Sunday, April 11, 2021

Hemingway in Africa


A review of True at First Light by Ernest Hemingway, Scriber, NY, 1999.

Everything you wanted to know about a hunting camp on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1953.  This fictional memoir as it is described is drawn from the journals of Ernest Hemingway. The material was edited down posthumously by his son Patrick, himself a big game hunter in East Africa. The book was published in 1999 long after Hemingway’s death in 1961.  Yet the work harks back accurately to the fifties. It is full of description, dialogue and anecdotes.

There is essentially no plot. The first half of the book revolves around securing a lion for Mary to kill and the second half about preparations for Christmas.  There is ongoing dialogue, way too much of it I thought, between Ernest and Mary and amongst others. But that is how the story, such as it is, progresses.  You learn that Hemingway drank, slept, ruminated, hunted, bickered with Mary and had eyes for a Kamba girl. You learn that he had – for the era – surprisingly positive relationships with his employees. He treated everyone with dignity and evidently enjoyed real friendships with several.  However, he was still the Bwana, the proprietor of the camp and the employer. So, he was apparently loved and respected, but always with a bit of caution. Nonetheless Hemingway sought to ingratiate himself with those around him. He appeared to enjoy the status of being the Bwana without the burden of being a famous writer.

When the journal turns to hunting, it is spot on, obviously based on real encounters and legitimate understanding of the process.  Hemingway’s portrayals of the Kamba and Maasai people indicates astute observation and grasp of their respective cultures.   The material is occasionally humorous in some overblown descriptions of characters or actions but also in the ongoing joke of Hemingway being central to his own fictitious religion

I happened to be reading this book – that I found in searching a library website – when the PBS series on Hemingway was broadcast. In reality, Hemingway did spend months in Kenya in 1953 running the hunting camp he so ably describes.  During this period, his marriage to Mary was in trouble, but there is only a glimmer of that in the book. As part of an effort to salvage it, the two took a small aircraft to see Murchison Falls in Uganda.  The plane crashed there as did their rescue plane upon taking off.  Hemingway suffered brain injuries that would only manifest themselves over time. To recuperate he installed himself in a fishing lodge at Shimoni on the Kenyan coast where he drank copiously for months. Mary left him.

I doubt if True at First Light adds much to Hemingway’s literary reputation. It is in fact what it purports to be - a fictional memoir.  It is kind of interesting, but not gripping. Parts are boring. Only African or Hemingway aficionados will enjoy it.  

Friday, April 9, 2021

A tramp across Africa


A review of Walking the Nile by Levison Wood, Grove Atlantic, NY, 2015


As the title indicates this book is a travelogue. Intrepid walker Lev Wood undertook to trudge alongside the Nile, as close as paths and roads permitted, from its initial spring in the hills of Rwanda to its delta on the Mediterranean Sea. All told it was a trip of 4800 miles and took eight months. Along the way, Wood met many friendly folks, some unfriendly ones, and a host of suspicious government officials. He was feted, praised, and welcomed in some communities and viewed cautiously or even hostilely in others. All asked, why would anyone, especially a white man, walk such a distance? It was puzzling.  Wood himself had no clear answer, except that was what he was doing. It was his adventure and quest.

Wood was in Rwanda twenty years after the genocide, yet the vestiges of it lingered. He trekked through miserable heat in northern Uganda and lost a companion to heat stroke. He found an ongoing civil war in South Sudan and had to skip a most dangerous section. He crossed the deserts of Sudan and Egypt. In Egypt especially he was frustrated by excessive suspicion and bureaucracy. Finally, he made it to the sea.

All told it was indeed an epic journey and Wood recounts it well – the trials, tribulations, inner worries, interactions with those who accompanied him and with people he met along the way. I know five of the six nations he traversed so I pulled out my maps and vicariously enjoyed the journey.    

Not all who wander are lost


A review of The Explorers by Martin Dugard, Simon & Schuster, NY, 2014.


Author Dugard uses the conflict between 19th century searchers for the source of the Nile Richard Burton and John Hanning Specke as the vehicle to delve into the exploits and psyches of explorers writ large. He covers personalities including St. Brennan, Columbus, Cook, Livingstone, Scott, Shackleford, Hillary and Lindbergh.  He is interested not just in what they did and the often-awful trials and hardships they endured, but what made them tic? What made them - self-selected for the most part – devote themselves to exploration?  What motivated them?  To answer these questions, Dugard dipped into both physical and psychological explanations. How did their brains work and function differently from others?  What truly motivated them? He concluded it was not riches or fame, but the completion of the quest itself.  This is aptly demonstrated in the saga of Burton and Specke, two men of decidedly different temperament who yet united in the quest to unravel a great mystery of their age – the source of the Nile. Dugard keeps the Specke/Burton theme ongoing throughout the book even as he illustrates characteristics exemplified by them in other notable explorers.

I thought the book wandered around too much. It is not chronological. Additionally, I thought Dugard over-analyzed the psyches and motivations of people long dead on flimsy evidence.  That being said, I enjoyed the various thumbnail sketches of famous explorers, where they went, what they endured and what they accomplished.     


Monday, March 15, 2021

Military Prowess - German Resilience in East Africa


A review of African Kaiser – General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918 by Robert Gaudi, Caliber, NY, 2017.

This is a fascinating account of the life and war of  Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German commander in East Africa who fought and strategically retreated, effectively stymieing Allied forces hundreds of times larger for years. The only undefeated German commander in the war, von Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered his troops in (then) northern Rhodesia days after the armistice was signed in Europe.  A genuine military genius and heroic leader, von Lottow-Vorbeck, while personable in a social context, could be cold, calculating, and ruthless in pursuit of military objectives.

Scion of a Prussian aristocratic family, like many of his forbearers Paul was destined to be a soldier.  His route into the German military establishment in the 1880s was typical, but he yearned for action. He gained overseas experience in China during the Boxer Rebellion. He also saw service in German South West Africa in the early 1900s combatting Herero and Hottentot uprisings. Author Gaudi details these formative experiences which gave von Lettow-Vorbeck insight into foreign cultures and methods of combat. These insights helped him frame the tactics he would use against superior forces during WWI.

Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck became military commander in German East Africa in 1914. As the world tumbled towards war, he prepared for conflict.  His approach stood in stark contrast to Heinrick Schnee, Germany’s Governor of the colony who advocated neutrality.  Although on the same side, the two would continue to differ throughout the war. Lettow-Vorbeck’s plan was to engage British forces, to draw them into conflict, to compel Britain to deploy massive numbers of troops and resources to engage him. He doubted if he could win a campaign. However, his calculus was to the extent that Allied resources were tied up in East Africa they would not be available for the war in Europe.  This premise proved to be correct.

Initially von Lettow-Vorbeck had a small force of less than three thousand Germans and about ten thousand African troops.  His use of black troops was derided by racist British adversaries, but he knew they were loyal to him and could fight.  Of course, this number dwindled enormously over the course of the war. Ultimately, British Empire forces engaged in the chase numbered over three hundred thousand, plus naval assets deployed to control the Indian Ocean.

The history of the war which author Gaudi recounts in detail tells of several major confrontations such as the British attacks on Tanga and Taveta. Beyond that he personalizes the conflict and key people involved, especially von Lettow-Vorbeck.  Gaudi draws on official documents, diaries, and memoirs from both sides of the conflict to elucidate not just on tactics, but also emotions, pains and reflections.  The violence of war was horrible for all involved. Even so, it was the hardship of the bush that was most debilitating to both sides. Diseases of all types, especially malaria, killed thousands. Lack of food, ammunition and equipment especially plagued the isolated Germans.  At one point during the war the high command in Berlin authorized a zeppelin, flying from Europe, to resupply the beleaguered forces but it never arrived.  Similarly, Gaudi tells the saga of the British search and destroy effort aimed at the German battleship Konigsberg which took refuge in the Rufiji River delta.  After the ship was sunk, Germans put her big guns on carriages and used them effectively in succeeding years.

In summary, African Kaiser, is a definitive biography of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and a superb history of World War One in Africa.  I pulled out my maps of East Africa, tracked the action and thoroughly enjoyed the read. 







Saturday, November 7, 2020

Farce or Lark? - Roosevelt's African Safari


A review of Hunting for Teddy Roosevelt by James Ross, Regal House Publishing, 2020.


     This is an interestingly odd book. It is fiction intertwined with bits of real history. The basic premise comes from Theodore Roosevelt’s African safari which he undertook in 1909 after finishing his second term as president.  Roosevelt took the trip to escape from the pressures of politics and to reflect upon his decision not to seek a third term. All this comes out in the book. The fictional plot revolves around efforts to assassinate the ex-president and his uncanny ability to escape.  The depiction of Roosevelt is believable, but other characters are not as well drawn.

     In reality on this safari Roosevelt did indeed slaughter thousands of animals purportedly at the request of the Smithsonian Institute which wanted specimens for its collection. Roosevelt’s actual recollections of hunting encounters are used to lead into various chapters.  His son Elliot accompanies him (true) and they do have an odd (fictional) encounter with Paul von Lettow (a real German military officer who commanded the German army in East Africa during World War I). Other characters – journalist Maggie Ryan, various safari personnel, the assassin, etc. are all fictional.

     Although the story did move along satisfactorily, I became captivated by the errors, dissidences and leaps of credibility that abound in the book. Some misrepresentations can be attributed to the various characters, but most are the responsibility of the author.  The book is fiction, of course, and the author is entitled to rearrange geography and cultures as desired or necessary for the story, but I found that such shortcomings substantially distracted from the gist of the tale. For example:

Outlining the intended itinerary from the African highlands, to the Serengeti, to Mt. Kilimanjaro and then Lake Victoria, zig zags Kenya’s geography.

Tuaregs are described as slavers in Sudan.  In reality they live in the central Sahara, two thousand miles west.

Roosevelt rode on the “railroad linking Nairobi to Lake Albert.”  The rail line did pass through Nairobi, but it linked Mombasa to Lake Victoria.

The Swahili word “pembe” was employed at least six times to refer to local alcoholic beverages. “Pembe” means horn or antlers. The correct word is “pombe.”

TR is credited with staying on a sisal farm in the Aberdares.  That area is much too cold and wet for sisal.

“Faru” is used instead of “Kifaru” for rhino. Africans would have used the correct term.

There are several references to the Congo Free State owned by King Leopold of Belgium. At the time of Roosevelt’s safari, the Congo had been taken over by the Belgian government as a colony.

A lion hunt is described as “simba kuwinda” i.e. lion to hunt, correct would be “kuwinda simba” to hunt lion (object not subject).

Author Ross puts the Samburu people from northern Kenya in Kamba country (just outside Nairobi). Also, it is proposed to resettle them from there to Muranga so to free arable land for white settlers.  That is all wrong, the arid Athi Plains where the Samburu ostensibly lived were unsuitable for farming whereas Muranga is prime agricultural territory. The fact that Muranga, even then, was well populated by Kikuyu people is ignored. Later the author places the Kamba in Tanganyika. Why not just deal with the people who really lived there – the Kamba and Maasai people of the Athi/Amboseli area and the Chaga in Tanganyika

On several occasions the author refers to “mimosa” trees and “fire” ants. There were no mimosa trees in Africa at the time. Fire ants is an American, not an African term.

Author Ross describes the bandits encountered in Sudan over and over as Fulani. The Fulani people are pastoralists who live in the Sahael region of Africa south of the Sahara, thousands of miles west of the Sudan.  Sudan has many indigenous groups that engaged in banditry and slavery, why import foreigners?

At one point it is proposed to cross Lake Tanganyika from Kigoma (in German East Africa) to Kalemie, Congo.  The town of Albertville, Congo was not renamed Kalemie until 1971. This is a grievous error for a former Peace Corps Volunteer in the Congo.

Equally puzzling was a reference to the battleship Maine being sunk in the Philippines. Surely Teddy Roosevelt knew it was sunk in Cuba.

The fact that atrocities were inflicted on natives of the Belgian Congo, including severing of hands when rubber collection quotas were not met, is a true theme reflected in the novel. However, at one-point starving and mutilated victims of such horrors are described as Tutsi and their persecutors Hutu.  In actuality, Rwanda/Burundi, home of the Tutsi and Hutu, in 1909 were under the suzerainty of Germany, not Belgium. They were not victims of rubber exploitation.  I thought this bit to be a gratuitous reference to genocide which would not occur for another eighty years.   

Finally, our intrepid heroes defied geography throughout the tome covering, by foot or horseback, hundreds or even thousands of miles in days. On their trek through northern Uganda into the Sudan, they pass just north of “Victoria Falls.”   They might have been near Murchinson Falls, but Vic Falls were then and still are 2000 miles to the south.

     As noted above I enjoyed this novel as much as for the discrepancies as for the tale.  However, for those not disturbed by the errors, it is a pleasant extrapolation of Roosevelt’s safari.




Tuesday, November 3, 2020

From the Foreign Service Journal - In Their own Write

 From the Foreign Service Journal, November 2020

The Last Rhino by Robert Gribbin

      Reformed hunter Philippe returns to Africa to help manage Garamba National park and bolster conservation efforts. Replete with wildlife and big game, the park is a natural paradise, but is not without threats.   Beyond wildlife, Philippe must contend with many of the violent actors that inhabit the park. including aggressive poachers, regional soldiers and the vicious Lord's Resistance Army. Briefings from locals and United Nations peacekeepers make it clear that he has his work cut out for him. 

     Among his priories is protecting the rare white rhinoceros, which has been hunted almost to extinction. After Philippe visits a small community sheltering some of the last white rhinos in Africa, he ponders how he can best protect this endangered species. If word gets out that this small community of Wayamba is protecting white rhinos, all sorts of actors my swoop in, from international conservationists to regional governments, and from sightseers to - perhaps worst of all - poachers.

     When Philippe receives reports that poachers are killing off elephants and penetrating into the grounds of the park, he must arm himself to defend against the worst, and seek out more firepower to ensure the threat is stopped for good. 

Ambassador (ret.) Robert Gribbin spent many years in East an Central Africa, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer and then as a Foreign Service Officer. He is the author of In the Aftermath of Genocide - The U.S. Role in Rwanda.  (2005) 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

An Intelligent Book about Africa

 This review is copied from Barnes and Noble's website. Author unknown.

The Last Rhino

This book has a bit of a mystery in it and a lot of adventure. It is well written and an engaging read. What struck me most, however, was that it is about the real Africa. Judging from the “About the Author” page it makes sense that this would be a story about the authentic Africa told with intelligence and knowledge. Robert Gribbin has spent much of his life in Africa and this came shining through.

The book helps you to see, feel and understand Africa. (At times the descriptions make you feel as if you can also hear and smell it as well.) It describes some of the true ravages of the Lord’s Resistance movement and the complexities of environmentalism on this continent. The characters are well drawn, there are strong women and sensitive men and also conniving politicians. It captures the dialogues and motives of real people one would meet in Africa today. There are people wanting to give back to society and others intent on destroying the wildlife in it.
Make no mistake that this is a novel. It is a compelling read for the plot alone, but the reader feels as if they are learning things about Africa and about life as they are enjoying the story. If I were teaching a course on Africa I would assign this as a very enjoyable text for my students. One that is also accurate and enlightening.

This book exceeded my expectations on three levels: it is an intelligent look at conservationism as it works in Africa today; it is a realistic, accurate view of contemporary Africa; and it is an engaging well-written novel with bits of wisdom throughout. An excellent read.