How does it feel to sit in your house in the evening and wait for the rain to water your coffee plants? Karen Blixen knew.
“I have a feeling that wherever I may be in the future, I will be wondering whether there is rain at Ngong.“
As Karen Blixen wrote this, she meant it: she dared to do what no one had dared to do before in the Ngong Mountains in Kenya.
We’ll never be this young again
In January 1914, Karen Blixen arrived in Kenya: After a long journey, she was to marry her fiancé, Bror Frederik Baron von Blixen-Finecke. Both wanted to settle together in British East Africa.
On her journey she met the German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: she became friends with him immediately. The two arranged to go on safari together in August 1914. Her words to Lettow: “We’ll never be this young again.“
Blixen was right: World War I prevented the two from going on a safari together. It wasn’t until 1940, when Blixen went on a journalism trip to Germany, that the two met again.
Growing coffee at 6.000 feet
It was a courageous endeavor that the Blixen couple embarked on: They planned to grow coffee at the heights of the Ngong Mountains. According to the film adaption of Tania Blixen’s Africa memoir Out of Africa, the original plan was to open a cattle farm: Bror von Blixen, however, changed the plans without further ado. His wife only found out about it when she had already arrived in Africa.
Ngong: The highest peak is 2,460 (8.070 feet) meters above sea level. Karen Blixen’s farm was at about 2,000 meters (6.000 feet) above sea level in the Ngong Mountains. Although the saying goes: The higher the plantation, the better the quality of the coffee, it was a courageous project: Blixen’s farm relied on rain, which didn’t always come in Ngong. Furthermore, it took years until they could harvest the coffee for the first time.
I had a farm in Africa…
Blixen’s world-famous memoir of her time in Africa begins with the legendary words:
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…”
What Karen Blixen means with this phrase goes far beyond simply owning a coffee farm. Her memoir is no mere account of her environment; it is a fantasy come true. The Dane blanks out much of the difficulty she had with her farm in Kenya and focuses on the truly formative experiences.
There is her knowledge of what African culture actually means: anyone who reads Out of Africa gets to know the culture of the Kenyan natives better, especially that of the Kikuyu.
Two men who did not belong to their century
Then there were Berkeley Cole and Denys Finch-Hatton, two cavaliers who sweetened Karen’s life on her coffee farm.
Karen Blixen wrote about the two Englishmen in her memoir: “No other nation but England could have produced them, but they were examples of atavism, and theirs was an earlier England, a world which no longer existed. In the present epoch they had no home, but had got to wander here and there, and in the course of time they also came to the farm.“
Cole and Finch-Hatton were Blixen’s link to the world from which she came. The two men, who, as Blixen put it, “did not belong to their century,” supplied Karen’s house with all sorts of products from European culture and brought her the newly invented gramophone.
It was not uncommon for Berkeley Cole, when he was at the farm, to have a bottle of champagne brought into the woods at eleven in the morning. But champagne alone was not enough for the cavalier:
“Once, as he was taking leave of me, and thanking me for his time on the farm, added that there had been one shadow in the picture, for we had been given coarse and vulgar glasses for our wine under the trees. ’I know, Berkeley’, I said, ’but I have so few of my good glasses left, and the boys will break them when they have to carry them such a long way.’“
Contrasts between cultures
This is what defines Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa: the contrast between two cultures. The champagne-loving European culture on the one hand, and the practical sense of life of the natives on the other: they don’t know what to do with champagne, let alone have any understanding for the fact that it should be drunk from a special glass. These contrasts from which she could learn were the cornerstones of Blixen’s love for Africa: While she still lived a European lifestyle, she had little to do with the local English society – except for Cole and Finch-Hatton. Thus, a few months after her arrival in Kenya, she wrote to her brother:
“As I have often written, out here one loses some of one’s racial pride; in my eyes the natives are in many respects higher than we are. I suppose they cannot learn so many things as we can, but in the things which life here requires, they are, I think, quicker and more skilful than we are in learning – there are many Englishmen who have lived here from ten to fifteen years and have no idea of the appearance, much less the peculiarities, of the different tribes, although it would be in their own interest to know, while the Natives are aware of every one of our characters immediately.”
It’s not a reckoning, but an observation concerning the relationship between the colonial power and the indigenous people.
Karen Blixen had to be careful: she was constantly accused of acting in a “German-friendly” manner – during the First World War, such a prejudice could cause a lot of social problems in the British colony. She invoked the neutrality of her home nation of Denmark and continued to be tolerated by the British colonial authorities…
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: Karen Blixen in 1957 in Kopenhagen, Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons
The main sources are Karen Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa, the movie Out of Africa with Meryl Streep in the leading role and Karen Blixen’s letters from Africa.