrote about his experiences in those areas, describing, in particular, the wildlife and the landscape. Being in those areas, observing the animals, and reading Hemingway’s descriptions you are mesmerized by how his words capture the reality.

In all the places we visited, from markets to hotels and bars, the students interacted with Tanzanians of all walks of life: children, youths, adults, men, women, people of different faiths. They talked and shared stories with the Tanzanians, danced together, and even played soccer.

They learned about Tanzanian culture, encountering the kinds of situations I describe in my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. For example, a group of the students asked someone in one town where the ATM was. Instead of just giving them directions, that person led them through the streets to the ATM.

The students ate Tanzanian food, especially ugali. On one occasion, to introduce them to local transportation, I had them travel in a dala dala, a minibus tightly packed with passengers.

They learned Swahili words and phrases, especially greetings. This was not just to facilitate interactions with local people, but also to foster appreciation of Hemingway’s habit of using words and phrases from languages other than English. I see this in the broader context of Hemingway’s desire to embrace other cultures.

We explored not only Hemingway’s fictional works, but also his theories about literature, writing, and hunting. Hemingway saw writing and hunting as related, to be pursued with the same seriousness and perseverance. He described true hunting as an artistic pursuit, distinguishing it from what he calls shootism, the tradition of shooting the animal from the safety of a vehicle, by people who might not even be good shots. He advocated facing the animal on foot, and firing only one shot, which should kill the animal.

The more I read Hemingway, the more I realize the extent of his preoccupation with Africa. In addition to the fictional works I have mentioned, which dwell on his African experiences, he wrote essays and letters, such as “The Christmas Gift,” and ”Three Tanganyika Letters” which also deal with those experiences. Furthermore, in novels such as The Garden of Eden and Islands in the Stream, he refers to Africa.

Hemingway loved Africa, and he expressed those feelings again and again. He wrote: “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy.” He also wrote this intriguing statement: “All I wanted to do was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.”

Roaming elephantsA world traveler, Hemingway encouraged others to travel. He encouraged members of his family to go to Africa, and some did go. His son, Patrick, spent many years in Tanzania, where he ran a tour company and taught at the Mweka Wildlife College.

In view of all this, as I have said, I found it strange, if not disturbing, that scholars and critics have generally ignored this pervasive African influence on Hemingway. I have realized that some of these people are not comfortable with the way Hemingway glorifies Africa, contrary to the prevailing tradition of depicting Africa as the dark continent, a dangerous place, not worth paying attention to.

Hemingway died in 1961. There are some things about him that we will never know, because he liked to fabricate stories, even about himself, passing them off as true. He describes, for example, his relationship with Debba, a Kamba girl in Kenya, calling her his fiancée. It is impossible to know whether, or to what extent, the tales he tells about their good times together are true or false.

One thing, however, is certain, and my students learned it well: Africa was very important in Hemingway’s life and career. He not only truly loved Africa, but he wanted to live there. He wrote: “I would come back to Africa but not to make a living from it. I could do that with two pencils and a few hundred sheets of the cheapest paper. But I would come back to where it pleased me to live; to really live. Not just let my life pass.”

Joseph L. Mbele, a Tanzanian, is a professor in the English Department at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is a cultural consultant, helping Americans and Africans navigate their cultural differences. He is the author the popular book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences.

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