What you need to know:
- Bogani House was once the home of Karen Blixen, the lady after whom the Karen suburb in Nairobi is named.
- Baron Blixen moved out of Bogani House in 1921 and in 1922, Denys Finch Hatton moved in.
Leaving Bogani Road in Nairobi, one turns into Karen Road. The Karen Blixen Museum is a few metres ahead.
At the entrance, one goes through a security check before proceeding to Bogani House. Or the Karen Blixen Museum, if you will – the farmhouse to which Karen suburb traces its beginnings.
There is a paved car park. The walkway is made of loose gravel lined on either side with well-manicured flowerbeds. The green lawns are mowed.
Then there is the imposing bungalow. Take away the signpost that announces its affiliation to the National Museums of Kenya and Bogani House will perfectly fit the description of a modern home.
On this day, Mukami is my guide. She is blessed with narratological skills. The perfect match for a writer masquerading as a domestic tourist.
Contrary to my expectation, we don’t walk directly to the house. Mukami, instead, directs me to the backyard lawn where we find a set of neatly arranged seats.
“Welcome to Karen Blixen Museum, the home of Baroness Karen Blixen, the celebrated author who is best known for her timeless romantic novel, Out of Africa,” Mukami says.
What follows is an interesting story.
Love for the African jungle, hunting, painting, writing, letters, manuscripts and a white woman’s deep love for natives are the strong rails on which the storyline runs.
Born in Denmark on April 17, 1885, Karen Blixen underwent homeschooling up to her 18th birthday. She afterwards joined Royal Copenhagen Academy where she studied art and literature. Later, she furthered her studies in Rome and Paris.
At 28, she accepted a marriage proposal from Baron Bror Blixen, her Swedish half cousin. Persuaded by one of their uncles’ pitch for Kenya – then known as British East Africa – as an ideal investment destination, Baron came to Kenya in 1913. Karen followed him a year later.
Baron and Karen got married a day after her arrival in Kenya.
They then retreated to Mbagathi House – their first home that sat at the foot of Ngong Hills. The home derived its name from River Mbagathi that flowed through their then 4,500 acre farm.
In 1917, they acquired an additional 1,500 acres of land. This land came with a fully furnished house – Bogani House.
Unfortunately, soon after moving into Bogani House, the man of the house lost interest in coffee farming. Their love, too, grew cold. Baron devoted his heart and time to hunting. He would be gone on his hunting expeditions for days.
To mitigate her loneliness, Karen wrote manuscripts and letters – to her family and friends. She also visited friends, particularly Beckeley Cole’s family. Cole was the founder of the Muthaiga Country Club.
It was during her Muthaiga Country Club visits that, in 1918, Karen met and fell in love with Denys Finch Hatton, a hunter, businessman and owner of an aircraft.
“It was the excitement that the landing and taking off of his aircraft excited among natives that gave Ndege Road its name. Every landing and take-off was always punctuated by shouts of “Ndege! Ndege…!” from Africans,” Mukami says.
Due to their irreconcilable differences, Baron Blixen moved out of Bogani House in 1921 and in 1922, Denys Finch Hatton moved in. Afterwards, in 1925, Baron and Karen divorced.
Unfortunately, Karen’s fortunes dipped even farther. The Arabica variety of coffee that she was growing turned out to be ill-suited for the Ngong Hills climate. The soil, too, was too acidic to support reasonable harvests. Consequently, Karen Coffee Company got cash strapped and eventually, bankrupt.
In 1931, Denys Finch Hatton perished in an aircraft crash in Tsavo West. He was flying back to Nairobi from the coast. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Karen fulfilled Denys’ wish by having his remains interred at Ngong Hills. She then sold off her farm, offset her debts and returned home.
Upon her return to Denmark, she embarked on a new chapter of her life and with it came her literary breakthrough. She authored the following books: Seven Gothic Tales (1934), Out of Africa (1937), Winter’s Tales (1942), The Angelic Avengers (1944), Babette’s Feast (1953), Last Tales (1955) and Shadows on the Grass (1960).
Karen never returned to Kenya. She died in 1962, aged 77.
Sight that Karen loved
“Karen and Denys loved Ngong Hills. Whenever they visited the Hills, they enjoyed the place so much that they made it their wish to buried there in case they died while still in Kenya,” Mukami says in a reflective tone.
“Look!” Mukami says, pointing into the far distance, the Ngong Hills.
“From here, Ngong Hills look like knuckles on a clenched fist. That’s the sight that Karen loved –the one whose memories, she immortalises in the first sentence of her novel, Out of Africa – ‘I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills…’,” Mukami declares.
It is time for the second leg of our tour, across the lawn.
“By 1920s, such tractors as this one were common in European farms. The steel wheels and metal cleats at the rear were their unique features. Karen used this one to tour her farm,” Mukami says, pointing at a 1922 Fordson tractor.
We move to the ancient wagons.
“These are the wagons thanks to which Karen had her dried and graded coffee transported to Nairobi Railway Station. Each of them was drawn by 16 oxen. From Nairobi, the coffee was transported by rail to Mombasa and shipped to London,” Mukami says.
We head for Bogani House.
Gift to Kenyan government
“Karen did not build this house. She acquired it in 1917 with 1,500 acres of land. This house was constructed by Ake Sjorgen, a Swedish engineer. He was the first white settler in Kenya who came here to grow coffee,” Mukami says.
Once we step into the expansive balcony, Mukami leads me to the left wing. We stop to look at a map on the wall. It is titled, ‘Karen Coffee Estate, Formerly Swedo-African Coffee Company Limited’.
“This is map shows the width and breadth of Karen’s then 6,000 acre farm,” Mukami says.
As we make our way to the door, Mukami stops at a painting of a young Somali man.
“This is Karen’s handiwork. She loved painting, remember. The character in this painting is Abdulahi. Karen loved him very much. He minded the financial accounts of her farm. She sent him to a mission school from where he went on to study law before eventually returning to Somalia.”
The house is full of artifacts. Couches. Paintings. The framed handwritten letter that Jomo Kenyatta wrote to Karen in 1920s. A bookshelf packed with books.
Our eyes settle on a Corona typewriter.
“The Corona typewriter was here long before the coronavirus. Karen used it to write her manuscripts and letters,” Mukami says.
The hunters who lived in Bogani House left their trails. The leopard skin below the table in the living room. The gun rack in Baron’s bedroom. The elephant foot replica bedside the lampstand. The buffalo horn on the ceiling.
In the dining room, the table is still set as it was in 1928 when Karen hosted the Prince of Wales to dinner.
Karen’s kitchen is detached from the main house. In between are tall palm trees, some dating back to 1917.
Upon their acquisition of Bogani House and the farm from Karen in 1931, Richardson and Martin Company Limited converted 18 acres of the farm into an 18-hole golf course. This is what became the Karen Country Club. Besides, the company rented 36 acres of the land to tenants, sowing the first seeds of what would later become the Karen suburb.
In 1935 Col Llyod, a British official, bought Bogani House. After his death, one of his daughters stayed in the house for a few years. In 1959, she sold the house to the Danish Government.
On September 9, 1963, the Danish Government presented it to the Kenyan government as a gift for independence.
In 1966, part of Karen’s money, as she granted in her will, was invested in the construction of a college adjacent to Bogani House. The college was named Domestic Science College for women. It is the present day Kenya Medical Training College, Karen Campus.
With the 1985 adaptation of Karen’s book Out of Africa into a movie whose shooting took place at Bogani House, the house shot to instant fame. Bogani House was, thereafter, turned into a museum in 1986 and opened to the public.