Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales From Out of Africa
collected by Peter Beard
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, unpaginated pp., $19.95
I don’t know what Juan Fernandez is like these days. But suppose for a moment that it has become an Island Paradise. Suppose there is a small golf course where Robinson Crusoe once strove to grow crops. And that the beach where his first, useless boat stuck fast has become the terrace of a Holiday Inn or the parking lot of a Rum Boutique. And that the empty strand on which a footprint was laid now bears the impression of a thousand pairs of oiled buttocks. All quite likely, when you think of it. But what if some ancient retired popsicle seller in a nearby shack were discovered to be Man Friday himself, alive and garrulous and ready to fill cassette after cassette with reminiscence of how Mr. Crusoe really carried on?
This is the kind of shock delivered by the reappearance of Kamante, known to millions of readers as one of the personages in Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. The Baroness found him on her coffee farm in the Ngong Hills in Kenya, a lonely child with a suppurating leg. She dealt with the leg, and then took him into her service in the house. He became the cook, famous for his mastery of exotic European recipes, which he never touched himself, and produced a long-remembered feast for the Prince of Wales. When Out of Africa came out in 1937, and set out on its course of fresh editions and reprints to become one of the enduring books of the century, Kamante became famous in a quite new dimension. He served not only as master cook but as evidence for the Baroness’s masterful views on the Native: dark-natured, dignified, loyal, quaintly critical of the White Man’s mysterious preoccupations.
Now he has turned up. Not that he ever really disappeared: he dictated letters to Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) in Denmark at intervals until her death in 1962. Peter Beard sought him out, asked by the Baroness to make sure that he had survived the Mau Mau emergency, and found him not only alive but full of stories, and living in the Kikuyu Reserve not far from the farm—now enveloped in one of the new suburbs of Nairobi. Beard began to take his memories down on tape. Translated and transcribed, they are the basis of this book. The illustrations—it is a large, showy affair—are Kamante’s own animal drawings and photographs from Karen Blixen’s own album, taken between 1914 and 1931.
The point of doing this, clearly, was less that Kamante’s memoirs of life in old colonial Kenya were thought interesting in themselves, but that they contributed to knowledge about Karen Blixen. There is a cult here. Out of Africa is still arresting to read: it is possible to take the book as the reflections of a sensitive woman running a bankrupt coffee farm in a tribal Africa which has passed away, and overlook the professionalism, the skillful organization of narrative and …