“Have you watched Out of Africa?” My friend, Leo, asked me immediately we saw the Karen Blixen House signpost a few meters ahead of us.
It had been a hot sunny day in Nairobi and with not much to do on a lazy Friday afternoon, Leo and I had decided to go exploring in the leafy Karen suburbs.
Karen area is named after Duchess Karen Blixen. It is a neighborhood with old picturesque farmhouses secluded among trees. The sounds of birds and leaves rustling fill the air.
It lies southwest of Nairobi CBD and borders the evergreen, Ngong Forest.
The 4,000-acre farm that inspired her 1937 memoir “Out of Africa” has a well-manicured lawn and old rusty machinery. This gave me the feeling of being an extra in a 1930’s film depicting the pre-colonial times of Kenya.
A young guide, Jeff, begun the tour. In addition to his calm demeanor, you could tell that he had done this more than a hundred times before by how he narrated the whole life story of Karen Blixen in under twenty minutes.
The Karen Blixen story
“It all began when a Danish woman, Karen Christenze Dinesen reached the port of Mombasa on January 13, 1914. The following day, she married her second cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke. They moved to the now Karen area, next to the Ngong Hills, where they set up a coffee plantation.
Life for the couple was initially a blissful one but this did not last long. Bror would frequently go on prolonged hunting safaris and military campaigns.
It is suspected that it was during this first year of marriage that Karen contracted Syphilis from Bror. This demanded that she leave for Denmark to seek treatment. Syphilis was considered a very dreadful disease in those times and could only be treated with an equally lethal contortion of arsenic and mercury. This treatment would later plague her over the years.
Bror and Karen divorced in 1925. She was left to run the coffee plantation as Bror had lost interest in it. The crops were failing; they could not mature in the very high altitude that their farm was situated in.
During this time, she met and fell in love with Denys Finch Hatton. She lived with him from 1926 to 1931. Unfortunately, their romantic but sometimes elusive relationship was ended abruptly when Denys died tragically in a plane crash.
This tragedy in addition to the coffee plantation filled with mishap affected Karen’s health and finances. She abandoned ship after declaring bankruptcy in 1931 and returned to Denmark”
The Karen Blixen House
Jeff explained every part of the house and its significance in Karen’s life. There were beautiful paintings by her carefully placed on the walls, each with a unique story.
In the dining room, there was a thoughtfully set table with fine chinaware that was used to serve Prince Edward of Wales on his visit to Kenya.
As we entered the living room, right next to the window was an old Mozart Concerto Record. Placed right next to it were a gramophone and a Corona typewriter. She had brought the typewriter from Denmark to type and send letters back home.
A very old-fashioned landline telephone caught my eye and later I learned that Karen had carried it hoping to make calls only to find out that Kenya did not have telephone lines yet.
I enjoyed walking in and out of every room in the large house as I viewed all the household items that had been put on display.
Once I was outside the house, I sat on a stone slab under a palm tree that Karen had planted and thought to myself, “Tonight, I have to watch Out of Africa”.