Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) published Out of Africa in 1937. In this classic memoir, she reflects upon her time as a small-time coffee farmer and expatriate living west of Nairobi, Kenya. Many know of Blixen thanks to the 1985 movie, “Out of Africa,” starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, which is based upon Blixen’s account.
As one who lives and works only a few kilometers away from the community now called “Karen” (the upscale Nairobi suburb bearing Blixen’s name), some of the places she describes are places I’ve been. Her old tractor and the mammoth rusted coffee dryer sit adjacent to her old farmhouse, now a museum open to tourists. The Ngong Hills that she praises poetically also greet me each morning a century later, unchanged in their glory, though now hemmed-in by dwellings and businesses spilling over from Nairobi.
The reader is soon aware that Blixen’s workers and the squatters on her farm became for her like the children she never birthed, and she the matriarch. Her love for them is evident, though there is always a measure of condescension. Nowhere does she describe a “Native” (now an unacceptable descriptor) as an equal. Perhaps this stems in-part from her own high birth as a Danish baroness? A Kenyan reading the book today may take offense at some of the sweeping character generalizations she makes about Kikuyus, the Maasai, and others. The colonialist worldview tolerated in the early 20th century – which shows up in Blixen’s occasional use of the term “savage” and talk about “two races” (white and black) – sounds a false note in a book whose words-pictures otherwise let the account soar to orchestral levels.
Despite these shortcomings, Out of Africa, when considered as a snapshot-in-time, provides a fascinating portrayal of an era that is no more. Visitors to the museum should first read the book. This will provide context to better appreciate the compelling story of an intrepid European woman who – thanks to a 17 year sojourn – came to fondly view Kenya and its hospitable people as her second home.