There’s something about the expatriate lifestyle that attracts weirdos. Maybe it’s the allure of living between multiple worlds; you’re never going to fit in, so why bother trying. Maybe it’s the chance to try your hand at a new identity in a place where no one knows you.
Whatever the reason, strange people abound.
Blixen, a Danish woman, ran a coffee farm on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya from 1914 to 1931. After returning to Denmark she wrote Out of Africa, her nostalgic musings on her time in Kenya. Blixen went on to be twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Out of Africa was turned into a movie.
Who knew there was such a big market for crazy?
Out of Africa
In Out of Africa, Blixen sounds like a crazy, old auntie who spends the better part of 400 pages telling incoherent, pointless stories. An entire chapter is devoted to Lulu, a waterbuck that Blixen adopts temporarily. That’s it. But somehow, Blixen rambles on for ages about Lulu’s temperament, the bell around Lulu’s neck, and Lulu’s progeny. By the time I finished the chapter I was so tired of hearing about Lulu that I wished I could go back in time and shoot the damn animal.
What’s even more surprising is that Blixen makes no attempt to hide her craziness. She writes,
“to amuse myself, I spoke to the field labourers, who were mostly quite young, in Swaheli verse, it was made for the sake of the rhyme: – ‘Ngumbe napenda chume, Malaya-mbaya. Wakamba nakula mamba.’ The oxen like salt, whores are bad, the Wakamba do eat snakes.”
I can only imagine her field laborers’ despair. How could this crazy woman be in charge of a major farming operation? They probably weren’t all that surprised when the farm failed.
In another chapter, Blixen writes that someone told her that there is no number nine in the Kiswahili language. Instead of assuming that she was getting bad information, Blixen celebrates the oddity of counting without the number nine.
“Here, I thought, was a people who have got originality of mind, and courage to break with the pedantry of the numeral series.”
Isn’t the point of a numeral series that you don’t break with that numeral series?
While Blixen’s crazy-lady commentary is jarring, some of her insights and descriptions can be beautiful. They are the one redeemable feature of the book.
For example, Blixen loves the land around her, and it shows. After learning that her coffee farm is losing too much money and investors want to sell it, Blixen writes magically about her struggle to disengage with the land.
“The attitude of the landscape towards me changed. Till then I had been part of it, and the drought had been to me like a fever, and the flowering of the plain like a new frock. Now the country disengaged itself from me, and stood back a little, in order that I should see it clearly and as a whole.”
Throughout the book, Blixen waxes poetically about the land and her beloved Ngong Hills. It’s easy to imagine her living vicariously through her land, and devoting her body and soul to it.
But in the end, the beauty didn’t make up for the craziness, and I was very glad to move on to more intellectual fare, namely Fifty Shades of Grey.
But, when I meet that expat on the streets of Nairobi–you know, the one who romanticizes Africa and has no awareness of social cues– I recommend Out of Africa to them. “I think it will really resonate with you,” I say.
What have you been reading lately?