Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Out of Africa

"I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills..."

With these simple words begins "Out of Africa", the memoirs written by Isak Dinesen, the pen name used by the Danish author Baroness Karen Blixen (1886-1962). The book, published in 1937, recounts the 17 years of her life from 1914 to 1931 that she spent in British East Africa (modern day Kenya) on her coffee plantation and gives a vivid picture of Colonial Africa during the closing decades of the British Empire.

Her life in Kenya begins when she moved there to marry a distant cousin, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. Together they established a coffee plantation on their farm located in the highlands, six thousand feet in altitude. "The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world….it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of the continent." However, differences between them and her husband's infidelity led to their separation in 1921 and ultimate divorce in 1925. Maybe for this reason, it is no surprise that he is not mentioned in her 389 page book, except for a passing reference to "my husband" in one of the pages. Karen Blixen, an independent, courageous and capable woman, continued to manage the farm until poor crop yields and falling coffee prices during the Great depression pushed her more into debt and having to sell out in 1931.

One of the most moving things about this book is how the author conveys her strong feelings and love for Africa , its land, animals, nature and most of all, its people. Although she uses language that today may be judged as having racist or colonial undertones, she viewed the Africans with respect and affection, and unlike her colonial and European contemporaries who perceived them as savages or simpletons, she saw them as a people who, although different in culture and traditions, had dignity, nobility and beauty. She was a colonial settler, owning 6000 acres of land, but in certain parts of the book you can sense her awareness that this land truly belonged to the Kikuyu tribespeople who lived and worked on her land and who were termed "squatters" by the colonial establishment. "My squatters…were born on the farm and their fathers before them and they very likely regarded me as a sort of superior squatter on their estates". Near the end of the book, she sadly reflects on the fate of the Kikuyu after her farm is being sold off and they are forced to move elsewhere by the new owners: "It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose Native land you take. It is their past as well, their roots and their identity. If you take away the things they have been used to see and will be expecting to see, you may as well take their eyes."

Isak Dinesen or Karen Blixen was a story teller and maybe for this reason her book is written like a combination of stories about the many people who touched her life and the many events that marked her stay in Africa. She tells of the culture and customs of the Kikuyu who worked on her farm and their big Chief Kinanjui “a crafty old man, with a fine manner, and much real greatness to him.” She talks of the Masai, a proud semi-nomadic cattle-owning nation with a warrior culture, who lived across the river from her farm on a tribal reservation after having been forced to leave their lands to make way for white settlers. She laments their fate: "They were fighters who had been stopped fighting, a dying lion with his claws clipped, a castrated nation". She speaks of the Somali Muslims who worked in Kenya, such as Farah Aden, her close and loyal assistant who helped her on the farm and remained faithfully at her side till the end. She contrasts the differences in perception about death, fate, time, justice and other issues between the African and the European: "A white man who wanted to say a pretty thing to you would write: I can never forget you. The African says: We do not think of you, that you can ever forget us."

She also writes about the Europeans who were near to her heart and who were regular visitors to her farm. They were mostly people who were close friends with the Africans, who were one with nature and who were non-conformists like herself. Foremost of these was Denys Finch Hatton, a hunter and the man she loved for many years. Although she never explicitly mentions in her book the nature of their relationship, her affection and adoration of him show through her words: "“When he came back to the farm, it gave out what was in it – it spoke… When I heard his car coming up the drive, I heard, at the same time, all the things of the farm telling what they really were." She flew with him over Africa in his airplane, in what she described as one of the greatest "and most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm." But it is while flying his plane that he crashed and lost his life in 1931. It is very moving to read her account of his death and burial on a ridge in the Ngong Hills according to his wishes. Just as he had taken in Africa through his eyes and mind and made it part of himself, "now Africa would receive him…and make him one with herself."

The last part of the book is heart wrenching as she describes the failure of the farm and its sale and her state of denial and inability to grasp the fact that she had lost everything and would have to leave the land and way of life she had come to love so dearly. "It was not I who was going away, I did not have it in my power to leave Africa , but it was the country that was slowly and gravely withdrawing from me, like the sea in ebb-tide."

Karen Blixen returned to her family's estate in Denmark at the age of 46. She dedicated her time to writing and was nominated twice for the Nobel prize but never won it. Some of her other works include Seven Gothic Tales, The Angelic Avengers, Babett's Feast, and Shadows on the Grass. Out of Africa was her most widely known work and inspired the Academy Award winning 1985 film of the same name. She died in 1962, never having returned to her beloved Africa again.

"If I know a song of Africa, of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me?"