About

photo by Robert Benson

I’ve been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years and have written two books: A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa, about the African explorer Heinrich Barth (June 2012), and Code Name Ginger: the Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen’s Quest to Invent a New World (2003), which was selected by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers award. Harper published the paperback under the title Reinventing the Wheel. I’m an adjunct professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

I’ve written for Smithsonian, National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Wall Street Journal, Yankee, National Wildlife, The Ecologist, Plenty, BBC Wildlife, and many other magazines and newspapers.

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, got a degree from the University of Detroit, then taught literature and writing at the University of Connecticut while earning a Ph.D. I live in Connecticut.

My website: www.stevekemper.net

6 thoughts on “About

  1. Dear Steve Kemper.
    I am Gerhard Muller-Kosack, an ethnographer of the northern Mandara mountains – http://www.mandaras.info. I have a special interest in 19 Century trans-Saharan explorers and read your entry on Barth. Denham was indeed the first published explorer of the region south of Lake Chad. He visited the Mora at the northernwestern foot of the Mandara mountains and gives an interesting description of his visit, including participating in a slave raid and narrowly escaping his own death as a result. You refer to Gustav Schubert, Barth’s biographer and brother-in-law, and I conclude from that you read German. There is another interesting biography which is the one on Eduard Vogel, by his sister, Elise Polko, “Erinnerungen and einen Verschollenen (1863). Vogel replaced Overweg (the latter is buried in Maiduguri) and later died himself.
    Barth is an interesting figure. Unlike all the others, he not only survived his 5 years journey but he also gave account of it in the scientifically (historical, ethnographic, linguistic) most meticulous fashion. August Petermann , the famous German cartographer (he was instrumental in sending Vogel), published in 1854 a royal folio as “An Account of the Process of the Expedition to Central Africa”, mainly based on Barth’s letters. There was later a conflict between the two men, most likely fuelled by Barth’s over the fact that his academic career was not taking off at all. Apparently Barth later commented negatively on Petermann: “he talks so as he had been there himself”. I have produced an electronic facsimile edition of Petermann’s account on my web pages. The publication contains a first rate map of the region, surely the most accurate one of the time. All the best and continuing good luck with your explorations!

    • Gerhard–I’m delighted by your note and glad to know about your work and homepage. Denham appears several times in my book. Barth admired his courage but was sometimes dismayed by his inaccuracy. Two of Petermann’s maps are included in my book–they are beautiful works of cartography. Yes, Petermann’s appropriation of the expedition eventually annoyed Barth, but first annoyed the British Foreign Office and the Royal Geographical Society. Petermann was talented and passionate, but troubled; he committed suicide. Thanks again for writing, and best of luck with your work.

  2. Steve. Petermann’s legacy is at the “Forschungsbibliothek Schloss Friedenstein” , in former East-Germany (now called “die neuen [Bundes]Laender”) and the University of Erfurt is involved in making it accessible for researches there. Petermann’s legacy will hopefully throw light on the question where the letters Overweg wrote back from the expedition. Petermann was indirectly accused by P.A. Benton in “The Languages and Peoples of Bornu” (vol 1, 1968:57, 213f, 215, 219) to have inappropriately kept those letters after he had finished his “Account of the expedition…” – my guess is that they might well be in his legacy. However, I came to the conclusion that Petermann’s interest in Africa was only one of his many interests and that Benton over-constructed his intention to perhaps keep them. Last time I had contact with them was in June 2003. I just searched the web pages of the “Forschungsbibliothek” for “Petermann” and got some results [ http://www.uni-erfurt.de/uni/google/treffer/?cx=014376730245706404880%3Ackllhpuw1lq&cof=FORID%3A11&ie=UTF-8&q=Petermann&sa= ] and wonder whether Overweg’s missing letters (though Barth actually writes at one point that Overweg was not writing much at all) can now be found.

    • Gerhard–I didn’t know that Benton suspected Petermann of keeping Overweg’s letters. Like you, I doubt it, mostly because concealment was not Petermann’s nature–quite the opposite. Benton did think that Rudolf Prietze, the nephew of explorer Gustav Nachtigal and also an early German Africanist who studied languages, might have been hoarding Overweg’s lost vocabularies in addition to Barth’s and Rohlfs’. Who knows what discoveries await in dusty archives?

  3. Hello Dr.Kemper, What advise would you give a writer setting out to record and write about the history and scholarship in the Grand Masjid in Burkina Faso? I live in Cairo and one of my best friend is the son of the late Imam of that Masjid. I have requested permission to record what they remember. I have also arranged to visit next summer. I am in hopes that I can gather enough info from his students,wivies,and even the current Imam. But, I would like a small bit of your wisdom about where or how you would begin.

    • A little wisdom, all of it obvious, is all I have, Abdulrahman. Congratulations on your project. You are right about talking to people who knew the Imam–the more, the better, including his critics and enemies. The other main sources, of course, are documents. Books, journals, news articles, newsletters, personal correspondence, official correspondence–everything. Good luck.

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