Out of Africa: Isak Dinesen’s Colonial Pastoral

Christy Brown

“In some respects, although not in all, the white men fill in the mind of the Natives the place that is, in the mind of the white men, filled by the idea of God.” –Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa (1937)

“There are certainly some progressive ideas among the Europeans…. But so far the Europeans who visit Africa have been conspicuously zealous in imparting these parts of their inheritance to Africans ….As it is, by driving him off his ancestral lands, the Europeans have robbed him of the material foundations of his culture, and reduced him to a state of serfdom incompatible with human happiness. The African is conditioned, by the cultural and social institutions of centuries, to a freedom of which Europe has little conception, and it is not in his nature to accept serfdom forever.” –Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (l938)

STEVEN SPIELBERG’s The Color Purple and Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa — the two most widely publicized “serious” mainstream films of 1985 — are both based on works by women writers which are considered by many to be minor masterpieces. One could hardly imagine two more dissimilar narrative voices than those of the thrice oppressed Celie in Alice Walker’s novel and of Baroness Karen Blixen, the grande dame of colonial Kenya’s “White Highlands,” whose memoirs were published, under her pen name, Isak Dinesen.

However, despite the radical divergence between Dinesen’s idealization of feudal values and “natural” hierarchies and Walker’s Black feminist consciousness, Pollack’s film portrayal of Blixen/Dinesen seems to be conscious of raising some issues of concern to feminists.(1)

Thus in Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen, as portrayed by Meryl Streep, emerges as an incredibly strong-willed, courageous, yet in some ways insecure and dependent woman. She is oppressed by and resists the Kenyan colony’s male power structure.

When World War I breaks out shortly after her arrival, rather than move to Nairobi with the other women and children so the men can protect her from the “native elements,” she audaciously chooses to lead a supply caravan to the front. She not only manages the plantation singlehandedly after her separation from her husband, and learns to shoot lions to boot, but she also plays the part of woman as the “bearer of civilization,” transforming her African farm into a European oasis complete with fine china, glassware, paintings and Persian carpets, and training her African “houseboys” to pour wine wearing white gloves.

The main appeal of this film for American audiences probably lies elsewhere than in Karen Blixen’s demonstration of her considerable abilities.

Unlike the previous year’s colonial classic, A Passage to India, which despite its nostalgia forces the viewer to confront the ugliness of British racism, this film as well as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa depict a pure colonial idyll.

When today’s urbanized, technocratized filmgoers think of Africa, they think of the Third World, of a continent of famine, poverty, terrorism and endangered species. To create an exotic pastoral alternative to the contemporary Western anxieties about current or future explosions in the Third World, the Hollywood filmmaker is forced either to retreat into the past or into the Spielbergian-type of fantasy world of which we have seen so much lately. Thus the enormous potential appeal of Dinesen’s vision of an Africa which once held the European imagination in thrall with its prospects for the realization of wealth and luxury in a colonial setting of adventure, romance, and risk.

In her own book Out of Africa Isak Dinesen writes of her arrival in Africa as a transition from “a rushed and noisy world, into a still country.” A “still country” is an apt description for Dinesen’s art, which she believed should be created out of “the ideal beautiful dream,” in which even “horrors change hue.”(2)

As Judith Thurman points out in Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, “Out of Africa does not describe Karen Blixen’s life on her African farm as it was, in a documentary sense, lived,” but is an idealized version, an “‘overview'” — a landscape seen from above, much as it is seen from her lover, Denys Finch Hatton’s gypsy moth plane in the film.

If Dinesen “rearranges the events so that there is no psychological or narrative ambivalence to them,” as Thurman contends, she likewise eliminates the political and economic ambivalence contained in her position as feudal overlord or overseer of 1200 Kikuyu “squatters” and wage laborers.

Although one would not guess it from the film, the bulk of Dinesen’s /i>Out of Africa is devoted to describing the Kenyan “Natives” (always capitalized) who lived on her farm, and her relationship with them, which is expressed as “a great affection,” a “magnificent enlargement” of her world.(3) Despite her acknowledgement of ignorance about the inner structure of African society (“I reconciled myself to the fact that I should never quite know or understand them …. “), she never tires of describing the Natives, classifying them, comparing the relative nobility of their natures and societies, and making generalizations in sentences that invariably begin, “All Natives ..,” such as the following:

All Natives have in them a strong strain of malice, a shrill delight in things going wrong, which in itself is hurting and revolting to Europeans.” (p. 35)

Jomo Kenyatta’s description of Kikuyu society from the inside, Facing Mount Kenya, was published in 1938, just one year after Out of Africa. Arguing that Kikuyu tribal society had an inner logic and integrity, and that its organizational basis could be found in kinship ties, Kenyatta hoped to dispute the view widely held in Europe of the African as an uncivilized savage — the view Dinesen romanticized for her European readers.

Perhaps Out of Africa can tell us a great deal, after all, not about Africa and Africans, but about how an aristocratic, romantic, almost hypercivilized colonial immigrant is able to rationalize her role in the colonial process, to make “the horror change hue.”

Sydney Pollack’s film, in true Hollywood fashion, has foregrounded Dinesen’s relationships with her husband Bror Blixen, not mentioned in Out of Africa, and her lover, who only appears sparingly in the book, but whose death in a plane crash parallels her loss of the farm. Finch Hatton, an English Earl’s son, began his African career as a trader, but later turned to big game hunting for his livelihood, escorting American millionaires like Marshall Field on safaris during which scores of animals would meet their doom. The film minimizes the scope of this carnage in deference to modern tastes.

Denys’ long absences from the farm, which cause Dinesen so much pain, lurk beneath the surface of her very lengthy descriptions of the “Natives,” almost as if he were an absent presence. Pollack’s development of this relationship brings to the surface all the emotion submerged in Dinesen’s text.

In the spirit of contemporary frankness, filmmaker Pollack also dramatizes Dinesen’s illness from syphilis, which she contracted from her promiscuous husband, Bror Blixen. Yet in order not to disrupt too thoroughly the idyllic quality of the film, which depends so much on absence of uncontainable contradictions, Pollack omits the irony of the Conradesque horror implied in Judith Thurman’s speculation that Blixen, who did not hide his relations with Masai women, known to be sterile from syphilis, contracted the disease from them. (Thurman, p. 137) Dinesen mentions the Masai women’s fertility in Out of Africa, as well as the medicine used to treat her syphilis, but this link between the colonizer’s women remains unconnected in the text, a bond of such an unspeakable nature that it cannot be revealed.

When Pollack does deal with sexual relations between Europeans and Africans, he portrays it not as colonial exploitation, but as a domestic relationship between a master and his devoted servant. Thus Berkeley Cole’s Somali mistress is not kept on the side, as Thurman reports, but is shown by his side, nursing him through his last illness.

What suffers as the film focuses on details of Dinesen’s personal life repressed in her Out of Africa is precisely any significant development of the African characters, with the possible exception of her servant Farah, with brief glimpses of her African cook Kamante and the Kikuyu chief Kinanjui, who was actually appointed by the British — a common colonial practice when the legitimate ruler was not to the colonial government’s liking.

According to Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, author of such anti-colonial masterpieces as A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood, in illustrations from books on Africa written by colonialist intellectuals “the European colonizer occupies the central stage of action and drama with light radiating outwards from him. The African native is in the background and merges with darkness and natural scenery at the outer edges of the action.”(4) In the film Out of Africa the colonizer holds center stage even more than in Dinesen’s book, where at least the Africans as a collectivity are far more central than they appear on screen, even if only to provide an audience for which Baroness Blixen can appear successively in the colonial drama as doctor, judge, benefactress, and a collector, great white hunter, hostess of princes and potentates, and so forth.

While Pollack does not hesitate to reveal much more than Dinesen herself cares to admit about her erotic life, like Dinesen he suppresses the political implications of colonialism within the self-contained hierarchical universe of the farm. There are no Jomo Kenyattas in Out of Africa. But from the vantage point of history we can see that this is a world which in fact never existed. “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” begins Out of Africa. In Ngugi’s view, in Out of Africa Karen Blixen “describes the life of Kenyans whom she had robbed of vast acres of land near the Ngong Hills.”(5) Dinesen downplays the vastness of her 6,000 acre plantation of alienated Kenyan highland by calling it a “farm.” The “owner” of land which once belonged to the Africans, who are now called “squatters” and must work 180 days out of the year for her in order to keep their small plots, she suggests that since they had been on the land before she purchased it, they must see her as “a sort of superior squatter.”

The process of alienating land for the exclusive use of while settlers was already well under way by the time Dinesen arrived in Kenya in 1914. By 1934, two years after she had sold out, 6.5 million acres had been expropriated for 2,534 white settlers, of which barely 10% was actually under cultivation of cash crops. (Only 600 of Dinesen’s acres were reserved for her coffee crop.)

Far more land was alienated than actually needed, in order to force more Africans off the land and into the labor market. Thus in 1912 Lord Delamere, a close friend of Karen Blixen and a leading settler spokesman, appealed to the Labor Commission that land reserved for “natives” should be cut to prevent them from having enough for a self-supporting level of production. Hut and poll taxes were raised periodically for the same purpose.(6) Dinesen, who as landlord was responsible for collecting these taxes, noted in Out of Africa that they were “a heavy burden” and “much disliked;” in her private letters she was more outspoken:

“I am so angry with the English, because they’ve raised the taxes on natives. They talk of a poll tax of twenty shillings. When you think that the most a man can earn is about 150 shillings a year, it’s outrageous. If only people knew at home, but this country is so strangely beyond law and justice. The upper classes haven’t improved in the slightest since the Revolution. When they’re not afraid of the lower classes, they’re quite without shame; natives are starving here, and will die of starvation, while the Governor is building a new Government House for 80,000 pounds and champagne flows in rivers at their races etc. Lord Delamere has just had a dinner in Nakuru for 250 people, where they consumed 600 bottles, and they have no idea; the women here are quite capable, when they hear that natives cannot get posho, of asking why they don’t eat wheat or rice, just like Marie Antoinette.“(7)

That this tone of outrage is greatly softened in her memoirs may have something to do with her wish not to alienate her English-speaking public. It is indeed ironic that someone so concerned with the plight of Africans, who died by the thousands during the drought of 1919, was as much attached as any British immigrant to the neo-feudal lifestyle affected in the colony, made possible only by the coercive measures used to proletarianize the peasantry. While mistress of her plantation she entertained nearly every notable who visited Kenya, including the Prince of Wales. In fact it was partly her sense of feudal noblesse oblige which compelled her to feel responsible, in a paternalistic way, for “her” Kikuyu.

This paternalistic attitude which disguised relations of domination can also be seen in the argument used by the colonists to justify their position as occupiers of the land: given their superior technology and knowledge of farming methods, they, and not the Africans, should have the responsibility for developing the country. Measures were taken to rule out African competition that might prove otherwise, among them restrictions on African coffee cultivation and the refusal to issue land deeds to Africans.

Yet Kenyan African peasants had shown they could grow coffee, cotton and maize successfully until they were stopped from producing in 1905, because, as John Ainsworth declared in 1906:

“White people can live here and will live here, not . . as colonists performing manual labor, as in Canada and New Zealand, but as planters, etc., overseeing natives doing the work of development.”

But in spite of extreme preferential treatment given to the settlers, the settler farms remained inefficient and even “privately unprofitable,” because the “overseers” were “more interested in leisure and conspicuous display than in maximizing their productivity.”(8)

‘The Blixens, for example, knew nothing about coffee cultivation, for which their land was too high and the soil too acidic. The farm never produced more than could barely make ends meet, and when the Depression hit in 1930 coffee prices fell drastically and the investors who held shares in Karen Company insisted she sell out.

By this time capitalist relations had replaced feudal relations of production, and even the nobility were forced to obey the laws of the world market. Nevertheless colonial Africa represented in the European imagination the last bastion of a pastoral ideal of feudalism, and at the same time the state of man in nature, the primeval Eden before the Fall.(9) The eighteenth century view of the Noble Savage coexisted along with nineteenth century views of bringing the light of civilization to the “Dark” continent.

Isak Dinesen, like Europe itself, held both of these views simultaneously. On the one hand, she subscribes to the positivist view of civilizing the “Natives,” chiding Europeans for expecting them to “jump joyfully from the stone age to the age of the motor-cars,” suggesting instead that they would have to go through a cultural evolution similar to “our own” in order to develop a “true love of motor-cars.” On the other hand, she describes her servant Esa’s death with a nostalgia for “the consciousness in his dark, animal-like eyes” of a “remembrance of the country such as I had always wished to have known it, when it had been like a Noah’s Ark, with the hame all round the little Native boy herding his father’s goats on the plain.” Thus we have two pastoral visions. One is the feudal relations of the farm recounted in Out of Africa, a settlement which is supposed to bring civilization to a “savage” people, but which in the process makes them into impoverished serfs on their own land. The other vision, which Dinesen can only glimpse in the eyes of her servant, is a remembrance of a country before the settlers came.

Elsewhere in Out of Africa Dinesen speaks of regretting the colony’s change from the “Happy Hunting ground” it had been when she arrived, into “a business proposition.” Yet this is the definitive process of colonization in which the “pioneers” like Dinesen pave the way for the metropolitan area to exploit, invade, spoil, all in the name of progress and civilization.

The tension between the desire to impose civilization upon the colonized land and people and the desire to preserve its preindustrial integrity reveals itself most tellingly in Dinesen’s imagery. On the one hand, her prose images continually transform the scenery and its people into European and sometimes Oriental artifacts — tapestries, Persian carpets, mosaics, statues, gargoyles, Russian dolls.(10) The Masai are likened to nobles, Blixen’s Somali servant in Shadows on the Grass is described as a “gentleman,” the African dances of “Ngomas” are called “Balls.”

It is almost impossible for Dinesen to see Africa other than through the clutter of centuries of European culture which ceaselessly impose themselves on the landscape.

Dinesen sees the “Natives” as being a part of the landscape, like the animals: “What I learned from the game of the country, was useful to me in my dealings with the Native People.”

For the Kenyan novelist Ngugi, Dinesen’s pervasive use of animal imagery to describe Africans is particularly degrading. Complaining that in Out of Africa, “All Kenyans are described in terms of beasts utterly divorced from civilization,” he points to one particularly glaring example in which Karen Blixen describes her cook’s preference for African dishes:

“…he came and offered me a Kikuyu delicacy of a roasted sweet potato or a lump of sheeps fat — as even a civilized dog, that has lived for a long time with people, will place a bone on the floor before you, as a present.” (p. 40)

Another passage cited by Ngugi which occurs in Shadows on the Grass, published in 1960 just three years before Kenyan independence, reveals how much latent racism lies beneath Dinesen’s paternalistic attitude toward “her” Africans:

“The dark nations of Africa, strikingly precocious as young children, seemed to come to a standstill in their mental growth at different ages. The Kikuyu, Kawirondo, and Wakamba, the people who worked for me on the farm, in early childhood were far ahead of white children of the same age, but they stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to that of a European child of nine. The Somali had got further and had all the mentality of boys of our own race at the age of 13 to 17. (SC p. 413) According to Dinesen the Somali, who “were of Arab blood” were “greatly superior to the Native population” whose “mysterious and simple cultural traditions lose themselves in the darkness of very ancient days.” (SG p. 411)

That liberal film critic Andrew Sarris should find the film of Out of Africa‘s rendition of Dinesen’s “paternalistic” relationship with the Africans “inoffensive”(11) is an index of how wide still is the gap between even a liberal Western point of view from that of the formerly colonized. In fact, Pollack’s paternalistic attitude toward the Africans who worked in the film, most of whom had never acted before, was evident when he explained on the Today show that they had to be treated as “children.”

It is bad enough that the film treats Blixen’s paternalistic attitude with barely a hint of irony. Yet it is primarily the lack of oppositional African voices which makes it impossible to provide any kind of perspective by which to judge the European dilemma of whether Africans should be made “civilized” or not. This question is developed in the film as a short of mini-debate between Karen and Denys about whether she should start a school on her land. Karen wants “her” Kikuyu to learn how to read, while Denys, as the Great White Hunter, scorns civilization, reminding her that the Africans have “their own Stories,” and that he wouldn’t like to see them turned into “little Englishmen.” The chief, the only African to take part in this debate, refuses to allow the children to attend, but then gives his reluctant permission, providing the parting shot, “What good did reading ever do the British?”

Although Dinesen herself, according to Judith Thurman, might have anticipated the day when Africans, transformed into “civilized” men, would gain their independence, the education provided in the colony was designed more to train civil servants loyal to the crown. However, in Denys’ desire “to keep it the Dark Continent,” there is what Raymond Williams describes as “a false conservationist and reactionary emphasis which would in effect … have the developing societies stay as they are, picturesque and poor, for the benefit of observers,” which is “bad faith” if it would arrest development at its “present levels of relative advantage and disadvantage.”

Robert Redford’s rugged-individualist-in-the-wilderness portrayal of Denys reminds one of the archetypical American hero, always pushing back the frontier so that civilization may follow, but scorning it when it arrives. Ironically it is he who introduces to the highlands the gramaphone and the airplane from which the White bwana and memsahib can observe the “primitive” society before it disappears.

The colonizers are locked in a dilemma between two alternatives, both equally unattractive for the colonized, with no progressive African voice to speak. Yet during this period Kenyans themselves, whose political consciousness was growing by leaps and bounds, paving the way for the guerrilla movement of the 1950s, developed their own set of demands which included compulsory primary education as well as sufficient higher education. By 1928 they had rebelled against the Christian Mission schools for imposing European culture on African culture, and offered an alternative in the Kikuyu Independent Schools Movement.(12)

Both Dinesen and Pollack ignore the ong01ng struggle against colonialism which was always brutally put down by the British; for that reason African society in Out of Africa seems to be extremely passive. It is the European who acts, whose will to change and produce and develop is almost obsessive. Dinesen works magic within the domain of her farm. Yet in the end Karen’s dream is shattered.

We know that Karen Blixen was forced to sell the farm on the periphery of the world capitalist system because of the inability of the metropolitan center to contain the crisis. In the film, however, the crisis seems to come from a fire that burns down the barn containing her crop, a fire which Farah tells her comes from Allah. Most critics maintain that Dinesen’s experience in Africa taught her the lesson of the acceptance of destiny, which is the cornerstone of her art of “consolation.”(13)

In the film she seems to learn that she cannot impose her will on people or things — she cannot “own” Denys, nor the Kikuyu, nor even the land itself. In this sense it is tempting to see the ending of the film as symbolizing the end of the colonial era. Yet this resolution thus ignores the contradictions of the real colonial drama in which the colonized must struggle to rid the country of the colonizer, rather than persuading the colonizer to leave voluntarily.

Another aspect of Dinesen’s art of resolution is her concept of the “unity” of opposites-including sexual, racial, and class opposites, or Others. Thus in a master-servant relationship such as that between herself and Farah, the servant “needs a master to be himself.” Her relations with her racial Other, the Africans, beings “essentially different from us,” are described as a “duel.” Relations of domination are thus described as essential for the well­being of both.

Quite consistent with this extremely hierarchical conservative world view, in the final moments of the film, she turns to Farah and asks him to call her for the first and last time by her name, instead of “M’Sabou” (Memsahib). In this world favors are conferred by one’s superiors — freedom is not demanded by equals.

Isak Dinesen’s first book, Seven Gothic Tales (1934), was not well received in Denmark during the thirties because of its lack of concern for social issues during a period of economic devastation. Judith Thurman objects on similar grounds to Dinesen’s series of essays on Nazi Germany, which were only “politely” critical at a time of genocide. (Thurman, p. 291-2)

Yet it is difficult to come away from Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa without asking a similar question. Why this particular film at this time of crisis in Southern Africa? One line in the film stands out — “They have their own stories.” For our Isak Dinesens, Elspeth Huxleys, Alan Patons, they have their own storytellers: Armah, Achebe, Coetzee, Head, Laye, Ngugi, Sembene, Kane, Salah, Soyinka, just to name a few. They not only write in Swahili or Wolof, but in English, French, Portuguese. Now we no longer have the need to make up stories about them; we have only to listen to their stories, if we can permit ourselves to hear them.

We could then add to the story of Alice Walker’s Celie that of Me Katalili, a Kenyan national heroine who, at the age of 70, fought against the British until she was captured and deported in 1914, the year Karen Blixen arrived in a “still country.” We would hear about Harry Thiku, leader of the Young Kikuyu Association whose arrest in 1922 led off the General Strike in Kenyan history, and about Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru, who led the demonstration demanding his release. She was shot dead by British forces along with 21 others. And we would see that Africans have not been merely passively accepting their domination by their colonial masters, but have been engaged in a continuous struggle against exploitation and racism since the colonial period began.


  1. Feminist interest in women writers has also produced some fine works on Dinesen. These include Susan Gubar’s brilliant reading of Dinesen’s story, “The Blank Page” in Writing and Sexual Difference, Elizabeth Abel, ed. (U. of Chicago, 1982), 73-94, and Judith Thurman’s biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, (New York: St. Martins, 1982).
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  2. See Thomas R. Whissen, Isak Dinesen’s Aesthetics (Port Washington, NY: Kennekot, 1973, 73-75.
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  3. Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass (New York, Vintage, 1985). Page numbers refer to Out of Africa unless cited as SC.
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  4. “Education for a National Culture” in Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (Trenton, NY: African World, 1983), 95.
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  5. Ibid., 56.
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  6. See Donald L. Barrett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau From Within: An Analysis of Kenya’s Peasant Revolt (New York: Monthly Review, 1966), 31-33.
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  7. Quoted in Nicholas Best, Happy Valley: The Story of the English in Kenya (London: Secker and Warburg, 1979), 113-114.
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  8. L.S. Stavrianos, Global Rift: The Third World Comes of Age (New York: William Morrow, 1981), 305.
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  9. See Raymond William, The City and the Country (New York: Oxford, 1973), 279-288, for a discussion of the colony as pastoral space.
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  10. See Eric 0. Johannasson, The World of Isak Dinesen (U. of Washington, 1961), 128-131, for a discussion of imagery in Out of Africa.
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  11. “Super Meryl and the Sundance Kid,” Village Voice, 24 Dec. 1985, 73.
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  12. Barrett, op. cit., 38.
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  13. See Thurman, 8; Whissen, 6-8; Johannessen, 115.
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March-April 1986, ATC 2

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