When one thinks of how an ambassador’s career gets started, a rocky beach and seagulls don’t likely come to mind. But this is how Smith Hempstone, a former Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Times and 1965 Nieman Fellow, says he first got the idea to seek the job of American envoy to Kenya. The year was 1987, and he was seated on a beach in Maine while exchanging insults with sea gulls. It suddenly dawned on him that there would be apresidential election the following year and George Bush the likely winner. An ambassador to Kenya would be needed. Why not him?
This is just one of the ways that Hempstone, in his “Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir,” skillfully puts his past experience as a journalist to use and vividly brings a diplomatic posting to life. He reveres Hemingway, whom he calls the patron saint of his generation of reporters. And in writing the book he clearly wouldn’t mind any comparisons that might be drawn between his writing and the other writer’s. He purposely sought the Kenya appointment for he knew the country intimately. He traveled there in 1957 as a 28-year-old reporter, worked there while as African correspondent for The Chicago Daily News from 1960 to 1964, and made numerous subsequent visits.
Sure enough, he got his wish when Bush picked him. And “Rogue Ambassador” is about the years he spent there from 1989 to 1993. What makes this book highly refreshing is that it’s very much a journalistic account. Kenya, in essence, is Hempstone’s beat. The account he produces is rich with smooth flowing passages, colorful anecdotes, his good eye for description, and a healthy dose of informality.
When he arrived at his new post, he took a look around his residence and noticed that the servant quarters had sleeping facilities for 10 people but just a single shower and toilet. He wanted this rectified but, he was told by an embassy officer, it was not possible due to a lack of funds. He told the officer to find the money and he did. He writes, “But I knew it wouldn’t do for the embassy staff to regard me as some kind of egalitarian nut. So when I met later in the day with the deputy section chiefs, who had not been invited to the residence for champagne, I told them that I came from an informal background in journalism, and I thought it would be easier for all concerned if they called me by my nickname. ‘What is your nickname?’ asked one obliging officer. ‘Mr. Ambassador,’ I responded. I think they got the point.”
As he settled into his new job, Kenya was groaning under the autocratic rule of Daniel arap Moi, who had been in power since 1978, and still rules to this day. Parliament and the courts had been emasculated. The press was constantly harassed and knew well that it was highly risky to report on any sensitive issue directly involving the president, his family and intimate advisers. Corruption reached unprecedented levels and human rights organizations turned out critical reports on the country.
The big question was when, if ever, would Moi allow opposition parties to be legalized? The clamor for multiparty politics was getting louder and louder throughout Africa. And the irony of it all was that Kenya, considered a model nation on the continent during the 1960’s and 1970’s, was now one of the most resistant to political reform due to Moi’s intransigence.
Hempstone had several key tasks that confronted him. Getting Moi to loosen his firm grip on power and dealing with State Department officials who were threatened by an ambassador who really didn’t need their background notes took up a good deal of his energy. As if this was not enough, he also had the adventurer’s lust—another Hemingway trait—so he got around the country, even to the distant and dusty corners. The captivating descriptions of these places will inform not just Americans and others but many Kenyans as well.
The most startling thing about Hempstone’s ambassadorial tenure is how as a conservative journalist he shocked almost everyone—in America and Kenya—by going public with the message that Kenya had a brighter future if it changed its ways. In a speech in Nairobi, which attracted considerable media attention, he warned that “a strong political tide is flowing in our Congress, which controls the purse strings, to concentrate our economic assistance on those of the world’s nations that nourish democratic institutions, defend human rights and practice multiparty politics.”
Given America’s considerable influence in Kenya, the message—and its very public messenger—caused great consternation to Moi. Aides, eager to display their loyalty, denounced the ambassador. At one point he was informed of a plot to kill him, though it couldn’t be proved. However, to the emerging opposition movement and reform-minded Kenyans, Hempstone’s call for change was music to the ears.
Moi finally gave in to domestic and international pressure at the end of 1991 and legalized opposition parties. Elections took place the following year, which Moi won—with 36 percent of the vote—due to the massive advantages enjoyed by his party, the Kenya African National Union, electoral malpractice and an ethnically fractured opposition. However, in political terms Kenya traveled far between Hempstone’s arrival in Nairobi and his departure soon after the elections. While he cannot take all the credit, he was certainly an important factor in getting Moi to reluctantly change the political rules. Moi no doubt sighed with relief when Hempstone’s tour ended.
All this recalls an earlier period told in the book’s opening. Hempstone was 25 years old in the spring of 1954 and about to start a job with National Geographic. He and his wife went to Italy for their honeymoon. He knew Hemingway was in Venice. Having “the balls of a brass monkey,” as he describes himself, he dropped by Hemingway’s hotel suite. He found the writer nursing a vodka and orange juice. Hempstone writes: “‘Speak Swahili? Been to Africa?’ Hemingway inquired. To my negative replies, he responded: ‘Too bad. You oughta go. Africa’s man’s country: hunt, fish, write. The best.’” The young reporter took the advice to heart.
Wilson Wanene is a Kenyan-born freelance journalist based in Boston.