Faded photo of low stone house set in a garden
History,  Kenya,  People

Out of Africa: visiting Karen Blixen’s home

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills

Karen 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.

Some background

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.

Low stone house set in a garden
The main house

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.

Old fashioned colander and sink
In the kitchen

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.

Machinery with large red pipes
Coffee processor

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.

Smiling young lady in blue and red checked blanket
Our guide

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!

18 Comments

  • Oh, the Places We See

    I’ve seen the movie and hope you will, too. It’s fascinating. But what I really love about this post are your photos of the inside of the house. Nothing fancy. But so interesting. Thanks for sharing this intimate glimpse.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I will watch the film sometime I am sure 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed seeing the interior of the house – I only wish more of my photos had come out (it was quite dark in there). I suspect for its time and in that place it must have been quite fancy, but it felt homely too 🙂

  • katieshevlin62gmailcom

    You know Sarah I had the wrong film in my head when I started reading this! Was thinking of ‘Born Free’ wondering how she switched from being a fan of hunting to an animal lover 🤣! Anyway I enjoyed reading it and learned some new things.

    • Toonsarah

      Haha, that’s a very different book 😂 You must have been very confused! Anyway, great to hear from you Katie and I’m glad you enjoyed this 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Interesting read. I saw the movie but never read the book. It would be fun to do a tour of that house… Nancy

  • wetanddustyroads

    I’ve seen the film and your post brought back great memories – there were some really beautiful scenes of Africa … but I think it will be great to read the book as well – sometimes that puts a (true) story more into perspective.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, I’m glad you found that the post brought back good memories 🙂 The book covers far more than the film does and is great background reading.

  • maristravels

    I saw the film but didn’ read the book but your post has brought it all alive for me. I find any history interesting, the history of misappropriation of land and that of subjugation of peoples is still part of a past we have to know and learn from and we ignore it at our peril. I just loved that photo of your guide with her back to us in that startling check wrap-around.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari – I’m happy you picked out that particular photo. I loved her blanket (all the guides were wearing them as it was a chilly morning by Kenyan standards) but in her case I was also struck by her beautiful hair so I dropped back as we walked in order to photograph it!

      And I do recommend the book if you like that sort of history. The romance with Hatton is only a tiny part towards the end. As I said in my comment to 100 Country Trek below, you have to read it in context, and if you do that you really get a sense of what this house would have been like when she lived there 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I do recommend the book, especially if you’ve visited the house – it helped bring the place alive for me. But you have to read it in the context of the times when it was written, and from an upper class European perspective, when colonialisation was still seen (or rather justified) as being ‘good’ for the people who were subjugated, and big game hunting as an acceptable sport.

  • Nemorino

    I haven’t read the book or seen the film, but I think this would be an interesting place to visit, nonetheless. In Vietnam I knew a man who still had kind thoughts for the long-since departed French colonialists — now that they were safely out power and out of the country.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, you don’t have to have read the book to find this interesting as it presents a real slice of colonial life that anyone who is even slightly interested in history will enjoy. We had a conversation in India once with a guide who said he thought in many ways the country would be better off today if it had remained under British rule! But I don’t know that that’s a generally held view 🙂

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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