Thursday, November 14, 2013

“A farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills”

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”

Do you know those words? Oh, I know those words. Yes, I know those words, Karen Blixen’s words.
Our daughter and son-in-law in front of Karen's house.

Danish-born Karen Blixen owned a coffee plantation “at the foot of the Ngong Hills” from 1914 to 1931, and it served as the setting for several books she wrote under her pen name, Isak Dinesen.

Dave and I lived near Karen Blixen’s house when we moved near the village of Karen, but we visited it many times before then.

Her house is a low, spreading stone building with paned windows, understated yet elegant in the old colonial style. It lies at the end of a long, curved driveway surrounded by acres of lawns, tropical flowering plants, hedges, eucalyptus trees, acacias, cacti, and palms.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve watched the movie Out of Africa directed by Sydney Pollack; it’s based on Karen’s book of the same title, and her letters. Between my visits to her home and the movie scenes shot there, I feel quite attached to the old place.

The movie’s indoor scenes were filmed nearby at Karen’s original house, Mbagathi, but outside scenes were shot at Mbogani, the house Karen lived in from 1917 until she left Kenya in 1931.

A wide stone verandah runs across the front and around the side of Mbogani and every time I stood there, I was aware I was standing where Karen hung a lantern to signal Denys Finch-Hatton.

Our daughter on Karen's front verandah
I liked to linger on the verandah on the spot where the movie’s stars, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, dined on a little table covered with a white linen cloth. I hear Mozart’s “Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A” drifting from the gramophone Denys gave Karen as a gift, and I picture them sitting at the table, their longing for each other snapping like lightning in the air.

Inside the house, in Karen’s bedroom we saw her veiled safari hat, safari boots, and riding clothes. We saw Denys’s books, which he stored on Karen’s shelves. He loved to listen to her tell stories and I often imagined them there by the fireplace and leather chair where they sat while she wove tales late into the evening and left Denys spellbound by her charm and imagination.

I’ve taken the short walk behind her house to see the coffee roaster, still there under the acacias where it no doubt sat when the plantation burned down.

From her verandah and her dining room, Karen had a clear view of her beloved Ngong Hills in the near distance, those hills she mentioned so often. 

I hope you can see those "four noble peaks."
She wrote, “The Mountain of Ngong stretches in a long ridge from North to South, and is crowned with four noble peaks.… It rises to eight thousand feet above the Sea.… To the West the … hills fall vertically down towards the Great Rift Valley.”

The love of her life, Denys, lies buried in those hills. One day Dave and I took a ride into those highlands and, driving on a dirt track, we spotted a white sign, about eighteen inches across and a couple of inches tall, nailed to a stake in the ground. Someone had hand-lettered “Denys Finch-Hatton’s grave” and an arrow that pointed off in the distance. Now I wish we had followed that arrow, but we were on American time, not African, and felt the need to hurry home before dark.

When my friend Barb Rowe visited us during our third year in Kenya, she gave me Karen Blixen’s Letters from Africa. That book, and Out of Africa, swept me up and carried me into another time in that place.

In Karen's back yard
I’d often think of European settlers’ lives back then, a curious mix of Victorian gentility and rugged life in the wilds—after all, Karen killed her share of lions. I’d think of those who frequented places like Karen, and Thika, where we dined a couple of times, and I’d say to myself, Oh, my, here I am in the very same places.

I’m goofy enough to wonder if I could ever look like Meryl Streep in the movie—gauzy blouse, pith helmet, safari boots—and utterly feminine.… Nah, quaint I ain’t!

“But, wait!” I said to myself at one of those times. I realized I was acquainted with an updated version of a similar lifestyle—like out in Maasai Mara.

I recall sitting in a bentwood chair in front of my tent one early morning in Maasai Mara. A Kenyan, handsome and striking in his safari clothes—not unlike Robert Redford in the movie—approached down the path, hushed. He bowed his head and addressed me, almost whispering, in the endearing way Kenyans do, the way Farah spoke to Karen when he said, “Msabu.” He bent and placed a tray before me, complete with crisp linens, bracing Kenya tea, cream, and scones.

Sometimes I wonder if, fifty years from now, my African stories and photos might inspire my grandchildren as Karen Blixen’s have touched me. Silly me.  (from Chapter 13, Grandma’s Letters from Africa)


  1. Nice post ;-)

    Believe it or not I've never visited Karen Blixen's House though I've seen the movie several times, read the book and read the book of letters too. Isak Dinesen was such an intriguing character and quite a romantic in a faraway and foreign land. The movie can still move me as do her letters.
    I'm sure that one day your grandchildren will be moved in the same way by your letters. Hugs. xx

  2. Ah, Penny, you are so dear. Thanks for your kind remarks. I'm so glad to know you, too, were moved by something about the way Karen Blixen wrote of her beloved country, Kenya, and her people, both of which are so unique and special. Maybe some day you'll get back to Kenya and can see Karen's house, though I've heard it's been commercialized since we left.