Two Gifts from Congo for You

Ms. Hepburn in her Congo rainforest dressing room, one of the Eliot Elisofon photos from her book on the making of The African Queen
Ms. Hepburn in her Congo rainforest dressing room, one of the Eliot Elisofon photos from her book on the making of The African Queen

Let me interrupt this site’s news and commentary on the election and other developments in Congo with a recommendation of a couple of books to enjoy. After recently reading both, I feel I have already opened my Christmas gifts this year.

The books are Katherine Hepburn’s The Making of the African Queen published by Knopf in 1987, 36 years after she, as the subtitle describes it, “went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind”.  The movie crew’s camp for the primary shooting location was a short walk from a village in the Congo rainforest below Ubundu (then Ponthierville).  The second book is Margaret Myers’ Swimming in the Congo, a treasure of short stories inspired by the writer’s pre teen years growing up in the Disciples’ first mission post in Congo, Bolenge.

After making The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogart in Mexico, John Huston felt ready for an African movie location - and the hunting opportunies there
After making The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Bogart in Mexico, John Huston felt ready for an African movie location - and the hunting opportunies there

The Hepburn book could interest solely as the actress’ account of making a movie classic under very difficult conditions.  What strikes me about the book is the impact of the “Africa experience” on the pampered, famous woman who not only handles the deprivations gracefully but finds herself ruminating just before returning home,  “Would I ever come back here?  Oh, I hope – I hope”.  So for those who have also had the Africa experience take up residence inside them the book pleases as an account of discovering our common humanity with people so different in a so different setting.

It was the first book Hepburn wrote and she comes close to getting at why she wrote it with the words, “when you’ve lived as long as I have, you usually wish that you had kept one (a diary) because you can’t even remember the plot of many of the movies you’ve made – or the plays – really not anything about them or who or why.  But there are happenings you can’t forget….This happened to me with The African Queen.  I remember it in minute detail.”

So she remembers the quality of the water, “here it’s like honey. It is the most spectacular water. Dirt evaporates…. It is like sheer heaven and no need at all for any lubricant.” (pp25-26)  And the rain:  “The raindrops pelted down, making wonderful sounds on the palm trees and on the roof. It made everything seem very cozy.” (p. 54) She remembers the drumming in the night, “as the sun went down, we heard the drums begin.  The answering drums from another direction, then another and another.  A symphony of drums.  It was thrilling”. (p. 90)

But after days and days of soldier ants, living in a mud floored hut, the sinking of the Queen herself early in the shooting,

The Queen and the Jungle, two stars of the great movie
The Queen and the Jungle, two stars of the great movie

and a terrible case of dysentery it is Ms. Hepburn’s description of her relationship with her Congolese attendant that stands out.  And it is here that the real, lasting impact on the actress, and on many of us others who “know” Africa, is touched on, “I remember observing one thing which struck me very powerfully.  I would look serious or worried or trying to be sympathetic – or solemn.  And I would receive back an absolutely impenetrable expression.  A wall. But if I smiled or laughed, he did too.  The universal language.  This amazed me. I would have thought that tears were the things which bound us together, but no – smiles, laughter – and they warmed up immediately.” (p. 120)

Humphrey Bogart won the Academy Award for his role alongside Hepburn in the movie but the book suggests that she came away from the Africa experience with something even better – a greater understanding of herself, the world and what it is to be human.  And it makes me hope with her that she was able to return to
Africa, and Congo in particular, some day.

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