Reading Out of Africa

Ask an American of colonial East Africa, and doubtless images from Out of Africa will come to mind. And, appropriately so. Set aside unhelpful-if-not-unfair “liberal” objections to the “romanticization” of colonialism, and you can gain some appreciation for an enterprise that was, in fact, quite picturesque, adventurous, and romantic in many regards.

I read Out of Africa while travelling through Kenya (and, in fact, visited the house where Karen Blixen lived and where many of the scenes of the movie were actually shot) and found I quite enjoyed it. Blixen (under the pen name of Isak Dinesen) writes beautifully and evocatively. What her novel lacks in coherent narrative and structure it makes up for with its poetic lyricism and prescient insights.

here are a few of my favorite excerpts from the book:

Describing the view from the Ngong Hills:

Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.

On being out in the wilds:

The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence form the wild before they are accepted by it.

On belonging:

I know a song of Africa,–I thought,–of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a color that I had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the driver that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?

On the Masai:

One, on the farm, I had three young bulls transmuted into peaceful bullocks for my ploughs and wagons, and afterwards shut up in the factory yard. There in the night the Hyenas smelled the blood and came up and killed them. This, I thought, was the fate of the Masai.

A Masai warrior is a fine sight. … Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag’s antlers.

On visitors, when living in a lonely place:

In Pioneer countries hospitality is a necessity. … A visitor is a friend, he brings news, good or bad, which is bread to the hungry minds in lonely places.

On belief in ourselves:

Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realize it.

On death rites:

The Kikuyus, when left to themselves, do not bury their dead, but leave them above ground for the Hyenas and vultures to deal with. … It would be a pleasant thing to be laid out to the sun and the stars, and to be so promptly, neatly, and openly picked and cleansed; to be made one with nature and become a common component of the landscape.

I quite enjoyed Out of Africa. It was evocative of Kenya–both of a time past, and very much of modern Kenya as well. Blixen herself is fascination–kind, curious, knowing when and how to fight, and when to surrender to her fate. She had an incredible and rich adventure of eighteen years–and did so with pluck, charm, and humanity.

About Mark Egge

Two truths and a lie: Mark Egge is an outdoor enthusiast, opera singer, and a data science student at Carnegie Mellon University. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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