Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales From Out of Africa
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 the use of artificial suspense. (A pretty example is her single passing reference to her husband, in a long book of apparently candid self-contemplation and record. Natural shyness over a failure of personal relationships? Or a little feat of reader-management, seizing and maintaining curiosity?)
But the cult is about more than literary quality. Out of Africa is a source of nostalgia: for the sense of a Kenya vanishing and vanished, which Isak Dinesen recorded with an intensity never equaled, and also for a way of life, a relationship of feudal harmony between white and black which has vanished even more completely. In the ranks of the cult, there are plenty of those who yearn for a time in which master and servant joyfully accepted their respective roles.
She was, after all, a “White Settler.” The farm she owned was on land stolen from the Kikuyu people—the “White Highlands”—and the squatters on her estate were people living on soil which their fathers had regarded as unquestionably their own. There is nothing of this to be found in Out of Africa: the Baroness’s affection for “the Native” was patrician but also patronizing.
Kamante, who owed so much to her and never ceased to beg her to return, gently corrects some of the Baroness’s flights. Where Karen Blixen intones: “It may be said that hunting is ever a love affair,” the practical Kamante recalls: “She was often collecting some people to go to the forest to hunt the animals. Therefore that forest was once full of animals but all ran away to far places…,” evidently a one-sided love affair. She happily describes his tenderness to her beloved dogs: Kamante, it turns out, loathed and feared them and blames their snappishness for a fatal accident which the Baroness considered the victim’s own fault. The same with Old Knudsen, the Danish vagrant whom Karen Blixen harbored and cared for until his death, and came to see as a personification of man’s struggle against age. Kamante, less kind, observes shortly: “Old Him was often a nuisance.” He also fills in some of the blank space surrounding the defecting Baron. “Mrs. Barance had no compromise with her husband, Mr. Barance Blixen, because he was such an extravagant man.”
Mr. Beard has edited and arranged Kamante’s talk so that its sections roughly correspond to the episodes and themes of Out of Africa. Kamante gives his version of “A Shooting Accident,” when a Kikuyu child on the farm accidentally kills and maims his playmates with a shotgun, of the death of the two lions, the visit of the Prince of Wales, the hunting exploits, and the fatal air crash of Mr. Pinja-Hatern (Denys Finch-Hatton, whom Karen Blixen loved). “Mrs. Karen cried very much for the death of that man. Many rich Europeans were coming to do themselves danger for the pain of that death.” And the final defeat, when Karen Blixen had to sell everything and abandon to the developers not only the farm but the large population of Kikuyu squatter families she had allowed to accumulate there, becomes even greater when Kamante recalls what a sanctuary Karen Farm had become for his people: “If somebody was chased away by his master, she would employ him and give him places to build his house, together with a piece of land…we found this garden belonging to all of us…if we speak the truth, this woman was with God and this is most simply true because she was saying that not even a bird of this garden is mine. All belongs to God.”
The photographs, rubbed and mislighted old snapshots as many of them are, are eloquent of this extraordinary dreamworld which the white settler created for himself in Africa, and nowhere with more elaborate historical fantasy than in Kenya. Here came not just Danish barons but English and Scottish earls and knights and honorables, re-creating on their farms what they supposed to have been the world of dependency and obligation which their ancestors had lost to the industrial revolution. It was a mad experiment, a wild interlude of a “Kenya life” made up of freedom, risk-taking, luxury, and humor, which the clever ones of that tiny band knew could not be more than an interlude. And it did not end in any graceful or patrician way, but in the bestial carnage and counter-carnage of Mau Mau. I wish Jackie Onassis, who contributes two holograph pages of stuff about Isak Dinesen’s aristocratic virtues and the disruption of the dark forces of nature by consumerism and affluence, had reflected on some of those ironies.