As a long-time admirer of the writings of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen (I had read and learned to love Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass as a teenager), one of my first goals in coming to Kenya was to visit her home and learn as much as I could about her life in Kenya. I had – not surprisingly – had a wonderful time with the beautiful film version of Out of Africa, and despite the fact that the film took some disappointing liberties with the storyline, the impact was not noticeably reduced. What is there not to like about this beautiful story?
Needless to say, the “real” Karen Blixen lived a different life than that most of us imagine, which is why I wanted to learn more. Not to be disappointed, I managed to have my driver arrange for a visit to Karen – the Nairobi suburb named for Karen Blixen – so we could visit her house. Now a museum and containing many of the original furnishings from when Blixen lived there and tried her hand – unsuccessfully – at running a coffee plantation, the house is a sweet look into the way she and, first, her husband, and, later, her lover, lived during the 1914 to 1932 years. Blixen worked hard, and while she was eventually not successful with raising coffee (the soil in the area is too acidic and the altitude too high), she accomplished much, including the introduction of free education for the children of her workers and free health care for them and their families. It is for these last two accomplishments that she is much loved and revered by the Kenyon people, and it was interesting to learn that the son of one of her workers is still alive at a very advanced age and remembers with much fondness his life with her on Blixen’s farm when he was growing up.
The house appears to be typical of the houses of the era (it was built a few years before Blixen arrived in Kenya) and it is not hard to imagine her life there first with her husband, Baron Bror Blixen, and later with Denys Finch Hatton. The rooms are attractive and one can easily envision her working on her writing or her farm accounts in her study, or listening to the wind-up Victrola or reading aloud with Finch Hatton. Their relationship was obviously a greatly rewarding one, and while much about their time together is speculation it is clear that they were devoted to one another, with his tragic death the greatest loss of her life.
The grounds of the house are well maintained, and the machinery for processing the coffee beans is displayed a short stroll away from the house, a fitting wrap-up for a visit to a time and a person who was so important.
And to continue the fantasy, lunch a short distance down the road provides a lovely Sunday afternoon respite. Sitting in a delightful enclave, with a great lawn facing a beautiful old house on the site where Blixen’s workers lived, the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden serves a delicious meal and it is easy – sitting under a huge umbrella at a table on the lawn, listening to the totally unobtrusive music being performed off to the side – to take one’s self off to a fascinating and very different time and place.