Did Ernest Hemingway Really Marry a Kamba Girl?

Written by | Features

Celebrated American writer Ernest Hemingway made two trips to East Africa, one in the 1930s, and the other in the 50s. On the second trip, he fell in love with a Kamba girl named Debba and married her (and her sister) in a traditional ceremony. Apparently.

Between his trips to Kenya, Hemingway divorced twice, each time cheating on his then current wife with the next. Paulina, with whom he had toured Kenya in 1933, was his second wife. Mary or Miss Mary as he calls her in True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir (1999), was his fourth. She accompanied him to Kenya on his ill-fated safari in the 1950s.

They would survive rumors of Mau Mau attacks, animal attacks, two back-to-back plane crashes, and apparently an affair with a Kamba girl. And her sister.

Ernest and Mary during the 1950s East African trip.
Ernest and Mary during the 1950s East African trip.

In Hemingway’s posthumous semi-fictional memoirs, True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir, Debba is their neighbor. They intrigue each other, spend time together, and even talk in their own code. At first, they can’t have sex because she has to maintain her chastity. In one near miss, her mother ruins what, to Hemingway, would have been “…the day in my life which offered the most chances of happiness.”

Still, he takes Debba on a hunting expedition and lavishes her with gifts. He sees her as a young naive girl intrigued by his mystery. She likes to ride in his car and while he drives, she strokes the holster of his pistol. When she can’t, she seductively pinches his thigh muscles.

She even decorates the walls of her room in her family’s lodge with photographs of Hemingway from Look Magazine.

Mary seems to have no problem with her husbands frottage. “I like your fiance very much because she is a lot like me and I think she’d be a valuable extra wife if you need one,” she says of Debba. As she leaves for Nairobi for treatment, leaving him alone, Mary adds, “I don’t mind about her being your fiance as long as you love me more. You do love me more don’t you?”

He claims he does.

Mary comes back to find her bed broken.

Debba: I don’t want to be a play wife or a wife to leave.

Hemingway: Who would leave you?

Debba (almost instantly): You.

She has a point. Hemingway was only on an extended vacation that began with a trip to Tanganyika to visit his son Patrick (who would later edit and publish the memoirs).

Hemingway’s views of his hosts had changed between his trips, or perhaps they had changed while he was away. “Twenty years ago I called them boys but the way things were now you didn’t do it Everyone had his duties and everyone had a name, not to know a name was impolite and sign of sloppiness,” he writes.

It is unlikely Hemingway had changed much since the 1930s when he and Pauline, his second wife, had come to East Africa on a 10-week trip. In the book that followed, Green Hills of Africa, he’d written of his hosts:

“I am King here. When I am ready I extend one foot and the boy places a sock on it. I step from the mosquito bar into my drawers which are held for me don’t you think that is very marvelous?”

What this slave master image masks is that he, prone to misfortune his entire life, was hospitalised for a substantial part of that trip with a prolapsed intestine.

More travels and a world war later, he came back to Kenya with Mary, his last wife. He was now a celebrated writer; he’d recently won a Pulitzer, and would soon win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But even this string of good fortune would not put a stop to his penchant to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As a Christmas present for Mary in 1954, Hemingway chartered a flight over the Congo. The plane hit a pole and crash landed, leaving Mary with broken ribs and Hemingway with a minor head wound. The next day, they got into another flight to Entebbe. But this one didn’t even take off; it caught fire right on the runway. By the time they finally got to Uganda, reports of his death had already been published.

In his semi-fictional memoirs, Hemingway says he immersed himself in Kamba culture, even getting a loose understanding of their conflicts. “The Wakamba hated the Masai as rich show-offs protected by the government.” This proximity is primarily because he was hospitalised, sickly, and mostly bedridden for most of 1954, 1955, and early 1956. He didn’t even travel to receive his Nobel Prize in 1954, sending a note instead where he said a writer “…does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

By this point, Hemingway was in his mid-50s. He had had a mixed bag of a life, growing in stature as a writer while his eternal wanderlust put him not only in harm’s way, but made him a traveller even in his romantic life.

His exploits hunting among the Kamba was most likely entirely fictional or exaggerated. Hemingway’s Watamu on Turtle Bay beach says of Hemingway, “The best-known activity at Hemingways Watamu is what Ernest Hemingway came to the Kenya coast to do, game fishing though he allegedly stayed up late drinking at the Blue Marlin in Malindi and never actually saw any rod-and-line action.”

He told his friends that he and Debba might get married in a traditional ceremony. To some, he claimed he had inherited Debba’s 17-year-old sister after her husband died.

Whether Debba existed is the main question. She is mentioned in Kenneth S. Lynn’s biography of Hemingway. Lynn quotes the British game warden, Pop, describing Debba as an “evil-smelling bit of camp trash.” Pop left Hemingway in control as he retreated to his White Highlands farm during the State of Emergency. Pop is Philip Hope Percival, a white settler farmer and hunter who was notoriously racist in his interaction with Africans. A skilled hunter, he had accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on his 1908 trip, and Hemingway deliberately sought him out for his own African safaris in 1933 and 1954.

An earlier biography Ernest Hemingway, A Life Story (1969) by Carlos Baker draws information on Debba from Mary’s diaries. She had written that shortly after her trip, he claimed she was depriving him of his new wife. It is in Bakers book that the story of the broken bed appears. In another biography, Papa Hemingway, Hotchner says Hemingway spoke of his nuptials to a Kamba bride (and her 17-year old widowed sister, apparently).

Hotchner also says that Hemingway once wrote to him and mentioned his lovely wives. There’s a strong probability that Debba was a real Kamba woman, probably known by another name.

Hemingway loved playing practical jokes on his friends, and Debba could have been one of them. He even told his friends that Debba was expectant, but no Hemingway son has ever emerged among the Kamba.

He makes it clear that his is a fictional memoir, which means he mixes actual events with fictional ones. He once said a writer of fiction is a congenital liar. His son, Patrick Hemingway, said of the purported affair “Did Ernest Hemingway have such an experience? I can tell you from all I know — and I don’t know everything — he did not.” He would know because he had joined his father on that trip. It is possible Debba was a metaphorical figure for Hemingway’s falling in love with Africa.

If Mary’s diaries are to be believed though, Debba was Hemingway’s sexual interest and probably nothing more.

Debba remains a character shrouded in mystery. Almost nothing else is known about her except that she might have been married, traditionally, or engaged to Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel Prize Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner. Perhaps she never existed except in his fertile and often inebriated imagination.

Owaahh, 2015.

One Story is good

till Another is told.

Last modified: April 1, 2023