Title: Out of Africa
Author: Karen Blixen
Reviewed by: Tom Mwiraria
Out of Africa is a memoir by Karen Blixen which details the life she made in Kenya for 17 years.
At the dawn of 1900, a love-struck Karen journeys to East Africa intent on getting married to her second cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, a writer and big game hunter.
The Baron and Baroness buy land at the foot of Ngong Hills. She notes in the memoirs “you know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions”
The Blixens initially planned to rear cattle but Bor develops the land as a coffee plantation. Labour is provided by Kikuyu tribesmen referred by Europeans as squatters.
The tribesmen, in exchange of wages, are allowed to live in the uncultivated swaths that previously belonged to them.
In 1925, the marriage crumbles and Karen takes over the management of the farm. The farm endures several dry spells and low yields. Coffee prices plummets and the farm sinks into debt.
A dejected Karen drags herself from the pit of unhappiness and goes to her parent's estate of Rungstedlund.
The memoir has five sections, each inexplicably sadder than the other. The first and second sections illuminate the notion of justice in the wake of “accidental shootings”.
“The ideas of justice of Europe and Africa are not the same and those of the one world are unbearable to the other. To the African there is but one way of counter-balancing the catastrophes of existence, it shall be done by replacement; he does not look for the motive of an action.
Whether you lie in wait for your enemy and cut his throat in the dark; or you fell a tree, and a thoughtless stranger passes by and is killed; so far as punishment goes, to the Native mind, it is the same thing.’’
The third segment offers a snapshot of Africans dubbed as “visitors to the farm” who considered Blixens' farm as a haven of safety and refuge.
One can argue that Karen's portrayal of Africans is from a racist’s lenses but that is somehow diluted by sweet lyrics and a great extent of frankness in her expressions.
The fourth section highlights the life of a white African colonist and wanderers who stopped in Kenya. Notable among them is Denys Finch Hatton who Blixen met during a dinner party in 1918, and later wrote to her mother about her plans "to love the ground he walks upon, to be happy beyond words when he is here, and to suffer worse than death many times when he leaves."
In the memoir, Karen describes him as a man of rare erudition and natural grace, who fit anywhere and nowhere and by all accounts he radiated, from a young age, a kind of warmth and serenity that many people found irresistible.
After separation with Karen, Finch died in 1931 when his plane which Karen described as ' the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm." crashed after take-off at the Voi aerodrome.
HAPPY HUNTING GROUNDS
When Blixen arrived in Kenya in 1914, she noted that “the highlands were in very truth the Happy Hunting Grounds...while the pioneers lived in guileless harmony with the children of the land.”
But by the time that Blixen was finishing the manuscript for Out of Africa in 1960 at the age of 51, the Kenya colony of her younger years was blood drenched.
Karen created a fantasy life for herself, a life that was buffeted by tragedies which she brought into art. The more one reads Out of Africa, the more drawn they will be to the literary gem that it is.