As expansive as the Masai Mara: Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

Just as Africa is entwined with our DNA, this charming book is a part of our cultural consciousness. Blixen’s famous account of her time running a farm in the Kenyan highlands from 1913 to 1931 deserves its place in the canon. It is a towering achievement for both its humility and literary elegance.

Blixen’s book has no single narrative; it is a collection of experiences. Far from being scatty or incoherent, the author’s retelling of her memories gradually builds up a colourful picture of life on the farm, life in a colony and life in Africa. Blixen’s skill is in achieving all of this at the same time. She weaves contemporary political problems in with the timeless plight of those who live on the east African plains. It is never forced. Blixen makes few political comments, tending instead towards a more common-sense framework for which to represent the problems of the time. She never says that the white man’s imposition is wrong; she points out the implications of occupation. “It is more than their land that you take away from the people, whose native land you take,” she writes. “It is their past as well, their roots and their identity.”

Above any contemporary politics, Blixen is a canny observer of African life. She regales with fascination memories of the Kikuyu daily routine, dances and death rites. She reminds us that east Africa had been multicultural for centuries before the white man arrived: Nairobi’s Indian community, her own Somali servant not to mention the numerous nations within what became Kenya – all are painted vividly by our guide. For anyone learning more about colonialism and/or life in east Africa, this book is required reading.

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