In the footsteps of Karen Blixen

Thursday March 10 2011

Karen Blixen Museums Curatorial Assistant Rosemary Agutu poses in front of Baroness Karen Blixen photos during the 25th Anniversary of the museums at Karen on November 2, 2010. Photo/LIZ MUTHONI

If Karen Blixen could see the suburb named after her today, she’d be proud.

Although she left Kenya broke, dejected and terribly homesick, Karen, the suburb named after her, is Nairobi’s most prestigious neighbourhood today, hosting diplomats, powerful businesspeople, government ministers, expatriates and most of Kenya’s privileged white and black population.

My journey to Karen starts at Railways, one of Nairobi’s main bus terminal, incidentally, the main train station from which a young Karen stepped off a train almost 100 years ago from Europe, when she first came to get married to Bror Blixen and start a new life at the foot of Ngong Hills.

I break down my journey into two. My first stop is the Bomas of Kenya in Lang’ata.

The attraction here is the Bomas of Kenya Cultural Village which Blixen would probably be more familiar with, with its depiction of Kenyan rural life and culture.

In contrast, across the road however, is the prestigious Brookhouse School, whose architecture borrows from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, complete with merlons, a castle gate, a drawbridge with winches and chains, goldfish swimming under the moat that leads to the main school block, a fountain, white swans, rabbits and tortoises.


What would shock Karen most about the school however, is the large number of black children being ferried back and forth in Mercedes, Range Rovers and other top of the range vehicles.

In Karen’s era, such institutions were a preserve of whites only.

Karen struggled to set up a school in her backyard for her worker’s children and managed to enroll 200 of them.

She believed that some of them were extremely brilliant and given the right opportunities could succeed.

Abdallah, the cousin of her favourite servant Farah, was one of these.

She adopted him when he was young and he later went on to become a prominent lawyer in Nairobi and later the first judge in Somalia.

Right next to Brookhouse School is a 70,000 square feet mall, Nakumatt Galleria, the 32nd branch in East Africa and the 27th in Kenya, run by Nakumatt Holdings, one of the largest retail chains in the region.

It sells everything from furniture to home appliances, safety pins to automobiles.

From the Bomas of Kenya, I head for Hardy, the commercial hub of Karen.

Lucky Dube’s Crime and Corruption is playing in the matatu and the words of the song describe what am seeing: “Is it the bodyguards around youIs it the high walls where you liveOr is it the men with the guns around you24 hours a day that make you ignore the crying of the people.”

This is freedom music at its best, whether it’s whites oppressing blacks like it was in Blixen’s era, or the “haves” oppressing the “have nots” as it is today.

Blixen’s colonial contemporaries like Lord Delamere who settled in the Rift Valley, considered black people racially inferior and a necessary evil.

They were there to do the dirty and manual work that the white people couldn’t touch.

Earlier on, as I drank a cold soda at a cafe on Kenyatta Avenue in the city centre, I couldn’t help but marvel at how so much the country had changed yet society remained the same.

I couldn’t help but think of Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

One class of bourgeois aristocrats was simply replaced by another.

Lord Delamere turned into “Lord” Kenyatta and “Lord” Moi.

The black “liberation” leaders took over the colonialists farms, and political power and as if to confirm the conquest, named the public places (schools, universities, hospitals, streets, markets, airports) after themselves.

Lord Delamere Street became Kenyatta Street, Queensway was changed to Mama Ngina Street (Kenyatta’s wife) and several others followed suit.

It is as if George Orwell’s Animal Farm was replaying itself before me. Same script, different actors.

The lazy Sunday afternoon traffic crawls. A woman driving a sports Range Rover with the windows rolled up changes the radio station without looking down from the steering wheel.

She bobs her head to music only she can hear.

Watching all these fancy Prados, Cayennes, VW’s, Mercedes and BMW’s with smug looking drivers gives a new angle to life.

When Karen left Kenya, black people were confined to the kitchens, farms or factories.

They hadn’t yet even been promoted to secretaries and junior clerks then.

The matatu takes a turn into Bogani Road near the Nairobi Academy.

This marks our entry into what would in Uganda be called the “Kizungu” (white dominated) area.

Karen is home to a number of Kenya’s privileged white population.

At Hardy near the Karen Police Station I get off the matatu for this is the farthest public transport is allowed.

I soon know why. Two white ladies ride by on white horses. Nothing out of the ordinary here anyway.

I ask to take their picture, after all back in Kampala this is not a common sight even in affluent neighbourhoods.

It is humorous to think that you can tell how affluent a neighbourhood is by the kind of animal waste that litters the roadside.

As the houses become bigger and fancier, there is no chicken shit or goat droppings, just horse dung.

The place still maintains a countryside feel. Large trees line the road gracefully.

Ancient trees with gnarled branches reaching out far and wide.

They give an aura of peace, dignity, prestige and a sense of immortality and privacy to the occupants of the mansions.

Karen is one of Nairobi’s oldest neighbourhoods and clearly little has changed here since the colonial era.

Instead of neat little lawns, this part of Karen has sprawling compounds and large open spaces, too big to care about manicures but constantly grazed on by the horses.

The traditional Karen style is a long driveway with two gates, one nearer to the main road and another further in.

Horses grazing in lush compounds are the only evidence of human habitation on some secluded properties.

Hidden almost beyond sight are the old classy mansions and manors.

It’s a stark contrast to Umoja and Zimmerman estates on the eastern side of Nairobi, with endless rows of cramped flats packed on top of each other.

Karen is also a place of history, culture and conservation.

The Karen Blixen Museum and the Giraffe Manor are big attraction.

The Giraffe Manor-turned hotel was originally built as a private residence for the toffee tycoon Sir David Duncan, a year after Blixen left Kenya and one of the rooms is furnished with Blixen’s furniture.

Inside the Giraffe Centre, giraffes are not the only things one can watch.

The place is crawling with “Babyies,” (from Babylonians) Nairobi slang for rich people from affluent surburbs with British and American accents.

Blixen would definitely be shocked by such a wide class divide between black Africans of modern Kenya.

One of Blixen’s biggest challenges was homesickness. She spent a lot of time constantly dreaming about her beloved Denmark.

When I think of what Nairobi has become, I conclude that maybe Blixen wouldn’t have left at all, considering that Kenya’s more than 60,000 strong white upperclass population plus the wealthy black Kenyans live a highly privileged life and have managed to create a cocoon for themselves, some kind of small European replica.

With the right amount of money, anything is possible.

From horse racecourses to ice-skating they have virtually imported a life, largely cut off from the realities of life in the rest of Kenya.

The housing estates have names like Applewalk Court, Riverside, Mountain View, St James Place, Lavington Villas, in places like Brookside, Upperhill, Ridgeways, Hurlingham, Westlands, Lavington, Parklands and Spring Valley.

Even the not so glamorous have followed suit with names like Eastleigh, South B, South C and Highridge.

Nairobi as a stark contrast to Kampala where I cannot find any suburb or neighbourhood with an English name; from my native Mengo, to Makindye, from Kololo to Kamokya and from Bunga to Bugolobi.

Nairobi has the biggest number of international schools of any one city I know including the Swedish School, German School, French School, Netherlands School, Japanese School, Chinese School, Norwegian School, Turkish School and of course several schools following the British and American system.

Maybe Karen knew exactly what she was talking about when she coined the phrase “Out of Africa.”

In a way Nairobi can be out of Africa.