Isak Dinesen’s ‘Out of Africa’ turns 80

Saturday June 17 2017

Out of Africa is Isak Dinesen’s memoir

Out of Africa is Isak Dinesen’s memoir published 80 years ago. PHOTO | FILE 

By Kari Mutu

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” This is the opening line of Isak Dinesen’s memoir published 80 years ago. Out of Africa is an account of her life in Kenya.

Karen Dinesen was born in Denmark in 1885, and came to Kenya in 1914 to marry her half-cousin Baron Bror Blixen.

With money borrowed from Karen’s family, Bror bought a dairy farm then swapped it for a 4,500-acre coffee farm near the Ngong Hills on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Blixen moved there in 1917, and this where the book begins. Knowing nothing about coffee, the couple hired African workers. But eventually Karen ended up running the farm by herself as the unfaithful Bror was mostly away on safari — yet he still manages to infect her with syphilis.

Blixen’s life in Kenya was no picnic; a single white woman attempting to run a farm, “a little too high up for growing coffee.”

The coffee plantation grew increasingly unsuccessful because of natural disasters, mismanagement and falling coffee prices. Blixen tried other farming ventures but had no luck either with those endeavours.

In between farming, Karen operated an informal clinic, started a school for African children and hunted.

She often narrates her experiences through interactions with local people such her faithful steward Farah, the “crafty old” Chief Kinyanjui, or a visiting delegation of Indian priests. She includes anecdotes such as the export of giraffes to Hamburg, Germany. She has vignettes about characters like Pooran Singh, the blacksmith, or Karomenya, the deaf-dumb boy.

Out of Africa has colonial terms like “natives” and men referred to as boys, and Blixen falls victim to condescending views, for instance, that local people had “a strong sense of rhythm but knew nothing of verse.” Yet she never fully connects with the British colonials and remains socially isolated, even suspected of being pro-German during World War II.

After 17 years in Kenya, she was bankrupt, her marriage had dissolved and the farm was operating at a loss. She finally resolved to sell it as her family in Denmark had been pushing her to do for years.

Upon returning to Denmark, she wrote several books, including her Africa memoirs in English under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen. First published in 1937, Out of Africa was made into a movie in 1985 and won seven Academy awards in 1986.