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Friday, November 30, 2018

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen): Nairobi, Kenya

I had expected Africa to be hot, but Nairobi was not, due to the altitude, which was right at a mile high, and perfect for cultivating coffee. 

The air was cool under the trees, and there was a soft, light breeze. I was in Kenya for two weeks on as a volunteer consultant for an economic development program to develop marketing materials and to develop a system for communication among smallholders in order to achieve economies of scale and to improve the markets. It was a fascinating project and there was a sincere desire to make things better for people in rural areas. It was not easy, though. 

The Danish author, Isak Dinesen (real name, Karen Blixen) lived in Kenya for 17 years as she tried to make a go of her coffee plantation. It was a turbulent time in terms of politics and also in terms of her emotional life, all of which she captures in Out of Africa, which was written long after she had moved back to Denmark.
 Blixen published under the name, Isak Dinesen, for English-speaking audiences. I have no idea why.  I think that no one cares about the name the author uses; they care about the writing. Karen Blixen lived in Nairobi, Africa, in a suburb now named “Karengata” which means Karen’s home. The suburb is an exclusive one, now, and all the homes have walls and security services. There are lush gardens, green lawns, and large, shade-imparting trees.

Karen’s house is a one-storey rock building, a farmhouse with multi-paned windows, a steep red tile roof, and long winding paths that crisscross the grounds. The suburb, Karengata, is near the lovely Ngong hills that she visited frequently during her years in Kenya (1917 to 1931).

I visited one cool, cloudy afternoon, and the greens had a super-saturated hue, and one felt the magic of possibilities. During Karen’s years in Africa, Karen established deep bonds of trust with the Masaii people and their culture. She came to deeply appreciate the changes in the politics, and the conflicts over land, influence, and control of resources. Her experience, however, was difficult, and at the end of the day, she failed to make her farm economically viable.

One thing that interests me about the process of writing the novel is that was written in 1937, years after Karen had moved back to Denmark. Like Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), Out of Africa was written years after the events happened and in a different location, which means that work is freighted with an unforgettable emotional element.

Blixen's (Dinesen's) work is shrouded in nostalgia, regrets, and memories of a glorious, youthful time of intense experiences and feelings. In addition to trying to make her family’s farm a success, Karen went lion-hunting and explored the African veldt in a small plane flown by her pilot friend, a man she could never have, but whom she dearly loved.

The novel is drenched in a hot, bright Africa sun, the Rift Valley area with its thorn trees, grass lands, massive shallow lakes that radiate a shimmering pink hue as thousands of flamingos stand knee-deep in the waters brimming with fish.

Out of Africa was one of fellow author Carson McCullers’s favorite books, and there is a photograph in Carson McCullers’s house that features Karen Blixen and also Marilyn Monroe. 

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