Monday, July 2, 2018

Longing for Africa, Redux

Annamaria on the Road Again

I am reposting this, not only because I am off on a brief trip, but also because next week I will have big news about the mystery of the inscribed rock described below.  So I want to refresh your memory (or clue you in for the first time) on how I became preoccupied with the identity of an obscure Italian born in the province of Brescia in 1912.  Here is a post from a couple of years ago recounting - among other things - how I found out about a carving on a rock wall in a remote part of Tanzania.  Come back next week, and I'll tell you the answer to the mystery.

The following was originally published in August of 2016:


Without a planned trip in my future, I am bereft.  Bear with me while I reminisce.  

Two years ago today, I had just arrived in Nairobi, on my own in Africa for the first time, and so looking forward to all that I would see.

That trip started with a Google search more than a year before.  I was doing some general research for my African series.  I have no recollection what terms I had typed in, but there on the first page of results was the entry for Old Africa Magazine.  Be still my heart.  One click, and there it was: the website of my dreams.

“Subscribe now,” it said.  Faster than you can say “Jack Robinson.”  Back issues?  “Please send all you have.”

Once they arrived.  I began to read them in date order.  (You do remember that I went to Catholic school?)  They gave me exactly the kind of thing that moves my imagination most—stories of people who had lived there and then, photos of life at the time of my novels.  There was also, in each issue, a contest to identify some past event.  Nothing I could ever hope to do.

But then I came to Issue No. 12, which was by then seven years old.  And I found this:


The words carved on the rock were given in the magazine as: “Benvenuta, ELIA, NATO, 7.2.1912. PARATICO, BRESCIA, WL ITALIA, WRE.”  The page went on to say that though the contest was over, answers were still welcome.

The thing was, I could read that rock.

So I emailed the editor—Shel Arensen—and asked if they had ever gotten an answer.  He responded that they had only a partial translation.  So I sent him mine:

Dear Shel, the magazine copy says that the carving says “Benvenuta"— which would be “Welcome" in the feminine as if to a girl.  But from the photo, it could be “Benvenuto,” which would make more sense considering what the rest says.  
"Elia (usually a masculine name), “Nato” born in the masculine.  It goes on "7 February 1912 Paratico, Brescia,” which is town in Lombardy. The W in "WL Italia" could stand for VV, which would mean  “Viva L’ Italia” (Long live Italy.)  WRE would really be VV RE, “Long live the King.”

So my take: It says.  "Welcome, Elia.  Born on 7 February 1912 in Paratico, Brescia.  Long live Italy.  Long live the King.”

Paratico a hundred years after Elia's birth,
In his first email, Shel had also asked what sparked my interest in his magazine.  An understandable question since he could see no connection between a woman of Italian descent living in New York and a nostalgia magazine about Kenya and Tanzania.  I told him about my forthcoming Strange Gods.  And he offered to review it.


I sweated that review.  After all, Shel and his readers were the descendants of the people I was writing about.   Every mistake I made would glare at them.  I am gratified to say that he liked the book.  He even found convincing my characterization of Vera McIntosh, born in East Africa, the child of a missionary, which Shel himself is.

And then came the magic invitation.  Old Africa was about to sponsor a hundredth anniversary tour of the World War I battlefields of Kenya.  With ten books planned in my series and three of them to deal those very places and times, how could not go.

And so I did.

Some if you have read here about my visit during that stay to the wonderful nuns and the splendid Maasai girls at Emusoi, and about my overwhelmingly thrilling safari in the Masai Mara.  I am saving the details of the battlefield tour for when those books come to the fore, numbers five, six, and seven of the series.  In the meanwhile, on the two-year anniversary of that trip, hungry as my heart is to be in Africa right now, I can’t think of anything else to share with you today but these thoughts and the photos that take me back.

My hotel in Nairobi

First destination: Karen Blixen's House

James Wilson's book: the definitive history of WWI in Kenya

Jim recounting the story of the war.  He went and sought out the places
where he took us.  I want him to sit next to me when I write those stories.
Jim found this building.  The first shot of the war came from this window,
as German troops attacked what was then a police boma in the Tsavo.

Our headquarters during the week-long tour was a lovely safari camp.
BIG bonus for me, there were game drives every evening.

The view from my bedroom window.

The tracks of the narrow gauge railway the Brits built to supply their troops.

My fellow travelers--with their LONG lenses, made fun of my little camera, but I love it.

They had trouble capturing Kilimanjaro at sunset.  My camera got the best shot.
We knew there was a lion under that tree and waited and waited for him to stand
up.  The others were packing their cameras away, but I stayed zoomed in and I
whispered, "Come on, honey.  Just raise your head." Just then, he did!  CLICK

They made me prove I had gotten the shot by showing it dinner that night.


  1. And may we hope that your longing will overcome you soon? Maybe next year?

    1. Michael, I am toying with the idea of Africa from Italy, late February early March. My thoughts are somewhere between vague and sketchy, but that's how all my adventures have started.

    2. And taking Susan's point, that may the right way to start them!

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. That should have said: and I hope you DO get back to Africa *next year* so you can take us all along in your blogs!

  2. I can't believe that after all you did--and are doing--for the greater glory of the continent that they thought your were lyin' about the lion.

    1. Jeff, since the lion was lyin' down in the tall grass and invisible until he raised his head, some of those doubters gave up on his being there at all. After he answered my sotto-voce call, I thought of a possible new career as a lion whisperer. Perhaps I will look for new opportunities to practice that skill next year. I can dream...
      (Please refrain from sentences containing the phrase "lyin' whisperer.")

  3. Our pride in your photographic skills is only exceeded our joy in your writing skills. Only next time, maybe you should take Jeff along as a cub scout?

    1. EvKa, I really think it is the camera that is very clever. And my legendary good luck. But I am very fond of the shot of Kilimanjaro. It was very hard to see the mountain from where we were, because it makes its own weather and is almost always shrouded in mist or clouds. Exactly as Susan just described Fujiyama and as I found Denali in Alaska to be. But, lucky me, it came out that last evening in Tsavo and voila'.

    2. Here's hoping I have half as much luck with Fuji-sama! (Fujiyama is also correct, btw - it means "Mt. Fuji" - Fuji-sama is referring to the mountain with an honorific.) Clearly, your heart was pure and Kilimanjaro rewarded you with his image.

  4. I remember your blogs from that trip - and hearing you talk about it when I saw you at Bouchercon. I love it when you write about Africa, because she has captured your heart and soul (the way Japan has mine) and your writing sings with passion for it. More Africa stories!! Please!!!

    Thank you for taking us to this magnificent place, both here and in your wonderful novels!

  5. Very jealous now about your travels Annamaria, and nice to see Jeff being subtle and reading between the lions. I will go away now....

    1. too've been spotted. Whoops, wrong cat.

  6. On 'Benvenuto Elia etc.', I think you should consider that 'Benvenuto' in addition to meaning 'Welcome', can also be a surname. The editor of the magazine seems to think that the words were carved in 1912, but "26 3 43" could very well be the actual date: 26 March 1943, and "Benvenuto Elia" may be, instead of "Welcome, Elia" which in my opinion does not make a lot of sense (carved on a rock), the name of the author: Elia Benvenuto, born in Paratico on 7 February 1912. Considering the words, “Long live Italy” and “Long live the King”, and the date, 1943 (during World War II), I believe these words may have been carved during WWII by an Italian soldier, named Elia Benvenuto and born in Paratico in 1912. There were over 100,000 Italian troops in East Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia) at the outbreak of the war, and they fought a campaign that lasted till November 1941. Afterwards, many of them were sent to POW camps in Kenya, while a few others evaded capture and engaged in guerrilla acts that in some cases lasted till September 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies. Maybe this man was a prisoner who escaped from a POW camp in Kenya, or maybe one of those soldiers who evaded capture, and was now trying to cross Africa to get back to Italy, or to Italian-held Tunisia, or to an African colony that was not held by the Allies. He came upon this rock, and carved his name, birth date, birth place, and the date he was writing, as well as “Long live Italy” and “Long live the King”. Not a very uncommon thing for soldiers in war: there are similar words written on rocks in the Alps by Italian soldiers during WWI, for instance. Writing that they had been there for the posterity, maybe to leave some information in case they would not make it. I feel there’s a very interesting story lying behind those words, but maybe no one will ever learn it.

    Lorenzo Colombo

  7. Oh, Lorenzo, thank you so much for this. Before I wrote the explanation above, I tried mightily among my friends in Italy to find anyone who might help me interpret the inscription. No one had a clue. You are the first to understand the connection between 1912 and WWII. For my part, it was "Viva il Re" that made me think it must be from the early 20th century, hence my guess. But your explanation is much more plausible than mine, since I have never been able to figure out how the news of a birth in Italy would have reached that father I imagined. I will pass your comment along to the editor if Old Africa Magazine.

    When I am in Italy in January, I may just travel to Paratico and search the town records for this birth and see if I can find Elia Benvenuto. If I do, I will report back here.

    BTW, tell me why you think a WWII Italian soldier would carve "Viva il Re." I know that many of the soldiers were not avowed Fascists, but the king had been eclipsed by 1943. (You can answer me here, or send me an email over my website:

    Don't you love this sort of historical puzzle!

    1. An interesting puzzle, indeed!
      About "Viva il Re", it wouldn't be strange at all, actually. I wouldn't say the king was eclipsed; he remained the head of state and each soldier, when swearing, had to take an oath to the King, not to the "duce". Officers, especially, were mostly monarchists and extremely loyal to the king. There are several instances of "Viva il Re" (often together with "Viva l'Italia") being used, during WWII, as a final 'exclamation' in extreme circumstances - for instance, at the end of a final radio message issued by garrisons just before being finally overwhelmed, or shouted by the crew of a sinking warship before abandoning ship. Sometimes even as 'last words' - I made a quick search of the Quirinale site:

  8. How gallant! How ROMANTIC!! But also from my (pacifist) point of view, how sad and what a waste. I am the goddaughter of a first-generation Italian American--my mother's brother, John Pisacane--who fought in Patton's army to "liberate" Italy, and who was killed in action just after the Battle of the Bulge.

    I cannot tell you how happy I am to have this discussion. A friend and I have been writing here of late about the historical novelist's relationship with the facts of history. Just last Monday I wrote about how sometimes the truth that emerges after the novelist's inventions turns out to confirm their imaginings.

    In this instance, your truth is much more fascinating and emotionally moving than what I guessed at.

    I wrote to Shel Arensen, the editor of Old of Africa about your comment. He told me that you had contacted him and that he means to publish your interpretation. BE SURE to include this latest information in your report for him. It is beautiful and needs to go into this story.

    1. Hello Annamaria,
      did you go to Paratico in the end, or find anything about him?

    2. Hello, Lorenzo. Welcome back! How timely, your visit. I am leaving on June 10 for Italy and will make that pilgrimage to Paratico next month! I will write a blog about that trip. I can't wait to find out what the folks in the commune or the the church records can tell me.

      BTW: I was discussing this puzzle recently with a friend--born in San Benedetto in the Marche, and he told me his father was in the King's Army during WWII, taken prisoner by the British, and sent to India. A cousin of mine from San Mauro in Cilento (birthplace of my grandfather) also was taken prisoner and sent to India. Imagine that the Brits were transporting their prisoners such distances! But then again, the US brought Italians to the States!

      I was in Tanzania not too long ago, traveling on my own. Otherwise, I would have driven over the border and tried to take a look at that rock myself. Perhaps I will have the chance of it one day.

    3. Hello, I see that you solved the mystery in the end!

  9. Hello Annamaria,
    I only saw your Hangout message today, but email says your e-mail address does not exist. Can you e-mail me at

    1. LC, I emailed you from my Patricia King email account. If you didn't get my response, please check your Spam folder. You will like the news. AA/PK