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She had a farm in Africa

February 1, 2008

Last Friday was the birthday (29th–her first one!) of a new friend from here, Emily, who arrived from London just a few days before we did to take over working on Slum-TV while Sam is in Germany. Brave girl’s been roving all around Nairobi in matatus and had yet to see some countryside. I needed to take the ‘Zuki halfway out to the suburb of Karen to get the canvas top repaired, so we decided to make a day of it and go out to visit the Karen Blixen museum, relax a bit after a hectic week of getting our feet under us, and celebrate!

You get about 10 minutes or less down the Ngong Road from our apt, and the buildings start to recede, the trees of the Ngong forest start to gather on the left side of the road, and the sky opens up. You pass a WW2 cemetery and a roadside market or 10. Soon it starts to look like your visions of green Africa.
Karen is indeed named for the Baroness, and apparently she was well loved for the work she did on behalf of the local people, both while she tried unsuccessfully to farm coffee and in forming a school when she left. In all she was in Kenya 14 years, most of it in this house and on 6000 acres.

house and hills
The Ngong hills are beyond the house. The docent told us “Ngong” means “knuckles” since that’s what they look like. I love it when language is so visual.

house again
I’d sort of like to move in. It’s solid but airy, sumptuously lined with mahogany and stone, shaded all around by wide porches. It must have been quite the place then, and is now. They opened it as a museum in time for the movie’s opening in 1986, but did not film inside because 1) it was smallish and 2) it had no electricity. Hollywood donated some furniture, since the Baroness took hers home to Denmark when she left, and the museum has reacquired some beautiful pieces (think cherry wood and ebony) that she had to sell to earn money in the lean times, and these give a sense of the real grandeur the country cottage had.
In all it was a pretty short visit. You can go and see the buildings where they have the coffee processing factory, but we decided on lunch at the Rusty Nail instead.

Here’s the birthday girl with a nice refresca. Happy Day, Em!
Em b-day
We were quite the “ladies who lunch” and had a lot of fun. As you can see it’s a green and colorful place where much wine is imbibed. The entire wall behind Em is made from mortared wine bottles.
As are the hummingbird feeders.
hummingbird wine

As much birthday fun as we had, the day came with many mixed feelings, since Karen’s wealth of space, of fertility, of leisure, and just sheer wealth stands out radically from the 100s of 1000s of people here who daily travel on foot alongside roads smoky with diesel fumes and dust, who don’t live inside guarded enclaves. In the context of over half a million people run out of their homes since the beginning of January and now too afraid to go back, Karen seems impossibly lush, high-walled, and remote as 300,000 lost dreams.

The postscript to the trip came yesterday when the curator of the Karen Blixen Museum wrote an editorial from that privileged perspective that first fooled him into thinking he had no part to play. His first 8 or so paragraphs were about his silence when women and children were burned alive in Eldoret, when schools didn’t reopen (b/c his kids weren’t affected), when refugees scattered to camps and across borders; but when a machete-wielding man finally pounded on his door, his eyes were opened to the dangers of the policy of folded hands. Read it if you get the chance.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2008 12:09 pm

    It is horrifying to see what is happening in Kenya – every day seems to bring fresh terror. The Editorial was good to read … how easy it is for us all to stay silent when we feel as if we aren’t affected. But we are affected even if we want to bury our heads in the sand.

  2. Kristy permalink
    February 2, 2008 2:21 pm

    How fortunate you are to be able to see this lovely spot. Her story and love of Africa are very touching…and still have an impact on the people see Africa. Have been anxious to see these photos. You have done an excellent job of writing and have enjoyed these 3 recent postings.

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