Karen Blixen once owned a coffee farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. As she sits at home in Rungsted, Denmark, many years later, she remembers her seventeen years in Kenya. Captivated by the beauty of the African landscape and its people, she is struck by the feeling of having lived for a time up in the air.
When Karen and her husband, Bror, first arrive in Africa, there are no cars. Nairobi, the town closest to their farm, is twelve miles away, and Karen travels to and from the farm, Mbogani House, by mule cart. Her able overseer, Farah Aden, helps her make the adjustment to her new life. From her first weeks in Africa, she feels a great affection for the East African tribes: the Somali, the Kikuyu, and the Masai.
Karen meets Kamante Gatura when he comes to the small medical clinic she operates for the people who live and work on the farm. The nine-year-old boy looks as if he is dying. Open sores cover his legs, and he seems to face death with passionless resignation. In spite of her best efforts, Karen’s treatment fails; arresting the disease is beyond her capabilities. She decides to send Kamante to the Scotch Mission hospital, where he remains for three months. He returns to the farm on Easter Sunday, his legs completely healed. He says to Karen, “I am like you,” meaning that now he, too, is a Christian.
In time, Kamante is trained to be Karen’s chef. A genius in the kitchen, he can pick out the plumpest hen in the poultry yard, and his whipped egg whites tower up like clouds. He rarely tastes the dishes he prepares for Karen, preferring the food of his fathers, yet he grows famous preparing meals for Karen’s friends and guests, including the Prince of Wales.
Following a yearlong drought, when it seems the universe is turning away from her, Karen begins to write. When her workers ask what she is doing, she tells them that she is trying to write a book, and they view this as an attempt to save the farm. Comparing her scattered loose-leaf pages to a bound book he has pulled from her library shelves, Kamante expresses doubt that she will ever be able to write a book. He asks what she will write about, and she replies that she might write of him. He looks down at himself and asks, in a low voice, “Which part?” Many years will pass before she publishes her reflections of Africa, but when she finally does, Kamante is an important part of her story.
Karen does not understand the various African dialects, but the regal and intelligent Farah serves as interpreter throughout her sojourn in Kenya. Many of the tribes look to Karen to settle their disputes. On one occasion, when she is asked to judge who is to blame in a shooting accident, she turns to her friend Chief Kinanjui, who rules over more than one hundred thousand Kikuyu. By this time, the automobile has come to Africa, and when Chief Kinanjui arrives in his new car, he does not want to get out until she has seen him sitting in it. Finally alighting, he takes his seat next to Karen and Farah, and together they agree on fair restitution for the parties in the case: One man must give the other a cow with a heifer calf. Karen never shies away from becoming...