Teaching Hemingway as a Travel Companion

If you’ve every wanted to teach Hemingway, or plan to in the near future, then this post may give you some ideas for teaching his works set in Africa. The original blog I used for this lesson is here, and still has all the comments from my students. If you’d like the detailed lessons that I used for teaching the essay that came after the readings, just comment here or send me an email.

The best way to use the information in this post is to have your students read it before reading the Hemingway stories mentioned. By reading through my experiences and watching the videos of my pictures, students will build background knowledge about the setting of the stories and be introduced to some of the major themes. I also pose questions throughout this blog post that elicit more critical thinking about the topics I cover, and I have my students write out their answers or respond on the blog as part of the process.

“Now, being in Africa, I was hungry for more of it, the changes of the seasons, the rains with no need to travel, the discomforts that you paid to make it real, the names of the trees, of the small animals, and all the birds, to know the language and have time to be in it and to move slowly.”
Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

Some Context…

Thanks to a grant I was awarded in 2010 from Fund for Teachers, I traveled to Tanzania, Africa, to retrace a portion of Ernest Hemingway’s 1933 safari that inspired some of his greatest works: two short stories, “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” as well as his nonfiction book The Green Hills of Africa. I set off to try and figure out what the setting of Africa had to offer Hemingway, giving his works common themes such as the perseverance of the human spirit and facing our greatest fears.

But the trip gave me so much more perspective about the stories than simply the theme. As I interacted with the people of Africa and enjoyed the wildlife and landscape the country had to offer, I picked up on the subtle hints of respect Hemingway conveyed in his writing that I would have otherwise overlooked had I not experienced Tanzania myself.

Day 1 – N’Gresi

tanzania-mapMy wife and I both agree that our first day in Africa was the best day of the trip.  Dominique, our driver for the week, drove us out to a small village just outside of Arusha called N’Gresi.  Henry came along for the ride as our village guide.  He lived in the village next to N’Gresi and knew the landscape and the people well.  Henry first took us to the chief of the village who spoke with us about their agricultural production and means of education over a cup of coffee.  The cost of our visit went to the building of schools, and he explained that after lunch we could donate more money to the cause.

After coffee with the chief, we set off for our 3-hour hike through the hills of N’Gresi.  As you walk down the dirt road carved out of the lush green landscape, you can’t help but notice the sense of organization to the rolling green hills.  While much of the beauty felt untouched, a closer look revealed plots of land dedicated to coffee trees, peas, potatoes, bananas, and other produce.  The view was rugged, yet hinted at civilization without taking away from the natural beauty of Africa.  The hints didn’t come in an occasional car, either.  I never saw anything powered by gas, nor did I see much that needed electricity.  Instead, the hints came from parked bicycles, clothes-lines, and unique differences that made up the homes which varied in style and size.tanzania

While some homes seemed more modern than others, there wasn’t a poor area and wealthy area.  Huts made of mud and cow dung sat in plots of land right next to homes made of brick.  The idea of social classes takes on a new perspective in villages such as this.  People don’t unintentionally identify themselves as rich or poor as a way of grouping.  Instead, they lived in a way that showed solidarity.  They showed understanding of each other’s situations through living.  No matter the size of their crops, or the amount of their livestock, the people never revealed a sense of social hierarchy.  They only revealed a sense of survival that made them all equal.  And not the type of survival that comes from fear of death, but the kind that comes from a need to do what’s right for your family or else life isn’t worth living.

This type of survival wasn’t felt in the landscape, but instead felt in the interaction with the people.  The enthusiasm of the children was contagious, and the generosity and sincerity of the men and women was envious.  At times, it was embarrassing to think of our own social hierarchy and our own definition of survival, which seems to include a price tag.  Thinking of this gave me a feeling of inferiority and shame. In N’Gresi, America’s class system is meaningless, and as I learned in the following days, much of this meaninglessness is prevalent throughout Africa.

In N’Gresi, America’s class system is meaningless.  Much of this meaninglessness is prevalent throughout Africa.  What about the video makes this evident? Comment on how the differences in Tanzania are different from where you live.

Day 2 – Lake Maynara 


Yours truly up early

Never have I seen the sun more perfect than during a sunrise at Lake Maynara.  As part of the Rift Valley, which is the setting for Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, Lake Maynara is set between a valley of mountains on either side.  We had our first game drives here, seeing giraffes, elephants, zebras, gazelles, wildebeests, and buffalo in the wild for the first time in our lives.


Hemingway with Kudo antlers

In Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway hunts kudu, which are mainly found in the forests higher up the valley than where we were; therefore, we didn’t get to see any that day, so I’ll let Hemingway describe them: “In the five days I saw a dozen or more kudu cows and one young bull with a string of cows. The cows were big, gray, striped-flanked antelope with ridiculously small heads, big ears, and a soft, fast-rushing gait that moved them in big-bellied panic through the trees” (Hemingway 101).

Day 3 and 4 – Serengeti

A young Hemingway on his 1933 safari

A young Hemingway on his 1933 safari

We spent 2 days on the Serengeti, and it showed us the most wildlife of all the places we visited.  Here is where we saw our first lion, which is the animal responsible for Macomber’s act of cowardice in “The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”  I have to admit, the first time a lion walked up to the car, I got a little worried.  It doesn’t take long before you realize how vulnerable you are on safari, and if any of these animals really wanted to, all they would need to do is jump up on the car and your only option would be prayer.  This gave me only a glimpse of fear that was in Hemingway when he shot his first lion and had to go into the long brush, gun drawn, to make sure it was dead.  And if the lion wasn’t, then a precise, second shot was needed while 500 pounds charges with only the thought of killing you for having put it in such a position.  Because Hemingway felt so strongly about writing what you know, I’m sure he empathizes with Francis Macomber.

But what really impressed me about the Serengeti was the experience of nature as an observer.  There are no cages, no one to feed these animals, no one to help them if they’re injured or sick.  The only governing law is the law of nature, and it is cruel at times.  Here, survival is truly survival.  It’s not measured by happiness, or wealth; it’s measured by staying alive.  Death looms over the plains for some like the umbrella trees scattered across the landscape, while life remains the only reward.  Animals on the lower rung of the chain move with an attentiveness that is restrictive.  Ostriches approach water points with the reluctance of a scared child, and gazelles walk with a delicate timidity that looks ready to run at all times.

This constant fear throughout the country seemed to be something that the animals lived with, but not in a way that seemed helpless, nor did it create compassion, as if we were all so cruel for not wanting to save a gazelle from becoming a lion’s dinner. Of course there’s a tinge of sympathy for the dying animals, but if they didn’t die, then what would become of those animals that rely on their death to live?

What are your thoughts on “the survival of the fittest”? How does this concept apply to America? How does America’s concept of survival of the fittest differ from Tanzania’s? How are they alike?

Day 5 – Masai Village

The visit of the Masai Village was the most unique part of the trip.  The Masai people are found throughout east Africa, and they tend to live on the most infertile of areas. They are semi-nomadic, and tend to herd goats and cattle. As you drive through northern Tanzania, you see young and old Masai tending to their herds, and almost every one of them will wave at you as you pass by.  I was nervous about the visit of the village, but came away feeling ashamed that I didn’t remember what Hemingway had written about the people:

“This was the finest country I had seen but we went on, winding along through the big trees over the softly rolling grass. Then ahead and to the right we saw the high stockage of a Masai village. It was a very large village and out of it came running long-legged, brown, smooth-moving men who all seemed to be of the same age and who wore their hair in a heavy club-like queue that swung against their shoulders as they ran. They came up to the car and surrounded it, all laughing and smiling and talking. They all were tall, their teeth were white and good, and their hair was stained a red brown and arranged in a looped fringe on their foreheads. They carried spears and they were very handsome and extremely jolly, not sullen, nor contemptuous like the northern Masai, and they wanted to know what we were going to do…

…We were moving and they were running again now. The Masai stooped and put the rabbit on the ground and as he ran free they all laughed. M’Cola shook his head. We were all very impressed by these Masai….Seeing them running and so damned handsome and so happy made us all happy. I had never seen such quick disinterested friendliness, nor such fine looking people….They certainly were our friends though. They had that attitude that makes brothers, that unexpressed but instant and complete acceptance that you must be Masai wherever it is you come from. That attitude you only get from the best of the English, the best of the Hungarians, and the very best Spaniards; the thing that used to be the most clear distinctions of nobility when there was nobility. It is an ignorant attitude and the people who have it do not survive, but very few pleasanter things ever happen to you than the encountering of it.” (Hemingway 123)

The idea “that you must be Masai” is exactly how I felt when I met the Masai people. They were charming, friendly, and incredibly hospitable. Never once did I feel like I was intruding, and here I was taking pictures of them as if they were some sort of show. I don’t feel I could describe the Masai people as well as Heminway does above, but I left truly understanding what he meant when he talks about “an ignorant attitude and the people who have it do not survive.”

What is the “attitude” that Hemingway is referring to? Describe it in your own words.


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