International Spotlight: Karen Blixen – Author, Out of Africa
“We must leave our mark on life while we have it in our power.”
As a young girl, I dreamed of going to Africa. When the book, Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen, was turned into an academy award-winning movie (1985), I knew I had to make the dream a reality. Several years later I had the good fortune to join a photographic safari in Kenya and Tanzania.
Today Africa is more well-known for its extreme poverty, unimaginable violence and the deadly AIDS virus. The Africa I experienced, is full of people rich in heart, music that speaks to the soul and exotic animals who move to the rhythm of nature.
The scenery is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Each morning it was a spiritual experience to watch herds of elephants majestically move across the plains against a backdrop of an extraordinarily beautiful sunrise.
Out of Africa is based on Blixen’s life in East Africa between 1914-1931, toward the end of the European colonization. She was born in Copenhagen into an aristocratic family and moved from Denmark to Kenya in 1914, with her husband, Baron Bror Von Blixen, to start a coffee farm. Their farm, at the foot of the Ngong Hills, is reported as one of the largest plantations in Kenya at the time.
The movie starred Oscar winning actors, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. I often imagined myself moving through the bush of Africa like Meryl Streep; wearing long, flowing skirts and a pith helmet with the incredibly charming Robert Redford at my side. However, while my time in Africa was indeed adventurous and thrilling, it didn’t turn out to be anything like the movie.
Meryl sipped out of Waterford glasses and dined on fine china as she gazed into Robert Redford’s deep blue eyes. I on the other hand, had to pitch my own tent, traveled in a worn out African army jeep and rolled socks up over my knees to keep the scorpions out. I was never without a bandana; it kept the ever present dust from taking up permanent residence in my sinuses.
Meryl was so elegant; she seemed to float across the screen in tall, leather riding boots the color of warm chocolate. I moved through the bush with a backpack and tennis shoes which had to be thrown out one hot afternoon due to the intolerable smell of gorilla droppings on the soles.
While my trip to Africa and Karen Blixen’s memoirs are quite different, our sense of adventure, connection with Africa and its people, and our appreciation of a good story, parallels.
I well remember seeing tribes of Maasai warriors crossing the sandy-colored plains. Their warlike dress, colorful beaded jewelry and well-muscled bodies from years of hunting, are unmistakable.
One afternoon our small group had the honor of visiting a Maasai village. Photographs I’d only seen in a National Geographic magazine came to life. I had the honor of visiting one of the small circular homes, which are made of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung and cow urine. A fence made of sticks surrounds each home to keep the cows (a sign of wealth), as close as possible. The children were as fascinated by our group as we were by them. I’ll never forget their big smiles and large innocent eyes. They were happy, carefree and amazingly unbothered by the numerous flys landing on their long eyelashes.
Karen Blixen’s property bordered on Maasai territory and the local tribes people captured her attention from the start. She was fearless in speaking up about the injustices done to the Maasai people, who were deprived of their land and forced by governments to move away. This is worth noting, since Karen lived in a time when women were not encouraged, let alone welcome, to publicly share their political views.
Today, the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have established institutions to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle; in spite of it, the Maasai continue to successfully retain their age-old customs.
Karen was a courageous woman. She enjoyed a strong intellectual curiosity that led her to explore and better understand the world around her. A century later, people all over the world still enjoy her experience of Africa every time they curl up with her book, or see the movie.
I particularly enjoyed reading about the time when she went on safari accompanied only by local tribes people. She traveled on horseback to deliver government goods to her husbands camp during the outbreak of war. It seems a scout in the camp reported seeing “a small bwana (Swahili term for boss) with white stones in his ears approaching”; it turned out to be Karen on horseback wearing a set of pearls she was gifted by her best friend. Blixen sure knew how to travel!
Unfortunately, the Von Blixen’s coffee farm eventually failed and Karen returned to Denmark, never to enjoy the beauty of Africa again. It’s said that she always felt that if she would have remained on the farm, she could have contributed to bringing harmony to the racial and political tensions in Africa, at the time.
Karen returned to the family’s country manor Rungstedlund, north of Copenhagen, in 1931. This is where she was born and she lived there as a writer, until the end of her life.
She was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but didn’t win. When American author and journalist, Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize in 1954, he said in an interview, “I would have been happy – happier today – if the prize had gone to that beautiful writer, Isak Dinesen.”