Friday, 8 April 2011


I got amazingly lost trying to find this museum. This is no exaggeration, because when I asked a passerby, she literally said, “You are so lost, it is amazing!”

So, having amazed at least some portion of the Nairobi populace, I eventually arrived at this rather charming colonial house. It is the former home of the writer Isak Dinesen, or Karen Blixen, who wrote OUT OF AFRICA, and is retained as a museum of her life and work by the Kenyan government.

It has high roofs and mahogany paneling, and while some of the contents are props from the movie, much is original, and rather touching. So though you can indeed see Robert Redford’s trousers, you can also see the massive suitcase which she bought on the steamship, still with its original label; you can see a paniting her mum brought her, to encourage her to go back to her hobby; you can see her butter churn; you can see her really very sweet sock dryers, which are a pair of flat wooden cutouts of feet, for stretching wet socks.

In the garden, there is a flame tree more than a hundred years old, which was there when she arrived, and the palm trees she planted. You can see where she used to sit in her garden, with its gorgeous view of the Ngong Hills. She had set up her seat so as to be able to see her lover’s grave there.

I found visiting her house and learning about her life quite heartening. The reason that there is not much of her original stuff in the house is that she was bankrupt by the time she was forced to leave Africa. Her coffee plantation was a failure, she was divorced, her lover was dead, and she had syphilis.

And yet here we were at a museum to her life, being led around by a very knowledgable guide who obvoiusly considered her a remarkable Kenyan. Clearly you can screw your life up royally, professionally and personally, and still make it out the other end museum-worthy.

More really than this outward success, what I found touching was the ordinary details of the life of what had clearly been a very kind hearted lady. You can see in the house a picture of a little boy who worked in her kitchen, whose education she paid for, and who became a successful lawyer, and later the first judge of his native Somalia. He died in the civil war in that country in 1984. This is just one year, the guide told us most seriously, before the movie came out.

That this lady was a true original is amply testified to by the many pictures of her in the house in which she is to be found wearing two hats. She believed the African sun was too harsh for just the one.

(Karen Blixen Museum, Karen Road, Nairobi, Non Resident 800KSh, Residents 100KSh)

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