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Notes on the Geography of Kenya: Blixen and the Ngong Hills

"It's unreadable." So says an English professor from India, speaking of Karen Blixen's Out of Africa. She's deploring the racism that she think permeates the text. We'll go look at Blixen's house anyway.

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Kenya: Blixen and the Ngong Hills  picture 1

Just shy of ten miles southwest of downtown Nairobi, in the district now known as Karen, the traffic drops off and the house comes into view. Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen was her pen name) struggled here--and in the Great Depression finally failed--to run a 600-acre coffee plantation. Her biographer, Judith Thurman, explains her failure by quoting a later owner of the property who said that Blixen's failure arose from her "stubborn devotion to the Africans. No one made a success of coffee in Karen at six thousand feet. The soil increased in acidity with the altitude, and it was hopeless. But it would have made an ideal mixed farm--she could have well grown maize on a commercial scale and bred cattle at the same time; it was ideal for cattle. But to do that profitably she would have had to take back her squatters' land, and she wouldn't touch it. Her servants had the run of her place just because they were her servants, and she couldn't bear to interfere with them. Instead, she ran the coffee at a dead loss, and the Africans made the profit. There were three thousand head of squatter cattle on the farm when I took it over." Square that with the imputation of racism. (Judith Thurman, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, 1995, pp. 177-8.)

Kenya: Blixen and the Ngong Hills  picture 2

Rear view. The house was built in 1912 and sold to the Blixens in 1917. Karen Blixen lived here until 1931, when she sold the property and left Kenya for good. The buyer was a real-estate developer with the extraordinary name Remy Martin. He bought the land with the intention of subdividing its 4,500 acres into 20-acre parcels. The result was the suburb of Karen. In 1935, a British army officer named Lloyd bought the residual house and lived in it until 1954. The house then passed through several hands until the Danish government bought it and donated it to the Kenyan government. Until the "Out of Africa" movie crew came along, the house was used as college quarters, but when the crew moved out the National Museums of Kenya decided that the house would make a fine museum.

Kenya: Blixen and the Ngong Hills  picture 3

Front entrance.

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Dining room.

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Bedroom.

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Bath.

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The farm stood at the eastern toe of the Ngong Hills, and it is there, as Blixen's book concludes, that Denys Finch Hatton, her lover, is buried. Look? We have to fight some more traffic, but this billboard offers a scenic break.

Kenya: Blixen and the Ngong Hills  picture 8

The hills themselves have changed a lot in the last 80 years, and not just with those wind turbines. The trees, too, are new.

Kenya: Blixen and the Ngong Hills  picture 9

Blixen wrote of the fine view from up here, but it's mostly obscured now.

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The alternative to trees is cultivated land.

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Almost missed it: a private sign marks the turnoff. Despite its height, sentimental thieves keep removing it.

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Another sign. It's privately posted because the grave is on private land whose owner makes a small income charging admission.

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A hedge has grown up around the grave, and the passage to it is blocked by a locked gate.

Kenya: Blixen and the Ngong Hills  picture 14

Inside: an obelisk erected by Hatton's brother.

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The original plaque was swiped by another sentimental creep, and the owner has replaced it with a simpler one. The inscription is unchanged, however. The quotation is from Coleridge: "He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast."

Kenya: Blixen and the Ngong Hills  picture 16

A flower garden is kept up.


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