Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Mountains of Jagga

‘This morning we discerned the Mountains of Jagga more distinctly than ever; and about ten o'clock I fancied I saw a dazzlingly white cloud.’ This passage from the diary of the German missionary Johannes Rebmann - born two centuries ago today - describes the first moment any European set their eyes on the mountain that would become known as Kilimanjaro. The white cloud was, of course, snow, but when reports of a snow-capped mountain so close to the equator reached Europe, they were not believed.

Rebmann was born on 16 January 1820 to a farmer and winegrower in Gerlingen, Württemberg, southern Germany. From an early age, it is said, he aspired to be a preacher. Indeed, he trained as a missionary first in Basel, and then, from 1844, at the Church Missionary Society College, London. The following year he was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of London. In 1846, he travelled to East Africa, Mombassa, in the area which is now Kenya, where he joined a veteran missionary Johann Krapf, who had recently lost his wife and daughter to malaria.

Rebmann and Krapf together were able to set up some of the first mission posts in the region. In 1848, Rebmann was the first European to see Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the following year Krapf first sighted Mt. Kenya. At first the existence of these mountains was not believed in Europe, but it was Rebmann’s accounts and sketches that eventually stimulated more systematic scientific exploration of the area, including expeditions looking for the sources of the Nile. Rebmann and Krapf also visited other areas of Africa, including the Great Lakes and Mt. Meru. Rebmann married another missionary, Emma - they worked together for 15 years until her death in 1867. Rebmann learned to speak several native languages; he completed a dictionary of the Nika language, and he compiled the first ever Chichewa language dictionary.

Having almost lost his eyesight, Rebmann returned to Germany in 1875, the first time in nearly 30 years. He lived in Korntal near Stuttgart, where he was close to his old friend Krapf. In 1876, he married the widow of another missionary, from India, Louise Däuble, but Rebmann died within a few months. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Johannes-Rebmann Foundation (a religious society devoted to Rebmann and his memory), or Climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

According to the above biographical information, Rebmann kept a diary from 1848 for the rest of his life. One extract is widely quoted, not least by Wikipedia, which concerns the first sighting of, what is now known as, Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.

10 November 1848
‘This morning we discerned the Mountains of Jagga more distinctly than ever; and about ten o'clock I fancied I saw a dazzlingly white cloud. My Guide called the white which I saw merely ‘Baridi,’ cold; it was perfectly clear to me, however, that it could be nothing else but snow.’

The full text of the Rebmann’s 1848-1849 diary - in German - is available on the Johannes-Rebmann Foundation website. The same website also offers a (rather crude) English translation of a longer passage from the diary concerning the first sighting of Dschagga/Jagga. (Curiously, and I have no explanation for this, the passage starts with the date 11 May.)

‘May. 11. At daybrake we left. When we had walked for about half an hour, we saw right from us 2 people who ran away when they saw us. Bana Cheri wanted to shoot with the shotgun. But the Teitas, who thought that the refugees were compatriots, refused him to do that and ran after them, but they couldn’t catch up with them. Northeastern we saw a mountain, about 2 day trips away, that’s called Ongotia and that should belong already to Ukamba land. After another half an hour we arrived in a desert where again more gras grew and where it therefor was harder to walk, particulary as we had not one small foot path. The normal way goes along Daffeta [e.d.: nowadays Taveta, a market place in Kenya at the border to Tanzania], where my guide didn’t want to go because he was in quarrels with the king of that country. This morning we saw the mountains of Dschagga clearer and clearer, until I thought at about 10 am that I see on on the top of one of them a noticeable white clowd. My guide confirmed me first in my opinion - if he wanted to hide the truth from me or if in fact in that moment a white cloud floated around the mountain, I didn’t know. When we had walked a bit more, I noticed again the white and I asked my guide again, if that there really could be a white clowd. While he answered, this would be a clowd, but he wouldn’t know what the white is - he assumed it would be cold - I got obvious and sure that it can’t be anything else than snow, for which the people have no name, because it never falls in this region. All the strange stories about an inaccessible, from bad ghosts inhabited mountain with gold and silver in the inner, that I had heard often with Dr. Krapf at the cost since I had arrived, were now suddenly clear.

Of course, that the unusual cold forced the half naked visitors of the snow mountain to go back, or when they had to continue by order of the despotically Dschagga king until their body wasn’t totally got numb, them really killed, what then out of ignorance was put the blame on the bad ghosts. I tried to explain the circumstances to my people, but they seemed not really want to believe me. When we rested, I read psalm 111 in the english Bible, to which I came in the ordering. The psalm made double the impression on me, at the sight of the wonderful snow mountain so close to the equator, especially verse 6, that particularly and clear said that, what I only faint suspected and felt.

In N.W. we saw again another large mountain from Ukamba land, that was named Kikumbulu.

At noontime some of my people saw again some rhinos. My short face [e.d. bad eyesight] caused huge fuss, because, to see them, I continued walking, while my people let me stand still. Because of my words that I first wanted to see the animals, they shouted more that I should go back. They seemed to be very worried about me, that nothing bad will happen to me.’

A translation into English of the whole diary document by Google Translate can be found here. A further document available on the Foundation’s website is a transcript (in German) of a diary kept by Rebmann’s wife, Emma - see a here for a translation into English by Google Translate. Elsewhere, the introduction to a biography of Rebmann by Steven Paas contains more information about Rebmann’s diary (tagebuch), not least the fact that some parts of the diary have been lost.

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