african-son-140African Son
William J. Hemminger (Senegal 1973–75)
University Press of America, $24.95
104 pages
2012

Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)

WILLIAM HEMMINGER, PH.D. IS LEARNED AND GIFTED in many areas, as a poet, pianist/composer, teacher, translator and gardener. He has a great mind, yet what comes through in African Son is his heart. This is a man who knows how to love. He writes tenderly about his wife, Jill, his daughters Molly and Johanna and, most delightfully, he writes with sympathetic love about the many Africans he meets on his journeys, from Senegal, where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer, to Malawi and Cameroon, where he was a Fulbright scholar, and to Zimbabwe and Madagascar as a visiting academician.

Hemminger is a poetic, masterful writer. The opening sentence in African Son is “The death of a child is the worst, and I felt somehow responsible.” He’s talking about trying, as a 21-year-old Volunteer, to treat a child with malaria with a pill and dubious water. “So it happened.  I remembered I was a stranger to this village, and walked back home to cry, apart and alone,” before he put on his best clothes, practiced his pronunciation of appropriate words, and walked back to join the community. This kind of deep, honest sentiment tugs at the heart of any RPCV who remembers a village with love.

Hemminger goes on to describe his life in Senegal with words that project pictures onto your mind’s eye:  “. . . oozy sand, home to snakes, unyielding sun, calloused feet,” listening to children in a Koran class, chanting “. . . in the language that joins alphabet and art.” He marvels at the fortitude of farmers who work themselves into deep fatigue in fields of “. . .  peanuts and sweet potatoes, lovers of drought.” They gave him his “other name, Baba Touré. He reveres his student, El Haaj Moctar Bousso, who teaches him many things, even though he’s younger than Baba Touré, about the soul of his village, where “. . . spiritual growth begins when we work to reduce material want,” and who dies of “. . . no known disease or curable illness,” as many promising young people did.

Hemminger’s attachment to Moctar reminds me of my own relationship with my counterpart in Senegal, Cheikh Ngom who, like Moctar, was younger than I, and dedicated to his people. He taught me so many things about the African soul and Islam and about myself. He never said a negative thing about anybody during the three years I worked with him, especially to Americans who, he said, had a tendency to gossip. That was embarrassing, because it was true. When I complained about a women’s group  moving too slowly on a project, he laughed. “Ah, you Americans, always in a hurry, so afraid to fail.” He always gave me food for thought. I visited Cheikh Ngom ten years after my service. He had accomplished much for his people in rural service posts, and his wife and children were all achieving success. When we parted, he placed his hand on my head and blessed me. A few months later I received a message from his son that he had died. I still can’t think of it without tears springing to my eyes. His blessing stays with me.

By contrast, when Hemminger speaks of Americans and the diplomat corps, he verges on cynicism, remarking that he was teaching English to people “. . . for whom America was as immaterial as wealth.” Referring to the Islamic directive to give alms, even if one’s means are limited, he notes, “I couldn’t help thinking how, in countries where capitalism motivates social activity, people with so much more give so much less.” During his State Department briefing for a post in Madagascar, the condescending official in charge brags that he’s “done Madagascar,” and Hemminger, looking at a wall map filled with pins, wonders “how many of these pins the man has done.” People at the State Department were right about one thing, though: he would love the Malagasy people.

He resents the notion of progress being measured only by material gain. “No one talks about spiritual progress, or our progress as developing human beings.” He warns that connecting our limited experiences to global situations is reductive. He worries about the “honeyed sound of our words and the arrogant force of our example.”  He also worried, presciently, about the 2004 presidential election in the United States from his far vantage point, fearing that “whoever wins, the triumph of wealth over wealth will hardly be democratic.”

Also, he dislikes cities. In his marvelous vignette about Toubab Diallo, my favorite seaside village, he says, “As much love as I have for certain villages in Senegal, I have no love at all for Dakar.”  I so share his feelings; dreaded leaving my village for the city.

Hemminger writes about missionaries who inspired him with their simple, profound dedication to the people they served.  In my travels, I usually found missionaries’ behavior suspect, but he seems more interested in their psyche. Sister Lucy in Madagascar, for example, worked indefatigably for the people there, bullied visitors into buying embroidery from an impoverished woman, and encouraged a child’s adoption by a Swiss couple, though Hemminger worried about the child’s transplant into terrain so different from her birthplace. Would she dream of hunger, blue hills and mangoes in the midst of concrete malls?

Hemminger views David Livingstone, the Scottish clergyman explorer, as a missionary who devoted his life to Africa, and the search for the source of the Nile River. Sanche de Gramont calls the river The Strong Brown God, which also denotes Livingstone’s quest as a religious one. I didn’t know that when he died, his village friends excised his heart and buried it outside his hut, “. . . where it could meld forever with the dark, red forces of the African earth.”  Livingstone viewed himself as a “superior servant” of the “degraded” African people, just as Albert Schweitzer saw Africans as “noble savages.” Their points of view reflected their times.

Hemminger meets Father Joe, who runs a Catholic mission in Madagascar, and whose attitude towards Africans is more politically correct. “For him, the missionary vocation was a life-long commitment to considering how to conduct one’s life in the company of others.” He also meets Marian Mutare, American wife of the Malagasy Prime Minister. She appears affected at first, but the author learns of the sacrifices she has made to live her life by her husband’s side, including the loss of her small daughter who one day, simply disappeared. The author is shocked, and he expresses a rare moment of depression when he writes, “I longed for the bland landscapes of home.”

Père de Foucauld, the ascetic Trappist hermit of southern Algeria, who lived among the Tuareg and Fulani people during the early 19th century, intrigues Hemminger. Known as the Christian marabout, Père de Foucauld lived among the poor “. . . in order to understand what is most precious and most truly human about life.” He sacrificed his self-interest “. . . as a means of devotion to God and God’s people.” He was killed by marauders who invaded his village.

Hemminger sees a parallel between Père de Foucauld and Thomas Merton, who became a Trappist monk in the 1950s in Kentucky, isolating himself to the extreme. The author finds a paradox here: How can separating yourself from other people ever serve to increase your understanding of the human condition? Merton became involved in the ecumenical movement that brought him to a conference in Bangkok, where he was electrocuted trying to fix a fan. Both monks were killed by forces outside their monastic retreats.

In a chapter entitled “The Dark of Heartlessness” the author reflects on Conrad’s famous tale, and imagines how Cameroon must have appeared a hundred years ago.  Hemminger and his family visit the Baka (pygmy) people in the interior of a great forest. They are fascinated by these legendary beings, but sad to see the Baka men drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes, gifts of foreigners. But Hemminer would go up the Lobé River again to visit the Baka people. “How important it is that we try to slough off the prejudices of cultural formation and educational training as we attempt to make our way into the clearing of encounter.”

The family goes on safari, and Hemminger’s descriptions of the flora and fauna they see are breath-taking: a family of giraffes suddenly appears before them, filling the space between earth and sky with their graceful figures. The ethereal voice of the poet notes, however, that the nights “always offered us occasions to discern what daylight keeps us from seeing.”

This is a small book, but every page contains compelling stories and exquisite descriptions.  I gave up dog-earing my favorite parts, and just went through the whole book again, inspired again by the philosophical, poetic insights of this true son of Africa.

Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, (amazon.com) and is working on a memoir of Haiti.