A letter to Baroness Blixen: Out of Africa!

‘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 the white children of the same age, but they stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to a European child of nine.”

Readers of this column will already have guessed who could possibly have written such exotic rubbish! Indeed. This was Baroness Karen Blixen writing in the middle of the last century about the mental development of the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya and Kamba, who worked on her coffee farm in what is now the exclusive Karen suburb of the city of Nairobi.

Here was this Danish baroness proclaiming to the whole world that the Africans who worked on her farm never grew mentally beyond a European child of nine! Millions of white people in Europe and America read this crap and believed it!

They then passed on this received wisdom to their children and their children’s children.
And so it happens that millions of people around the world still believe that the ordinary African is no brighter than a nine-year-old European child!

The paragraph quoted above was not written in the heat of the moment while Baroness Blixen was still farming coffee in the area that now surrounds the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi. It does not even appear in her infamous Out of Africa, the book she wrote shortly after she returned to her native Denmark in the 1930s.

This paragraph appears in another of her books, Shadows in the Grass, which she wrote almost 30 years after she left Kenya and returned to Copenhagen. Either this Danish lady did not know what she was writing about or she deliberately set out to destroy the image of the ordinary African in the eyes of the rest of the world.

For the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba and other “dark nations” of Africa, it does not matter whether she wrote this nonsense out of ignorance, insensitivity or both. What is important is that the damage she wrought to our image was so enormous that it might never be undone.

If one were to draw up a list of the most dangerous foreigners ever to set foot on African soil, Karen Blixen would be right up there competing for honours with the likes of Henry Morton Stanley, King Leopold’s trail-blazing mercenary.

“Nine thousand feet up we felt safe, and we laughed at the ambition of the new arrivals, of the Missions, the business people and the Government itself, to make the continent of Africa respectable. A time came when we began to feel uneasy about the matter.

“The Protestant Missions gave much time, energy and money to make the natives put on trousers — in which they looked like giraffes in harness.” There this Danish lady goes again! She laughed at the measures that the missions, the business people and even the colonial government itself were taking to make Africa respectable!

She could not understand why the Protestant missions were wasting so much time, energy and money to make the Africans put on trousers! After all, with trousers on, these Africans looked like giraffes in harness!

What, one might ask, did her native Danish look like in trousers? Did they look like horses in harness? Or zebras in harness? What intellectual purpose was such a tasteless analogy meant to serve?

In the chapter on Farah, her Somali man servant whom she appears to have loved, Baroness Blixen recounts the occasion when the natives came to thank her for the way she had turned out to welcome the Prince of Wales.

Here, she quotes an old native: “Msabu, I shall, then, like to tell you something of which among ourselves we have talked much, and about which we are happy. We think that on the night when the Toto came here to see our young men and virgins dance, among the Msabus present you had on the nicest frock.

“It pleased our hearts, Msabu, it still pleases our hearts when we think about it. For we all think that here, every day on the farm, you are terribly badly dressed.”

These words from the lips of the old native were, as one can imagine, music to Baroness Blixen’s ears. Which lady will not smile in her soul when she is told that she was the best-dressed woman at a reception?

But, in quoting this old native so exhaustively, Blixen inadvertently stumbles into an abyss of contradiction.

Only a few paragraphs earlier, she had already told us that Africans do not grow beyond the mental age of a nine-year-old European child. But now here she is quoting this old native speaking so beautifully, so powerfully, so poetically.

Which nine-year-old would string words together so beautifully? In particular, which nine-year-old Danish boy would be able to do that?

The big question looms out of the page once more. Did Baroness Blixen know what she was writing about or was this but a deliberate effort to destroy the image of Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world?

As we said here the other week, the name Karen has no business appearing anywhere on the map of our capital city. The suburb that now bears this Danish lady’s name needs to be renamed as soon as possible.

Every day that the name Karen remains on the map of our capital city, we make bigger and bigger fools of ourselves! If a Kenyan woman had lived in Denmark and then gone on to abuse the Danish as elaborately and insensitively as Karen Blixen abused us, Copenhagen would not have named one of its top suburbs after her.

Let us not give Blixen’s admirers any further reason to believe that we do not grow mentally beyond nine years! Period.

This commentary appeared earlier this month in The Standard, published in Nairobi, under the headline “If ever there were racists, Karen Blixen is the baroness”. It is reprinted with permission

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