Last month I visited a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. It wasn’t the main purpose of my trip, nor was the one-day safari which concluded my time in Kenya, but both gave me a visceral sense of why Karen Blixen fell in love with her adopted homeland, a place where the people, the land, and the animals are inextricably linked. Her memoir Out of Africa was published in 1937, six years after she left British East Africa for good and returned to her native Denmark, but her legend lives on.
What makes a legend? By the time Karen left Africa, her coffee plantation had failed, her marriage to Baron von Blixen was long over, and her great love affair with the much admired safari leader Denys Finch-Hatton had ended not long before she was to return to Denmark. She was lucky, in a way, and by extension so are we. Had she gone flying with him, as she often did, on the day his small plane crashed while he was tracking a herd of elephants, she would have died too. Out of Africa, published under her pen name Isak Dinesen, would not exist, nor would the 1985 film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, which won an Oscar for Best Picture and is still considered one of the most romantic films of all time. Today the house where Karen once lived still stands as a testament to her life there, open to tourists and book-and-movie lovers like me. Today, however, the area around her former coffee plantation is designated the “Karen” suburb of Nairobi. And the name Karen is everywhere—on schools and a hospital, on upscale neighborhoods, on café’s and shops and hotels.
It would be easy for some to dismiss Karen’s legacy as that of a privileged white woman living an exotic life thanks to British colonialism. But while that was true, her legacy is more than that, and, in part, that’s because Africa changed her.
Karen and Bror Blixen set off for British East Africa (now Kenya) to make their fortune raising cattle. The Brits had claimed the area as a Protectorate in 1895 (making it an official colony in 1920), and when Karen and Bror married there in 1913, there were only about 5,000 European white settlers living in a country that bordered the Indian Ocean in the east and stretched to Uganda in the west. Husband and wife were second cousins from different countries, and their families provided the investment money. Bror arrived first and decided that growing coffee beans might be more profitable. By 1918, he and Karen owned 6,000 acres about twelve miles from Nairobi. The morning air was cool and fresh, the views were stunning, but the elevation—almost 6,000 feet above sea level—proved less than ideal for growing coffee. Bror soon tired of life on the farm and left Karen to manage the plantation while he pursued his greater interests—big game hunting and womanizing.
Karen persevered alone. While the Oscar-winning movie focuses on her love affair with Finch-Hatton, the focus of her memoir is her life on the farm and her interactions with the Africans who worked for her—in her house and on the plantation. She taught herself to tend to their medical needs, seeing patients on an almost daily basis or taking them to hospital. She was often asked to help settle disputes that arose, a sometimes complicated affair because her workers belonged to different tribes with different customs.
On the plantation, Karen battled drought, fire, and wildlife. Locusts and grasshoppers and much larger species. One day Karen’s manager told her a pair of lions had killed two of their oxen and dragged them into the coffee fields. If nothing was done, the lions would be a threat to other livestock. “I am no coward,” the manager told her, but he was a married man with no wish to risk his life unnecessarily. It happened that Finch-Hatton was staying with her at the time, and she said to Denys, “Let us risk our lives unnecessarily.” The lions would most likely return that night to finish feeding on the oxen. With Karen holding a lantern, they made their way through the coffee fields, found the lions, and Denys shot them. A great crowd gathered in awed excitement: laborers, house servants, and school children. “Three shots. Two lions,” they sang.
This story and others became part of Karen’s legend. When the coffee plantation failed and she was forced to sell, she gave away everything in her house. And to her servants, she gave her cows. To her “squatters”, she gave an incomparable gift–a new settlement of their own. The buyer of Karen’s plantation planned to sub-divide the land, and her squatters–members of the Kikuyu tribe–were given notice they had to leave. Their land comprised several acres per family, which totaled about 1,000 acres for their community. This they’d been allowed to use in return for 180 days of work on the coffee plantation each year. But Karen realized how unfair this all was.
“I bore in mind that not very long ago, at a time that could still be remembered, the Natives of the country had held their land undisputed, and had never heard of the white men and their laws. Within the general insecurity of their existence, the land to them was still steadfast.” Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
For months, Karen appealed to the British governor on their behalf. Finally she got word that he had agreed to give them a piece of the Dagoretti Forest Reserve. Their new settlement would not be far from their old one, and they could still, Karen wrote, “preserve their faces and their names, as a community.”
Karen returned to her mother’s estate in Denmark, where she lived to the end of her life. She died in 1962 at seventy-seven, long outliving both Finch-Hatton and her ex-husband, who died in a car crash in his native Sweden in 1946. Until the outbreak of WWII, she sent a small amount of money to Nairobi at Christmastime to distribute to her former staff. In return, she asked them for news of themselves. This they did by hiring the local professional letter writer, as most of them could not read or write.
Meanwhile, Karen began to write stories. At her home In Africa, she’d entertained her dinner guests with stories she made up. She finished her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, in 1933, and she wrote in English, thinking she might find more readers for the collection. The book became a bestseller in the U.S. Out of Africa, her second book, became a worldwide bestseller. During WWII, she allowed her home to be used as part of an underground railroad for Jews looking to escape to Sweden and freedom. And she wrote a darker collection of stories, Winter’s Tales, while Denmark was under Nazi occupation and German soldiers camped in her backyard.
Karen suffered from chronic illness, but she continued to write story collections, novels, and–shortly before her death–another memoir of Africa. Over the years, her farmhouse in Africa had changed hands several times, but the Danish government purchased it in 1964 to give to the Kenyan government as an Independence gift. The property was used as a College of Nutrition until 1986, when the huge success of the film Out of Africa led to the creation of the Karen Blixen Museum, which is one of the most visited museums in the country. Karen had known fame in her lifetime but not quite on this scale.
Her legend lives on.