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Karen Blixen - Another view of her time in Africa:

Karen Blixen or Isak Dinesen as she is known is an author that I have enjoyed tremendously.  She had a gift with words and could paint pictures that captured the heart in the most wonderful of ways.  Her book "Out of Africa" has been read my millions in many languages, it paints a picture of Africa and many people think that such an Africa still exists.  It is a picture of a woman who was ahead of her time, nevertheless the story is set in a time where Africans were second class citizens and colonial rule reigned.  The picture is a distorted one and below are some of my thoughts regarding the book and movie "Out of Africa."



"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills."  Many of us will remember the words of Karen Blixen as we viewed the film "Out of Africa."  The images, the music, spectacular scenery, pictures of a classical colonial house, the colors, sights, sounds are simply breathtaking.

Some of us have not seen the film (Out of Africa) but we have read the book, taken in the words of Karen Blixen into our heart and mind where they paint vivid pictures that evoke dreams of taking that trip to Africa, to see the scenes that the writer describes so skillfully with the backdrop of East Africa with its beauty and splendor.

In fact, thousands trek to Africa, East Africa in particular and wander around the farm of Baroness Blixen, pay the 200 shillings to see the house.  I peeked through the windows instead, but did wander around the rusting coffee equipment out back and the view of Ngong Hills was a most wonderful experience.

In fact many travel companies and safari outfits recommend that one read "Out of Africa" before coming to Kenya.  They tell their potential customers that the book represents real Africa, the real Kenya.  They often tell their customer to stay at the Norfolk Hotel where the Baroness used to stop to have a drink.  A place that also used to host other luminaries that have graced East Africa such as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and of course that delightful aviator, Beryl Markham (she also had a fling with Denys Finch Hatton).

The visitors come, and surprise, they don't find what the book was about, not if they wander the streets of Nairobi, here and there on their way to Karen they get a glimpse of the former glory of the colonial empire, but they are images that have been fading for some time.

The visitors come to see the Africa of Karen Blixen, to see the last untamed part of the planet.  The fact is that the average Kenyan has not encountered a lion in their neighborhood, just like the average New Yorker does not encounter grizzly bears in Central Park.  Yes, there are lions, you can see them in the National Parks that abound in Kenya but the average Kenyan is more concerned about their daily bread and providing for their family than looking for lions, rhinos or elephants.  The Visitors, however keep coming looking for the Africa from "Out of Africa," never seeing the real Africa, never meeting the people of Africa because they experience images from the colonial style Norfolk Hotel, to the "Bwana" tented camps of the Maasai Mara...sad, since they miss the experience and joy of the real Kenya.

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." Baroness Blixen had a farm, and that farm was very unlike the nursery rhyme kind of "Old McDonald had a farm."  Her farm consisted of 6000 acres, and had 2000 squatters on it to do the work on the farm.  Baroness Blixen and her husband Baron Blixen had the farm, but in reality it used to belong to the people who now were considered squatters on the land taken from them by the British Empire whose third class subjects they now were.  Karen Blixen (Isak Tanne Dinesen) broke the mold in many ways in the way that she treated the Africans on her property in that she provided education for the children, rudimentary medical care and more humane treatment of those who worked for her.  She was quite different from other colonialists, but at the end of the day in spite of all her enlightened ways, her strong character that walked often alone, her compassion and graceful ways, she still lived out her dreams of the farm and the African squatters were simple tools to be used for that purpose.

Westerners adore Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), her writings that are extensive, her ways, her strong traits and character.  Africans on the other hand, have quite different feelings. They might use the writings of Baroness Blixen, such as "Out of Africa and Shadows in the Grass," but they realize and know that like many Westerners, Karen Blixen lived in Africa and yet never knew the Africans of Africa.  All one has to do is to look at Kamante, the Kikuyu servant and cook.  Karen Blixen thought she knew him quite well, after all he worked for her for years, he was around the house, answered all the questions and seemed loyal, and yet she was more than surprised when Kamante was arrested for being a member of the Mau Mau, the Kikuyu freedom fighters who sought to overthrow the British rule and remove the colonial structure that kept them and others in subjugation without their land, without freedom, without the ability to pursue the things that had been traditional to the Kikuyu culture.  Kamante was more than an orphan who appeared on her doorstep, he was not a stray animal like the bushbuck Lulu.  Kamante represented a dispossessed people who had lost their all, and many lost their soul in the process since they had to go with flow and beg the white man for daily sustenance, a place to live, a dependence that the African, the Kikuyu, deeply resented and Kamante Gataru amongst them.  He was grateful for the medical attention he received, but he looked for more that medical attention, but the redemption of his people, that is why he took the Mau Mau oath later on.

The Ngong Hills, home of the Blixen coffee farm was not some utopian place inhabited by gazelles, lions and other wild Africans and just waiting for Europeans to come and farm.  European farmers could never understand why the Africans were not grateful for a place where they could live and work.  The Ngong hills were already the home of the Kikuyu people and as Jomo Kenyatta so aptly pointed out, "land was the most important factor in the social, political, religious, and economic life of the tribe." Yes, Karen Blixen had a farm, a farm that aided the British Empire in consolidating their hold on Africa.  She did not see any wrong and in her day she represented a gentler side of the colonial ways, she was more sensitive and caring, nevertheless like colonial compatriots she saw Africans not as equals and that you can see in her own writings, where she equates Africans with wildlife, where she states that Kikuyu children could not be educated past the age of nine, that certainly would make a lot of my friends roar with laughter after having earned master degrees and then going on to obtain their doctorate, a good thing that they did not read the writings of Karen Blixen growing up. 

As I read the writings of Karen Blixen about her experiences in Africa, she makes the same mistake that many other westerners commit. Their conversation with Africans is very one sided, it does not involve listening to the African; it leaves out the cultural understanding of the Africans and their sharing of heartfelt things.  You might hear" yes, yes" and you will think that the African agrees with you, when the African may say yes, but inside says "no."  He plays the game of Bwana knows best and goes and does as his heart dictates to him or her.

Karen Blixen was the benevolent Lady of the manor in the wealthy Europeans tradition that she grew up in.  She did evoke love from the Africans, she begged for a place for them to stay when she left and the farm was sold.   One has to realize that in the writings of Europeans who lived in Africa like Karen Blixen during the colonial era, the medium of story-telling was expertly employed to distinguish between Westerners and Africans on the basis of their biological (and consequently intellectual) differences as a way of justifying the discrepancies in the status occupied by the two communities in the colony.

Karen Blixen's writings are beautiful and nostalgic and they create a yearning in many a reader to visit Africa.  I have enjoyed her writings and read her books on Africa before going there, while in Africa and after leaving it.  During that time I moved from being caught up in the wonderful warm feelings, the plot of the story, the weaving of words, the painting of pictures to the realization that she was a child of her time, a child of the colonial era of Africa.  If Karen Blixen would write the story today, from the perspective of our time, the story would be quite different.  She was a lady of wonderful sensitivity and grace, an author to be read and admired for her many books with which she has gifted us with.  I enjoy her words and many of her ways and realize that if I had lived in her time I might have been of the same mindset.  One can easily look back and make a judgment from a distance without having lived in that time and space.

Karen Blixen had farm in the Ngong hills outside of Nairobi, just a short drive down the Ngong Road.  I often took that drive out there to a delightful restaurant owned by a German man who had lived in Africa many years.  One of the things I noticed was the way that he treated his African help, sharp words, shouting and shaming, treating human beings in harsh ways no matter who was around.  One day I came out to have lunch and saw that the restaurant had been partially consumed by fire and I asked the waiter what had happened and he answered "sometimes God answers prayers in mysterious ways."  Yes, he does and Karen Blixen would not recognize the Kenya, the Africa she left behind, things have changed, laws have changed, Africans, Kenyans are now the government, and yet here and there the colonial attitude of old rears its ugly dehumanizing head, but then God has mysterious ways in which he works in the words of the African waiter in Karen Blixen's African hometown...jon


 

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