I was over at the Karen Blixen Museum last weekend driven, of course, by sheer curiosity. Admittedly, there was also the personal satisfaction of knowing I had included my name among those who have had a glimpse of how life was like in early 20th century Kenya.
At about this time, the famous Danish author, Karen Blixen, was still a ‘memsahib’ here in the country owning more than 6,000 acres of prime land, 600 of them under coffee. I will not go into the story of how she ventured into coffee instead of her original idea of a dairy farming enterprise. That is a tale for another day.
As soon as I arrived, I realised I had chosen the wrong time of season to visit. The museum, located in the only remaining 11.5 acres of the estate in the quiet suburbs of Karen, has been undergoing renovations. I was informed these will be completed by end of May and so much of what one can see is covered-up in sheets of nylon to prevent paint from spilling onto very expensive antique pieces.
Despite being unable to see some of the famed items, I managed to, at least, see what would seem to me as the first ever flying toilet definitely older than the popular ones in Kibera – only much more modernised.
Built like a normal flush toilet but made out of wood, this had a removable container that held all the waste which the workers would empty daily. If that does not sound like a flying toilet I do not know what does! Of course you cannot see the original toilet at the museum now. It is long gone. In its place is a modern flush toilet – only the wooden casing is what remains.
I was really eager to see the table in Baron Bror Blixen’s study. I heard the table stands were curved from hollowed elephant legs. How weird! At the top of my list also, two lanterns that Karen hang out on the foyer of her house to communicate the state of her mood.
They say when she placed the red one, she meant for everyone to stay away. The green one signified she was in a good mood.
As Karen Blixen’s remarkable journey in Kenya neared its end, she was actually bankrupt. She had even begun selling-off her household items to make ends meet. It therefore did not come as a surprise when our guide informed us that most of what we were seeing was an imitation of the original.
In recent years most of the ‘lost’ pieces got donated back to the museum by well-wishers including furniture pieces Lady McMillan had bought from Karen. Despite this artefact flight, there are numerous original items one can still see.
Among them include the full skull, with horns, of the buffalo Bror Blixen shot down in his many hunting expeditions. This hangs on the wall above the large dining table seemingly staring at the guests as they have their meal.
The dining, by the way, is the largest room in the whole of Karen’s house. She must have valued meal times or probably had guests over a great deal of the time so space in this room was of the essence.
Karen’s original collection of books she authored still lives here, including one that Bror would read when he was not hunting. Another original item just outside the main house, is a giant 100-year old Nandi Flame tree (African Tulip) Karen planted.
The tree is today a humble abode for tree hyraxes. It is on your way to the kitchen outside. Surprisingly, the Danes, just like most Africans, built kitchens outside the main house to keep away smoke.
As you approach the museum’s booking office, there is yet another original gem left behind by Karen from yesteryears – a 96-year-old African Wild Date Palm tree I learn still has 104 years to go before it calls it a day. Apparently, the African Wild Date has a 200-year lifespan!
Our tour finally ended with the outdoor. We first went past the beautifully manicured grounds and through a bushy, narrow path to emerge into an area with a huge contraption our guide informed us was a replica of the coffee roaster Blixen used for her coffee.
The guide was quick to point out that the original piece was much bigger. He also mentioned that the original machine was located much further into the farm than the replica is today. Universal films donated the imitation after completing the shooting of the Oscar Award-winning film, ‘Out of Africa’.
From here, we walked to a yard a few metres in front of Karen’s house where several implements lay scattered. Among them was a 1922 Fordson model F tractor on wheels of steel. The model F occupied the title of the first lightweight mass-produced tractor in the world by Ford Motors.
There is a winding mechanism at the front I guessed to be a kind of starter. Next to the tractor sat two wooden wagons mounted on wheels of steel as well.
The wood on the wagons was in a really sorry state of decay. If something does not happen soon, the wood will disappear and with it a rich historical legacy. They tells us the wagons transported dried graded coffee in hand-sewn sisal sacks to the railway station in town. From here, they were transported by train to the port of Mombasa and thereafter shipped to London.
Each wagon pulled by 16 oxen carried from 12 sacks to a tonne. I could not help imagining how tough and tedious it must have been running a coffee farm back then. The resources required seemed just astronomical.
Can you fathom the concept of 16 oxen to a wagon in economic terms? What about the food and health care the oxen would require? Coffee must have been expensive back then. To turn a profit must have been a tall order!
As I ended my guided tour of the museum, it was with a mixture of disappointment and excitement. On the one hand I was disappointed I did not get to see much because of the on-going renovation. On the other, I was excited I got a chance to see first-hand Karen’s experience of early 20th century Kenya. For only KES 100.00.
Living in a foreign country 11,286 KM away from home was a lot to take-in in one day for Karen. Add a 6,000 acre piece of land that demanded her and over 600 workers who depended on her leadership. Throw in an unfaithful hunter playboy who partly contributed to her ultimate bankruptcy, and you get the idea.
In under an hour, I managed to capture the real picture of Karen Blixen’s story like Hollywood could not. As you might know, some of the scenes in the film raised great controversy regarding what really happened in her momentous journey in Africa.
But then what do you expect from Hollywood? They are entrepreneurs in the business of telling dazzling and mesmerising stories for money! In this particular case, they more than succeeded.
The hugely successful film bagged over 28 film awards, including 7 Oscars. All-in-all, it was a hundred shillings well-spent. Make a point of visiting the museum one of these fine days. The renovations will be complete by mid-May, management promised.