Twelve miles from the capital, Nairobi, up the black and narrow Ngong Road, past the estates of the plush suburb that bears her name, sits the small, soft-stone villa that once was the heart of a 6,000-acre coffee farm owned by the Danish writer Karen Blixen.
A wide veranda circles the house, sheltering it from the equatorial sun like the broad brim of a felt hat; at midday, the view is just as Blixen described it in "Out of Africa," the way she bequeathed it, under the pen name Isak Dinesen, to millions of armchair travelers:
". . . a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent."
"Out of Africa" was published in 1937, six years after Baroness Blixen lost her coffee farm and returned to Denmark. Sydney Pollack's film of the same name, shot this past summer outside Nairobi, fleshes out some of the hardships that Blixen omitted from her memoir but remains true to the nostalgic, romantic character of the book. Released in the United States last week, the film is scheduled to be released here at the end of January.
Meryl Streep as Blixen, Robert Redford as her English lover, Denys Finch Hatton, wander through Technicolor savannas. Dressed in softly draped khakis and Somali shawls, gilded by dawn safaris, reading Greek poetry by fading firelight and ministering to sick Kikuyu servants in between, they are, like the prose that created them, feudal and highly romantic figures, players in a white man's paradise, attended by an exotic choir of curious Africans who keep a respectful distance. It is the same stuff that has been selling East Africa to westerners for at least a century, from the exploits of Stanley and Livingstone to Joy Adamson's "Born Free."
In many ways, modern Kenya still accommodates the fantasy. It is the most western of nations in black Africa, with a champagne climate, cool, bright and crisp, like a Washington spring and autumn combined. On the best days, the green leaves seem to glitter under the faultless blue sky and the landscape has a black-edged intensity, the way the world looks when you have opened your eyes after lying too long in the sun.
In the suburb of Karen, blond matrons do their marketing in immaculate white jodhpurs, and along the manicured roadside, black men trim the grass at the curbside with energetic swings of long panga knives. African grooms, called sices, exercise high-strung polo ponies.
Down the road a few miles, giraffes can be seen gamboling inside the fences of Nairobi National Park. Weekdays, at dusk, the Peugeots and Mercedeses of the Kenyan elite -- which has expanded to include blacks and Asians since independence in 1963 -- migrate to private watering holes like the Muthaiga Club and the Karen Country Club.
From there, however, post card and reality diverge. All the flowering bougainvillea in Nairobi cannot mask the fact that 22 years after independence, daily life for most of the country's 19 million residents is a struggle for survival. Kenya is listed by the World Bank as one of the 20 poorest countries on earth. Per capita income averages $340 a year. Most Kenyans live in rural areas, most without benefit of electricity or pumped water.
So to many here, the Danish baroness' reverie of her 17 years in East Africa, her servants, her fine table with its crystal and Limoges, seem irrelevant, patronizing and even racist. It is the last thing they want splashed across the world's movie screens.
"I find many indigenous Kenyans impatient with 'Out of Africa,' " wrote Chris Wanjala, a literature professor at the University of Nairobi, in a Nairobi newspaper during the filming earlier this year.
"The book is naive on the question of race relations, and infuriating in the way it portrays Africans . . . She was a European settler who came to Africa carrying the family's money and values to create her own world on a coffee farm . . ."
The making of the film prompted articles in local newspapers about the propriety of allowing African actors to appear "half-naked" on the screen. "Our sense of morality and cultural heritage does not allow us to pose as required," read an unsigned editorial in the Kenya Times, the paper of Kenya's only political party.
"There is a significant group in Kenya of all walks of life who feel that a film like that should not be made at this juncture, because it tends to glorify the colonial period," says historian Godfrey Muriuki, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at the University of Nairobi, who also believes that the book has value as a historical document.
For Wanjala, the apparently limitless appetite of the West for colonial literature is all the more dispiriting because it seems to be the only picture of Africa that foreigners can retain. "What annoys is that people take these images as fact," he says with disgust. "When you travel in Europe and Japan, all they know is Karen Blixen. The embarrassing questions you are asked! Very naive, such as, 'Do you live in a house?' They look at you with your briefcase and suit as if you are not quite real."
"I think for most Kenyans, black Kenyans, it's too early for her Blixen's literature to have any positive value. It's inevitably going to rub on sensitive nerves," says Richard E. Leakey, son of the pioneering East African anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey and director of Kenya's national museums. "Although we can accept that in 1920 most African children had no shoes or clothes, and a nice big mamma who sort of patted their heads and said nice things to them was considered a liberal, we're too young as a country to look on that with nostalgia."
"If I know a song of Africa . . ." Karen Blixen wrote, "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?"
The answer, in a population where 70 percent of the women and 40 percent of the men are illiterate, is no, not really. "Very, very few Africans have read her," says Meja Mwangi, a Kenyan who worked as an assistant director on the film.
Africans, say Leakey and others, have neither the time nor the taste for European pastorales. People read to learn or for escape, Leakey says, and for most Africans, nature is too recently a burden, and life too much a struggle to make Karen Blixen's wild and noble Africa of much interest.
"She was a memsahib from before independence," says 20-year-old Joseph Leiyian, a tall, delicately boned Kenyan, half Kikuyu and half Masai, who worked as an extra on the "Out of Africa" set. He was paid 200 to 450 Kenyan shillings a day, or about $12 to $25, for standing around in a makeshift Masai costume and looking the way his grandparents did. It was good money, more in one day than his brother earns in a month as a mechanic trainee.
Although his family's bare three-acre farm, or shamba, is just a mile or two from the Blixen house, and there are old men in the nearby area of Bulbul who claim to caddying for "Finch Hatton," Joseph Leiyian, like most Kenyans, has never read "Out of Africa," and he had never heard of Karen Blixen before he showed up to get work on the film.
Standing beside the dirt road to his house, dressed in a carefully cleaned shirt and worn blue jeans, a double strand of Masai beads around his bony chest, he might be a student at a local high school. But Leiyian left school several years short of graduation after his father was killed in a road accident and his family no longer had a spare $45 to spend on tuition.
He spends his days looking for work, or walking into Karen to buy the paraffin needed to light the family's tiny, tin-roofed cabin after the sun sets at 6:30. He doubts that he will have an extra 24 shillings (about $1.50) to buy a ticket to see "Out of Africa," but he would like to go, to try to find himself in the crowd scenes and to see if the colonial days look anything like what he has heard.
"I have a great many books of independence time, and I have talked to an old man of how it was, and he would explain how the life was terrible," he says.
Like the hundreds of other Kenyans who found months of work on the film set -- as extras, cooks, carpenters and assistant directors -- he is hoping that more films will come to Kenya. "Out of Africa" poured $8.4 million into Kenya's economy in eight months. There are rumors that Steven Spielberg will come here to make the latest sequel to "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
"A few more films like this could really train a whole generation of Kenyan filmmakers," says one local movie maker who is struggling to raise money to produce his own films.
Was she a racist, and is the film likely to compound the insult? No and no, according to those most knowledgeable about the writer and the film.
"Most Africans haven't read 'Out of Africa,' " says one Dane living in Nairobi, "and those who have tend to read it the way Satan reads the Bible. Things are taken out of context."
Judith Thurman, American author of the acclaimed biography that Pollack and scriptwriter Kurt Luedtke used to put the film together, says Blixen's snobbery and aristocratic manner often are misconstrued, that she was ahead of her time in her appreciation of the East African culture, so much so that she was ostracized by her fellow settlers for her efforts to educate and give medical care to the Africans who shared her land.
"In a period where whites thought blacks were hideous, she thought they were ravishingly beautiful," Thurman says. "She doesn't have Nadine Gordimer's view of Africa, but she was of a different generation. She didn't see there was any limitation in what Africa might eventually become."
For all the Baroness Blixen's aristocratic airs, say Thurman and others, and for every paragraph in "Out of Africa" that is politely termed amateur anthropology ("Natives dislike speed as we dislike noise . . .neither do the natives have much sympathy with any kind of machinery or mechanics . . ."), the writer Isak Dinesen reported with insight and humor on the habits and thoughts of her African farmhands and with exquisite sarcasm on the sensibilities of her colonial neighbors.
Even Wanjala has moderated his views upon more careful reading of the memoir and Blixen's letters home, in which she chronicled the disastrous weather and farm management that forced her farm to bankruptcy.
"She was a product of her time and her class, but she transcended that in the way she treated her servants as human beings. The lengths she took to study and record their ways was very unusual."
Others associated with the film agreed. "In her work she did write once that Africans of 50 think like children, but I heard it from old people in Karen that she was better than that," says George Menoe, a black South African and manager of the Kenya National Theatre who was an assistant director on the film. "You couldn't be building schools for Kikuyu children and be a racist," he adds.
Director Pollack told The New York Times recently that the problem of depicting the race relations of the colonial period was a potential "mine field" that was diffused by allowing the African characters "to defend themselves through the way they behave." In fact, so delicately handled are Blixen's relations with Africans in the film that some complain they aren't there at all.
"The Africans are in the background, like shrubbery," says Meja Mwangi, another assistant director. "There is no interaction between her and those Africans. You almost had the impression when they were lining up the shots that they were trying to keep the Africans out of it . . . It is mostly a story about her and her boyfriend."
Mwangi adds: "It is not easy for Europeans to depict Africans. Sydney Pollack tried very hard."
Back at the Blixen house in late afternoon, the waning sunlight slants across the front windows and warms the worn mahogany wainscoting inside. The Ngong hills are turning 16 shades of blue and on the terrace a man stands beside a table guarding a guest book that has already begun to fill with the names of literary pilgrims, Danes and Americans mostly. The house will open soon as a museum. In the bedroom, the walls have been painted the same apple green that Blixen kept them.
You sit on the porch and see the hills, listen to the wind in the treetops and think about what it must have been like to own the place, all 6,000 acres of it, to give an order or voice a whim or see it accomplished. You think about the exhilarating uncomplicated power of it, the way the settlers, in letters home, used to write, "I planted 40 acres of flax this week," or "I cleared the lower 60," when what they really meant was that they had given orders to the Africans who had made 100 acres bloom.
"I'm going to sell romance," says Paula Herr enthusiastically as she stands on the lawn. Herr is a diminutive American with entrepreneurial bent. She has been in Kenya for 12 years; her husband works for an international aid organization. She has devoted countless hours to the National Museums of Kenya, a government-supported system of small regional museums and prehistoric sites with a large museum in Nairobi.
It was Herr who first thought of opening a gift shop at Nairobi's main museum three years ago to take advantage of the tourist trade and provide additional income for the museum's threadbare budget. Under her direction, the shop has been stocked with traditional jewelry, textiles and ceramics made by Kenyan craftsmen. For the Karen Blixen Museum, however, she had something else in mind:
"All the things we can't sell at the main museum shops. Picnic baskets with little wineglasses, Somali shawls, and maybe we'll do some nice safari clothing for men. And I'm thinking maybe we'll have some pith helmets with veils." She even has a plan to sell bags of Kenyan coffee, an idea that some of the Danish women on the Blixen Museum committee reportedly find "tacky."
Herr and others defend the shop as a source of income that they should not ignore, particularly when the Kenyan government, which cannot find enough money to provide health care for all of its citizens, has frozen the museum's budget. (The Danish government gave Kenya the Blixen house as an independence gift; Pollack's film production donated $8,000 to the museum.)
Herr's interest is not purely mercantile. She says she is transfixed by the house's ghostly poetry.
"I mean, just look at those hills!" she says pointing to the Ngong mountains, a range that Blixen describes as "crowned with four noble peaks like immoveable darker blue waves against the sky."
One of the museum's skeptics, at least in the beginning, was Herr's boss, Leakey, a third-generation Kenyan who says that he was brought up knowing about Karen Blixen only as "the suburb named after a rather unsuccessful coffee farmer who had failed and gone home to Europe." Leakey felt that the only way to justify spending any Kenyan money on the project was to restore a few of the rooms and turn the rest of the house into a museum of colonial agricultural machinery. "To Kenyans, that is a very important part of the Karen Blixen era," he says. "We will show how the settler era transformed the country's pastoral society into a nation with a strong economic base."
Herr is less than visibly excited at the thought of antique coffee machines in the dining room where Karen Blixen once entertained the Prince of Wales, but she, too, is aware of Kenyan sensibilities. The colonial period, she believes, is history and can't be ignored. "It all depends on how it's portrayed." For herself, and for tourists, however, the house is a priceless relic. "Americans go all sort of romantic over this kind of thing. I really think we're coming to a time when people want to harken back to a more romantic past."
And for many of the 40,000 whites who live here -- Norwegian aid workers, German population control planners, Australian businessmen, American wildlife enthusiasts, English anthropologists, missionaries, hippies, do-gooders and hangers-on, as well as the sunbaked and hardy descendants of the white settlers who began arriving in force at the beginning of this century -- with a profile far greater than their number would suggest, the past seems to breathe romance into the present.
Paul Stoffregan is a red-haired Danish architect who came to Kenya in 1971. He has stayed on, married a Kenyan woman of Arab descent; he lives in the suburbs, travels to the coast when he can and hunts wild game on the large farms of friends when he can.
He can remember when he used to leave work on a Friday afternoon and race to Mombasa, six hours away, in time to raise a glass at the bar of the Jadini Hotel by closing time, and race back to the city on Sunday night. Nairobi has changed since then, he says wistfully. More people, more poverty, more crime; the city seems to have become "more serious." In settler days, the Europeans used to shoot up the Norfolk Hotel Bar for recreation; today owning a gun is illegal. Still, he has no plans to leave. He went home to Denmark a few years ago and was surprised to find the depression he suffered during Denmark's long dark winters.
"They say if you stay longer than three weeks you won't leave," he says, laughing. Like others here, black, white and Asian, he notes, with mild regret, that there is very little socializing between Africans and Europeans. But like the rest, he seems to thrive on Nairobi's exotic mixture that Karen Blixen described in its early years. He even volunteered his time to draw up the plans for the restoration of her house. He did it for the pleasure of drawing upon her spirit, a kind of freedom that seems to exist in places where wild places overshadow the city.
"In many ways," says Paul Stoffregan, "I feel myself a man born 150 years too late."