I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong HillsKaren Blixen, Out of Africa
With this sentence Karen Blixen opens her account of life on a coffee plantation just outside Nairobi. It was the 1920s, and this was British East Africa, not Kenya – part of the (by then fading) British Empire. The book presents a vivid, if at times uncomfortable, picture of African colonial life and the relationships between colonists and native inhabitants.
Karen was born in 1885, as Karen Dinesen, into a wealthy Danish family. In 1914 she married her Swedish second cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, becoming Baroness Blixen. He was a keen big game hunter, a pursuit still considered acceptable at the time (something you must bear in mind when learning about Karen and/or reading her book).
Using an investment from their common uncle, the couple bought land in what was then British East Africa, planning to start a cattle farm. But they later changed their minds, having become convinced that coffee would be more profitable. With the uncle they founded the Karen Coffee Company and set about establishing their coffee farm. It did not go well as the First World War led to a shortage of workers and supplies.
Despite this, they decided to move to a bigger farm and bought a property to the west of Nairobi, near the foot of the Ngong Hills. Of their 6,000 acres of land they used just 600 acres for a coffee plantation; the rest were used by the natives (known as ‘squatters’) for grazing or left as untouched virgin forest. But still the farm continued to struggle. The land here wasn’t really suitable for growing coffee as its elevation is too high. There were other problems too. A fire destroyed the coffee processing factory; there were poor harvests; and so on.
When Karen and the Baron separated in 1921, and subsequently divorced in 1925, she was left to run the farm on her own, which she did until the company finally collapsed in 1931. Meanwhile she had fallen in love with the English hunter, safari guide and pilot Denys Finch Hatton. This romance is the main subject of the film ‘Out of Africa’, in which Hatton was played by Robert Redford, and Karen by Meryl Streep.
Although I haven’t seen the film, I was reading her book in preparation for this visit. Unlike the film, the book focuses more on the day to day life of the farm. It is thus very interesting background reading for a visit here.
Visiting the farm
We drove out of the city centre along the Ngong road. In her day this would, according to her accounts of it, have been little more than a mud track, impassable in wet weather. Today it is a busy dual carriageway, with a large slum to the right. Our driver Jackson told us, with a tinge of misplaced pride, that this is the second largest in Africa, after Soweto. In contrast, on the left is the affluent suburb of Karen, developed on land once part of her coffee farm.
We were met on arrival by a young guide, who did an excellent job of showing us around. Firstly, she told us something of Karen Blixen’s story which echoed what I had read in the book. Outside the house she showed us some old farm machinery from Karen’s time. There were ploughs that would have been pulled by her oxen; a wagon used to carry the sacks of coffee to the railway station in Nairobi for onward transport to the port in Mombassa; and a tractor.
Then our guide took us into the house, starting with the separate kitchen with its iron range and still many of the historic cooking implements in place.
From here we went into the main house. There we visited a series of rooms, including Karen Blixen’s study and bedroom. From my reading of the book I recognised our guide’s description of her as someone who loved to tell stories; it was good to see the fireplace where she would sit to entertain her friends.
There were photos of some of these friends on the walls, as well as of Karen herself, her husband Baron Bror von Blixen Fincke and her lover Denis Finch Hatton. We also saw reproductions of some of her own paintings (the originals are in museums in Denmark). I liked those of some of the local people (whom she terms Natives in the book, somewhat uncomfortably for modern-day readers).
A lot of reviews I’ve read say that photos aren’t allowed inside; but I asked our guide if I could take some and she said it was fine as long as I didn’t include any of Blixen’s art works. I felt it best not to use flash, although this wasn’t stipulated, which explains the slight gloomy, grainy look to my images.
Outside we saw the millstone converted by Karen into a table. This is where she liked to sit when asked, as she often was, to make a judgement in some local dispute.
From the house we walked a short distance through the grounds to see the old coffee processing machine. Here the beans were dried before being packed into sacks and sent to Mombasa for export to England.
Walking back to the house we took the opportunity to chat a little to our young guide. She told us that she had done a four-month attachment at the museum last year, as part of her tourism studies; and once these had finished, earlier this year, she had returned to work as a volunteer while waiting to graduate. She has ambitions to work for a tour company and I am sure will succeed, based on the very positive experience we enjoyed with her. Needless to say, we tipped her well.
Karen Blixen in context
I found it a little odd, however, that Kenyans, seem so comfortable talking about, and through the museum promulgating, the picture of colonial life painted by Karen Blixen and her views on ‘Natives’. Today we would all recognise these as racist. At one point in the book she says that:
‘white men fill in the mind of the Natives the place that is, in the mind of the white men, filled by the idea of God.’
And this is typical of her attitude throughout. While she has a lot of good things to say about the workers on her farm as individuals, these are always filtered through a lens of superiority; and when she talks about them collectively it is always to suggest an inferior or at least less sophisticated level of understanding. I found that much harder to stomach, when reading the book, than her enjoyment of big game hunting (which I recognised as an uneducated anachronism).
I was somewhat surprised therefore that our guide talked about her with a sense of familiarity and affection; ‘Karen always liked to sit here …’, or ‘Karen knew a lot about medicine and often treated her workers …’ And this seemed genuine, not parroting what she thought visitors would like to hear. I can only assume that this is due to the impact of the book, and later the film, in widening awareness of the beauty of the Kenyan landscape and drawing visitors here. This seems not so much to have outweighed any consideration of her colonial attitudes; but rather caused them to be put totally to one side. Kenyans it seems retain some affection for their former colonial power; all of those we spoke to were rooting for England to win the World Cup! Could this perhaps make them more tolerant of past colonialist attitudes?
Despite all the above …
Having said all that, I enjoyed our visit and would recommend it to others. Even if you haven’t read ‘Out of Africa’, or seen the film, a tour here enables you to see the typical colonial architecture, and to imagine life for Europeans in Kenya at that time, which is after all a major part of the country’s history. And engaging with such an excellent young guide was a great bonus!