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 two 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.

Ernest and Mary during the 1950s East African trip.

Ernest and Mary during the 1950s East African trip.

In the posthumously published fictional memoirs of his second (and disastrous) trip to Kenya, True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir, Hemingway claims Debba lived nearby. A young naive girl, she falls in love with Hemingway and is intrigued by his mystery. She likes to ride in Hemingway’s car and while he drives, she strokes the holster of his pistol. When she cant, she seductively pinches his thigh muscles. She decorates the walls of her room in her family’s lodge with photographs of Hemingway from Look Magazine.

Hemingway seems interested in Debba, even taking her along on a hunting expedition and lavishes her with gifts. They develop their own linguistic code that mixes Spanish and Kiswahili. The relationship is mediated by Debbas family and Hemingway has to respect her because she has to maintain her chastity. He expresses his frustration with not getting laid because Debbas vigilant mother disrupts “…the day in my life which offered the most chances of happiness.”

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,” Mary says of Debba. It is clear that Mary views Debba as her inferior, most likely because of her race. Her greater concern is likely to have been other white women living in Kenya at the time. To her, Debba was Mrs Hemingway 4.5.

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 came back to find her bed broken.

Debba feeds into Hemingway’s psyche and eventually becomes his second wife. She is afraid that she is merely a conquest to him.

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 titled his 200,000-word draft “The African Book.”?In the edited 100, 000-word?True at First Light, Hemingway seems to have developed a deeper appreciation for African culture, a stark contrast to his supremacist views only two decades before. “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.

He is referring to his earlier book, Green Hills of Africa, written after the first trip in 1933. In page 31, he had pompously declared “I am King here.when I am ready I extend one foot and the boy places a sock on itI step from the mosquito bar into my drawers which are held for me don’t you think that is very marvelous?”

This time, he immerses himself in Kamba culture, expressing a deep appreciation for their religion and social dynamics, and apparently, women. The Kamba are portrayed as typical Hemingway heroes, underdogs fighting a brave but losing battle.

He even immerses himself into intra-tribal conflict, writing “The Wakamba hated the Masai as rich show-offs protected by the government.” He told his friends that he and Debba might got married in a traditional ceremony. Mary’s reference to Debba as Hemingway’s fiance lends some credence to this claim. To some, he told that he had inherited Debba’s 17-year-old sister too after her husband died. Africa, apparently, was flowing with blessings for Hemingway.

In the book, America’s first celebrity writer portrays himself as living in the Wild West. According to multiple accounts, Hemingway was drunk most of the time and hardly accomplished all he claims in the book. 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.”

Whether Debba existed is the main question. She is mentioned in Kenneth S. Lynns 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: September 28, 2016

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