In Karen Blixen’s footsteps

I don’t think there are many people out there who have not seen the movie “Out of Africa” starring Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer and of course Robert Redford.

I think I only started high school in Germany when the movie was released and never in my wildest dreams thought I would once walk on the grounds where some of the real tragedies of Karen Blixen’s life had unfolded a century ago.

But I am rushing ahead of myself…

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I had to travel to Nairobi to shoot for VISA International last week and while up there had the opportunity for a day of good-old sight-seeing! Nairobi is a crazy mix of an African city.

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It’s large (the largest city in East Africa with an estimated 3 million people), it’s poor (Kibera, located on the outskirts of the city and featured in the film “The Constant Gardener”, is Africa’s second largest slum after Soweto), it’s rich; it’s the city of high-rise buildings, marabou storks and yellow-billed kites (there are loads of them circling in the skies at any given time wherever you look; if you are wondering: I removed them from the images as they just looked like dust specks in the skies).

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Like many other African cities it battles with pollution and heaps of garbage piling up on the sides of the roads… on the other hand it is against the law to smoke in public, i.e. on the streets so you find these kinds of designated areas all over the place:

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Traffic is a completely different story… don’t ever expect to get anywhere in a hurry – even on weekends there are cars everywhere and in comparison Johannesburg is an oasis of peace, love and happiness.

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Karen Blixen and the Movie “Out of Africa” have had a big influence on the city – they even named the area where the original farm was located “Karen”. It’s now an upmarket residential area with huge lush plots and large mansions which reminds me of the suburbs of old Salisbury.

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Karen Blixen moved to Kenya from Denmark in 1914 and lived in this farm house, built in 1912, for 16 years, first with her husband Baron Bror von Blixen, trying to establish a coffee farm. Their marriage failed after only a few years and the coffee farm was never really successful (coffee is not grown around Nairobi; it grows well mostly in the area of Mount Kenya which lies around 150km North-East of Nairobi).

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These are some coffee plants which were planted around the house for romantic reasons. The machinery below was used to dry the coffee beans – one of the big dramas in the life of this coffee farm was this factory burning down to the ground. The machines which are now on display are original replicas.

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She suffered one loss after another, and wasn’t of good health either; she suffered from Syphilis which, in those days, was treated with Arsenic! which left her battling with other issues, heavy metal poisoning amongst others. After her long-time lover and Big Game Hunter, Robert Redford, I mean Denys Finch-Hatton (who by the way wasn’t really good looking), died in a plane crash she moved back to Denmark, where she wrote a number of successful novels. “Out of Africa”, the memoir by Isak Dinesen (her pen name) which the movie was based on, was one of them and first published in 1937.

She died in 1962 of malnutrition.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by the story, the lives and times and the movie! I was extremely exited to visit The Karen Blixen Museum, which was opened in the original farmhouse in 1986, after the huge success of the movie.

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The house was only in parts used to film the movie – it was “too small to fit all of Hollywood into it” (which is how the museum’s guide explained it!) for the movie scenes inside the house so they rebuilt a larger version of the house on another part of the farm which was taken down afterwards.

Photography is not allowed inside the farmhouse which is very much in tact and full of originals either from Karen Blixen’s times or props from the movie. Since I do not have any photographic proof you just have to take my word for it. To make up for lost pixels, I shot my heart out around the property outside…

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All in all the museum is small but the property and the history of it all is well worth seeing. It was a very different world then and it was an amazing experience to get a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in those days “On a farm in Aaafricaa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills…”

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